Saint Benedict, Abbot


St Benedict, Abbot, Patron of Europe (Feast)

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – c. 547) known as the Father of Western monasticism had a huge influence in his own time and in succeeding centuries. His monks were a source of stability in the highly disordered state of Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the northern tribes (Vandals, Huns, etc.) and laid the ground for the emergence of the cultural wealth of the Renaissance from the 12th century onwards.
Benedict was born about 480, the son of a Roman noble from Nursia (modern Norcia, in Umbria) and it is believed he was a twin of St Scholastica. Little certain is known about his life as the only source is the Second book of Gregory’s Dialogues. It has been described as “the biography of the greatest monk, written by the greatest Pope, himself also a monk”. It is more a spiritual portrait than a factual biography.
Benedict began studies in Rome but left before completing them to become a hermit in Subiaco. Over a period of three years in solitude, Benedict matured both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man. At the same time he became deeply respected by people in the neighbourhood, so that when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the monks begged him to be their abbot. Although he did not agree with their lifestyle, he finally accepted. However, it did not work, so much so that the monks tried to poison him and he went back to his hermit’s cave. The legend is that they tried to poison his drink but, when he blessed the cup, it shattered. They then tried to kill him with poisoned bread but, when he blessed it, a raven came and snatched it away. Many other miracles were attributed to him and many people came to him for direction. So he built 12 monasteries each with a superior and 12 monks. He himself lived in a 13th with some whom he thought were more promising. Benedict, however, was the father or abbot of all the groups.
Benedict later for Monte Cassino, near Naples, where he drew up the final version of his Rule. This contained much of the traditional monastic teaching of earlier monks like Cassian, Basil and probably also the so-called Rule of the Master, though much modified by Benedict. His vision was a life characterized by prudence and moderation rather than severe asceticism and lived within a framework of authority, obedience, stability, and community life. ‘Stability’ meant that a monk would generally stay permanently in the monastery which he had joined. It was a way of life which was complete, well-ordered and practical. The monk’s day was taken up with liturgical prayer, complemented by sacred reading and manual work of various kinds which took care of the community’s needs.
Benedict was not a priest and there is no evidence that he intended to found a religious order.
His principal goal and achievement was to write a Rule or way of life. Today’s Order of St Benedict (OSB) is of later origin and not a “religious order”" as commonly understood but rather a confederation of congregations into which the traditionally independent Benedictine abbeys have affiliated themselves for the purpose of representing their mutual interests, without however losing any of their autonomy. Benedict’s own personality is reflected in his description of the kind of person the abbot should be: wise, discreet, flexible, learned in the law of God, but also a spiritual father to his community. Gregory’s Dialogues spoke of him as having second sight and miraculous powers.
Because of its inner qualities and the endorsement it received from secular rulers and other founders of religious institutes, Benedict’s Rule became the standard monastic code in the early Middle Ages. Because of it flexibility, it could be adapted to the different needs of society in different places. In a world of civil turmoil with the break-up of the Roman Empire, it was the monasteries which became centres of learning, agriculture, hospitality, and medicine in a way which Benedict himself could never have imagined.
The best known symbols connected with Benedict are a broken cup (containing poison) and a raven. He is also shown wearing a monastic cowl and holding either the Rule or a rod for corporal punishment.
Benedict spent the rest of his life realising the ideal of monasticism contained in his rule. He died at Monte Cassino, Italy, according to tradition, on 21 March 547.
He was named patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. His feast day, previously 21 March, was moved in 1969 to 11 July, a date on which his feast had been celebrated in several places.
Together with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) Benedict was declared a Patron of Europe by Pope John Paul II in 1999).

 

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