1902 Encyclopedia > St. Benedict. The Benedictines.

Saint Benedict of Nursia
Founder of the Benedictine order
(c. 480-547 AD)

The Benedictines

ST. BENEDICT, the founder of the celebrated Benedictine order, is the most illustrious name in the early history of Western monasticism. To him more than to any other the monastic system, which was destined to exercise such an influence for centuries, owes its extension and organization.

St. Benedict of Nursia
as painted by Hans Memling in 1487

Benedict was born at Nursia in Umbria about the year 480. He belonged to an old Italian family, and was early sent to Rome to be educated, but the disorder and vices of the capital drove him into solitude while still a youth. It was a time of public peril and social ruin. The Roman empire was crumbling to pieces, shaken by the successive inroads of barbarians, and a prey to every species of violence and corruption. Young Benedict fled from the wickedness around him. He gave up his literary studies and preferred to be wisely ignorant (scienter nesciens). This is the statement of his biographer Gregory the Great, from whom come all the details that we know of Benedict's life. It is needless to say that many of these details are of such a character that it is impossible for modern historical criticism to accept them in their literal meaning. It is of no use, however, trying to disentangle the truth from the falsehood. The reader can easily make allowance for the imaginative exaggerations of the story.

When Benedict fled from Rome he took refuge in a solitary gorge formed by the Anio, in its picturesque course, about 40 miles from the city. There, in a dark inaccessible grotto near Subiaco, he found seclusion and shelter. A neighbouring monk supplied him with food let down by a rope, with a small bell attached, which gave notice of the approach of the food. Once the devil broke the rope, but his malice was foiled by the pious ingenuity of the monk. Other and graver dangers assailed him. The Evil One took the shape of a beautiful woman, with whose image the youthful recluse had been familiar in Rome, and so worked upon his senses that he was on the point of abandoning his solitude in search of the beauty which haunted him. But summoning all his fortitude he stripped himself of the vestment of skins, which was his only covering, rushed naked amongst the thorns and briars which grew around his retreat, and rolled himself amongst them till he had extinguished the impure flame which devoured him. No impulses of sensual passion ever revisited him. But trials of a different kind assailed him.

After spending about three years in retirement a neighbouring convent of monks insisted upon choosing him as their head. He warned them of the severity of the rule he would be bound to exercise, but they would not be dissuaded from their purpose. He had hardly commenced his office, however, when they broke out into fierce resentment against him, and attempted to poison him. The cup containing the poison was no sooner taken into the hands of Benedict than it burst asunder; and, calmly reproving them for their ingratitude, he left them and withdrew once more into his solitude.

By this time, however, the fame of Benedict had spread, and it was impossible for him to remain inactive. Multitudes gathered around him, and no fewer than twelve select cloisters were planted in the lonely valley of the Anio and on the adjacent heights. Young patricians from Rome and elsewhere were attracted to these fraternities; and amongst them one of the name of Maurus (St Maur) who began to share in popular esteem something of the sanctity and miraculous endowments of Benedict, and who was destined to be his successor.

But with increasing fame came also jealousy of his position and duties. A renewed attempt was made by an envious priest to administer poison to the saint; and, miraculous interpositions having again come to his rescue, the same priest, by name Florentius, had recourse to the diabolical device of sending seven lewd girls within the precincts of the monastery, to seduce the monks by their gestures and sports.

Benedict determined to depart from a neighbourhood so full of danger, notwithstanding the long period of thirty years during which he had laboured to consecrate it and spread abroad the blessings of an ascetic Christianity. He journeyed southwards, and at length settled at Monte Cassino, an isolated and picturesque hill near the source of the Liris. There at this time an ancient temple of Apollo still stood, to which the ignorant peasants brought their offerings. Benedict, in his holy enthusiasm, proceeded to demolish the temple and to erect in its place two oratories, one to St John the Baptist and the other to St Martin whose ascetic fame had travelled to Italy from the south of Gaul. Around these sacred spots gradually rose the famous monastery which was destined to carry the name of its founder through the Christian world, and to give its laws, as Milman says, "to almost the whole of Western monasticism."

Benedict survived fourteen years after he had began this great work. His sanctity and influence grew with his years, in illustration of which it is told how the barbarian king Totila, who made himself master of Rome and Italy, sought his presence, and, prostrating himself at his feet, accepted a rebuke for his cruelties, and departed a humbler and better man.

His last days were associated with the love and devotion of his sister Scolastica, who too had forsaken the world and given herself to a religious life with an enthusiasm and genius for government hardly less than his own. She had established a nunnery near Monte Cassino; but the rules of the order permitted the brother and sister to meet only once a year. He had come to pay his accustomed visit. They had spent the day in devout converse, and, in the fullness of her affection, Scolastica entreated him to remain, and "speak of the joys of heaven till the morning." Benedict was not to be prevailed upon, when his sister burst into a flood of tears, and bowed her head in prayer. Immediately the heavens became overcast; thunder was heard, and the rain fell in torrents, so that it was impossible for Benedict to depart for the night, which was spent in spiritual exercises.

Three days later Benedict saw in vision the soul of his sister entering heaven, and in a few days afterwards his own summons came. He died standing, after partaking of the holy communion, and was buried by the side of his sister.

BENEDICTINES, or followers of St Benedict, were those who submitted to the monastic rule which he instituted.

The two main principles of this rule were labour and obedience. It was the distinction of Benedict that he not merely organized the monks into communities, but based their community-life, in a great degree, on manual labour, in contrast to the merely meditative seclusion which had hitherto been in vogue both in the East and the West. Probably, not even the founder himself foresaw all the prospective advantages of his law, which was destined not merely to make many a wilderness and solitary place to rejoice with fertility, but to expand, moreover, into a noble intellectual fruitfulness, which has been the glory of the Benedictine order.

The law of obedience was absolute, but was tempered by the necessity on the part of the superior of consulting all the monks assembled in a council or chapter upon all important business. The abbot or superior was also elected by all the monks, whose liberty of choice was unrestricted.

No right of endowment properly subsisted within the monastery; and the vow of stability once undertaken after the expiry of the year of novitiate could never be recalled. Food and clothing were of the simplest kind, and all duly regulated; and the intervals of labour were relieved by a continually recurring round of religious service from prime to evensong.

The Benedictine rule spread almost universally in the West, -- not in rivalry of any other rule, but as the more full and complete development of the monastic system. In France and England especially it took rapid root; and "in every rich valley, by the side of every clear and deep stream, arose a Benedictine abbey"-- a centre of local good and Christian civilization. (J. T.)

The above article was written by the Very Rev. John Tulloch, D.D., LL.D., Principal of St Mary's College, University of St. Andrews; author of Leaders of the Reformation, English Puritanism and its Leaders, Rational Theology and Christian Philosophy in England in the Seventeenth Century, and Pascal; editor of Fraser's Magazine.

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