Sunday, October 20, 2013

Benedict & Monasticism

Originally a writing assignment at Catholic Distance University

The rise of Monasticism was a significant event in the life and growth of the Church and, in particular, the Western world. The origins of the monastic movement are traced back to Egypt in the second half of the third century. St. Anthony of the Desert sold all of his possessions and retreated to the desert for a life of prayer and asceticism. Through St. Anthony’s example, hundreds and men and women flocked to the desert to be hermits in imitation of him. By the fourth century, the hermit Pachomius the Great drew up a Rule and arranged his followers into a community where common meals and spiritual exercises were encouraged, although the harsh asceticism of the hermit’s life was still prevalent. Following the call to live lives of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the monastic life continued to appeal to Christians who were now coming out of the catacombs and shadows to worship freely in the Roman world. The monastic life was encouraged by many of the Church Fathers - including Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome – and along with chastity, poverty, and obedience, could also include the practices of detachment from the world, performing work duties, fraternal charity, prayer as a community, fasting and abstinence, caring for the sick, taking vows of silence, and spiritual reading during meals.

The most significant name in Western monasticism is that of St. Benedict of Nursia. Born around the year 480, he was sent to school in Rome by his parents, but after seeing the lifestyle of many of his fellow students he left Rome to live in the mountains east of the city. After spending some time living in community, he chose to live the life of a hermit in Subiaco, engaging in spiritual exercises in order to purify himself of temptations of the flesh, of pride, and of anger and revenge. After three years living in a cave, he left to found his first monastery. He would die on March 21, 547, but not before he had written his Rule for governing monasteries. Borrowing heavily from the Scriptures, the Rule of St. Benedict is comprised of 73 short chapters that teach the spiritual and administrative ways of living in community. More than half the chapters explain the ways in which to live in humility and obedience, a fourth is dedicated to instruction on the Work of God (Opus Dei), and the final quarter deals with managing a monastery or convent and how an abbot or abbess should live their lives. The Rule divides the day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labor. Communal prayer consists mainly of celebrating the Liturgy and praying the Divine Office, and spiritual reading consisted mainly of the Scriptures. The life of the Benedictine could be summed up by their maxim, “Ora et labora” – prayer and work. Benedict considered his Rule, “minimal, just an initial outline.” Because of its simple, universal instruction, the Rule influenced the formation of future monastic orders throughout Europe.

The influence of monasticism - and in particular the Rule of St. Benedict - in the creation of European culture and the spread of Christianity cannot be overemphasized. Western Europe was living through its greatest crisis, the collapse of Rome. Barbarian hordes were invading from the East, harassing and burning villages and cities across the empire. Poverty, murder, disease, famine, and war were rampant on the heels of the invaders, and government and civil justice virtually disappeared. Even the city of Rome was getting sacked and burned and the Western world seemed to be coming to an end. However, the Church was able to withstand the challenges through the work of her bishops and the monasteries. These provided the people, including the invading barbarians, with Christian instruction and a form of government while the western world seemed to be collapsing into anarchy. Through the work of the various Religious communities of monks and nuns, the Church established orphanages, hospitals, hospices, farms, vineyards, universities, and abbeys throughout Western Europe. The universities and abbeys contained libraries filled with various invaluable parchments and scrolls of antiquity, including handwritten copies of the Holy Scriptures. In fact, many abbeys contained rooms called scriptoriums where monks spent night and day translating and transcribing Bibles by hand via candlelight. The universities developed what became modern science, the study of God and his Creation, and also taught history, philosophy, and theology. Monks carried the faith with them as they evangelized throughout Western Europe, covering her with churches, basilicas, cathedrals, universities, and monasteries. Out of the darkness and chaos of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Church – especially through the work of the monasteries – preserved the faith, brought it to every corner of the continent, catechized its people, and literally formed the cultures of Europe. The monasteries, and in particular the Rule of St. Benedict, were fundamental in the development of European civilization and culture. Benedictines entered England in the 500s, building monasteries in Canterbury and at Westminster Abbey. Even the Anglican patrimony of the post-Reformation era proudly traces itself to the influence of the Benedictine monasteries that used to dot the British landscape prior to Henry VIII’s reign. The Benedictines brought the faith to the lands of Germany, and Charlemagne had the Rule copied and sent throughout Western Europe as a way of encouraging monks how to live and pray. By the ninth century, the Benedictine was the only form of monastic life throughout Western Europe (except for in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales).1 The Roman and Anglican calendars observe St. Benedict’s death on July 11, while the Orthodox celebrate on March 14. His influence is so significant to the origins of post-Roman Europe that St. Benedict is one of the continent’s patron saints.

The Benedictines continue to influence catechesis and liturgy to this day, as people look for stability from the turmoil of the last century and a half. Laity and others continue to apply the Rule to their private lives as third order Benedictines (Oblates), connecting spiritually to an abbey, but not taking religious vows. It is amazing to think that roughly 1,500 years later people continue to read, contemplate, and practice the Rule of St. Benedict. Through his efforts and that of the entire monastic movement, the Western Church withstood the chaos of the barbarian invasion, greatly influencing the European world that would arise from the ashes. As we enter into the next millennium, perhaps the great Rule can continue to guide us through the murky waters and into a deeper relationship with our Lord, the same as it did so many centuries ago.

Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Benedictine Order” (accessed 8 June 2013); available from

Catholic Encyclopedia, (n.d.). The Benedictine Order. Retrieved from