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Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict was born of rich parents at Nursia, Umbria, in 480. He was sent to Rome to complete his education. Disgusted by the vice seen all around him, he renounced his fortune, and withdrew to a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles from Rome. He became a severe ascetic, wore a hair shirt and a monk's dress of skins, and rolled in beds of thistles to subdue the flesh. His fame soon attracted disciples and he established twelve monasteries, with a dozen monks and a superior in each, but all under his own supervision. Later he left Subiaco and went to Monte Cassino, where he spent the last years of his life. Monte Casino became the capital of western monasticism.

Saint Benedict
Pietro Perugino-Saint Benedict-Pinacoteca Vatican


The Rule of Saint Benedict

To control his monks, Saint Benedict drew up in 529 the Benedictine Rule, or the "Holy Rule," which became the basis for all western monastic orders. It consists of a prologue and chapters on seventy-three governmental, social, moral, liturgical, and penal subjects. The rule elaborated by Saint Benedict was well-balanced, specialized, and practical, and the whole spirit and aim of the rule were constructive and reformatory. Its purpose was to bring men "back to God by the labour of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience".

The rule was restricting the requirements of the individual to what was necessary and simple, and secured that the use and administration of the corporate possessions should be in strict accord with the teaching of the Gospel. Saint Benedict’s ideal of poverty is quite different from the Franciscan. There is no explicit vow of poverty, as is the case with the Franciscan. The Benedictine only vows obedience according to the rule.

Saint Benedict did not intend to create an order, and his scheme of government is intended for a single community. According to Saint Benedict’s Rule, each monastery was ruled by an abbot elected for life by all its monks. The abbot chose the prior and deans, on the basis of merit, with the approval of the monks, but minor officials were named directly by the abbot. The important business affairs of the monastery were conducted by the abbot in consultation with all the monks, but minor matters required only the advice of the superior officers.

Saint Benedict Writing His Rule
Herman Nieg-Saint Benedict Writing His Rule

The Rule of Saint Benedict was democratic, as admission was open to all ranks and classes of men above eighteen on an equal footing after one year's probation. The two fundamental principles in this constitution were labour and obedience. Indolence was branded as the enemy of the soul. Each candidate had to take the vow of obedience and constancy to the order, chastity and poverty being implied. A monk's day was minutely regulated, according to the seasons, and consisted of an alternation of manual work, study, and worship, with short intervals for food and rest.

Saint Benedict regarded obedience as the most meritorious and essential condition. Monasticism meant a generous sacrifice of self and implied a surrender of the will to a superior. The monk must obey not only the abbot but also the requests of his brethren. The Benedictines had the freedom of choosing the work they took, and this freedom was necessary in a rule designed to be suited to all times and places, being the natural result of Saint Benedict’s views, which are different from the those of the founders of latter orders.

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