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St. Benedict of Nursia

Ora et Labora (Pray and Work)

St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480 – ca. 547) profoundly impacted the life of the Church in the West.  As the founder of Western monasticism, his Rule has been the model for most religious orders founded over the last 1500 years.  He is the patron saint of Europe (declared by Pope Paul VI in 1964, declared co-patron with Saints Cyril and Methodius by John Paul II in 1980) as well as the patron of monks, speleologists (the study of caves), farmworkers and victims of poisoning.

St. Benedict of NursiaSt. Benedict was born at Nursia, a small town near Spoleto in central Italy.  He is known to be the twin brother to St. Scholastica.  Their mother died at their birth.  St. Scholastica and St. Benedict developed a close relationship early in life that lasted throughout their lives.

His parents were wealthy landowners (but not part of the aristocracy).  St. Benedict was sent to Rome to study around 500a.d. but decided to drop out after he was distressed by the immorality of the Roman culture and the lackadaisical attitude of his fellow students.  He then headed south to the mountains.  There he met a monk named Romanus who showed him a cave where he could live as a hermit in the area called Subiaco, which had a spectacular view of the mountain gorge.  Romanus, sensing the specialness and holiness of St. Benedict, brought food to St. Benedict every day by lowering it in a basket from the edge of the cliff.  A bell at the end of the rope would indicate to St. Benedict that his meal had arrived.  He lived like this for about three years.

One day, nearby shepherds stumbled upon his cave.  At first, they were frightened by the site of St. Benedict (who dressed in animal skins and looked more like a wild man than a monk).  As they began to speak with St. Benedict, they realized they had found a saint.  So they began a reciprocal relationship… the shepherds brought him food and he taught them about the faith.

St. Benedict’s reputation for sanctity spread throughout the region and men who wanted to pursue the religious life flocked to him.  He organized them into twelve communities of ten monks each and an abbot.  He stayed there for about twenty-five years, as roman nobles would send their sons to St. Benedict to be educated.  Among the first were Saints Maurus and Placid, who came as young boys and stayed on to become two of St. Benedict’s most faithful disciples.

During these twenty-five years that he stayed in Subiaco, he met resistance regarding the strict regime he required of the communities.  The success of his communities brought about envy and jealously, at least with one priest named Florentius.  Florentius was known to spread lies about St. Benedict, though no one believed him.  He tried to keep men from joining St. Benedict, but men kept coming.  It was said that Florentius even tried to poison a loaf of bread and deliver it to St. Benedict, begging him to accept it as a token of remorse.  By the grace of God, St. Benedict realized the bread was poisoned.  He was said to have given it to a raven, commanding the raven to take the bread to a place where no one would find it.  In a final effort to ruin St. Benedict’s reputation, Florentius hired prostitutes in vain, hoping it would seduce the monks.

Realizing that Florentius would never stop his attacks on the community, St. Benedict moved his monks to Monte Cassino, in the imposing mountains of the central Apennines in Italy.  They built a new monastery on the summit, converting an old temple of Apollo into a chapel dedicated to St. Martin.  His sister, St. Scholastica, established a community of nuns nearby, and they would meet half-way in between once a year to break bread and discuss spiritual insights.  It was at Mount Cassino where he wrote the final version of his Rule (of life) (known as the Rule of St. Benedict).  Drawing ideas from monastic writers such as Saints Basil, John Cassian, Augustine, the Desert Fathers, Pachomius in Egypt and the Regula Magistri (“Rule of the Master”), he developed his Rule to assist the monks to grow in holiness and to live in community.  The Rule of Benedict he wrote for his monks was in part a reaction against the extremes practiced by some monks, particular those who lived in the deserts of the East.  Left to their own devices, these monks, almost all of whom lived as hermits, would literally torture their bodies by depriving themselves of sleep, food and water.  St. Benedict’s response was to develop a method that was practical, made no irrational demands of the body and could be flexible without compromising its spiritual principles.  It was designed as a different way to achieve holiness and connection to God.  The rule is divided into 73 short chapters, which focus on three main themes:  Stability, Obedience and Conversion in Life.

St. Benedict never became a priest, nor did he intend to form a new religious order.  However, his Rule and his spirituality not only influenced the growth of Western monasticism, but of Western civilization itself.  He was able to influence/shape a culture that he once found to be despicable.  He died on March 21 (ca. 547) and is buried in the Oratory of St. John the Baptist at Cassino alongside his sister, St. Scholastica.  His monastery in Mount Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards (ca. 577).  St. Benedict’s Rule was followed in France, England and Germany by the seventh and eighth centuries.  When the emperor Charlemagne (ca. 742-814) initiated a reform of monasticism, he chose the Rule of St. Benedict as his model.  His son and successor, Louis the Pious imposed it on all monasteries within the empire.  His motto is “Ora et Labora” which means “Pray and Work.”  We celebrate his feast day on July 11.

Resources on St. Benedict

Craughwell, Thomas J.  Saints for Every Occasion:  101 of Heaven's Most Powerful Patrons.  Charlotte, NC:  C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001.

Delaney, John J.  Dictionary of Saints.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.

Derkse, Wil.  The Rule of Benedict for Beginners:  Spirituality for Daily Life.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2003.

McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Saints:  from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa.  San Francisco, CA:  HarperSanFrancisco (Division of HarperCollins Publishers), 2001.

St. Benedict of Nursia.  The Rule of Saint Benedict:  A Contemporary Paraphrase.  Paraphrased by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press, 2012.

St. Benedict of Nursia.  The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Edited by David W. Cotter, OSB.  Translated by Leonard J. Doyle.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2001.

Walsh, Michael, ed.  Butler's Lives of the Saints.  Concise Edition.  New York, NY:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.