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“Ora et labora”: The Life and Legacy of St. Benedict: Father of Western Monasticism

July 10, 2023

On July 11th, we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the co-patron Saints of Europe. On this day we ask St. Benedict to pray for us and explore his life.

St. Benedict, hailed as the “Father of Western Monasticism,” is a figure of great importance in Christian history. Born around 480 as the son of a Roman noble of Norcia, Italy, Benedict grew up in a time when rhetoric was the dominant subject of study. This art of persuasive speaking, however, placed emphasis on style and technique rather than truth and virtue.

Witnessing firsthand the detrimental effects of vice and the erosion of ethics during his studies in Rome, Benedict became deeply concerned for his own soul. Fleeing Rome and renouncing his inheritance, he sought solace in a small village with his nurse. However, the calling of God led him to embrace an even greater solitude in the mountains of Subiaco.

Although Benedict did not initially set out to become a hermit, he lived as one under the guidance of another hermit named Romanus. It was during this period, as he dwelled in a cave above a lake, that Benedict encountered a profound spiritual struggle. The Devil, in an attempt to tempt him, presented a beautiful and alluring woman in his imagination. Benedict, resolute in his commitment to purity, resisted the temptation by rolling his body into a thorn bush until it was covered in scrapes. Through physical wounds, he found healing for the wounds of his soul.

For three years, Benedict confronted and overcame severe temptations through prayer and asceticism. It was only after this arduous period that he felt the confidence to emerge as an organizer of monastic communities. His first monasteries were established in the Anio valley outside Subiaco, and they soon became centers of education for children—a tradition that would endure throughout his lifetime and beyond. These monastic communities attracted many individuals who sought to deepen their faith.

In 529, Benedict left Subiaco and journeyed to Monte Cassino, located 80 miles south of Rome. This move marked a significant turning point in the Western monastic movement, both geographically and spiritually. Benedict demolished a pagan temple atop the mountain and constructed two oratories in its place. It was likely at Monte Cassino that he composed his renowned “Rule of St. Benedict,” which emphasized prayer, work, simplicity, and hospitality. He believed that monks should divide their day into three: 8 hours of prayer, 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of labour. Although initially addressed to monks, the rule extended its wisdom to all who sought to fight for Christ the Lord.

Benedict’s approach to monasticism was innovative and ground-breaking. He was the first to organize communities in such a manner and to provide them with a rule. What seems like a natural progression in history was, in fact, a bold and risky step into the future. Benedict possessed the holiness and vision necessary to undertake this endeavor.

In this small yet powerful Rule, Benedict utilized the power of speech and oratorical rhythms to serve the Gospel. He did not abandon rhetoric because it had been used to lead people astray; instead, he reformed it. Benedict recognized that the Word of God itself provided the strongest and truest foundation for the power of words. He found solace in the psalms, the same sacred songs and poems that Jesus had prayed during Jewish liturgy. Benedict’s communities engaged in the “Work of God,” joining their voices with Jesus in praise of God throughout the day. They recognized that this work took precedence over all other tasks, and it was to be cherished above all else.

Furthermore, Benedict emphasized the importance of sacred reading, encouraging his followers to study and contemplate the Scriptures they would be praying in the Work of God. He instilled in them the practice of lectio divina, a form of prayerful reading and meditation that allowed the Scripture to become ingrained in their very beings. This sacred reading required several hours each day, and any free time was to be devoted to the psalms. Lessons from Scripture were to be recited from memory, reinforcing the importance of internalizing God’s word. Benedict considered “holy readings” a vital aspect of a devout life.

In Benedictine prayer, the heart serves as a vessel emptied of thoughts and intellectual pursuits, allowing the trust in God’s providence to fill it. This emptiness gives rise to the abundant goodness of God, leading to inspirations and contemplative love overflowing from the heart.

St. Benedict passed away on March 21, 543, shortly after the death of his sister. It is said that he died with a high fever, which coincided with the day he had been foretold by God. He is revered as the patron saint of Europe and students.

Benedict’s impact on Christianity and monasticism cannot be overstated. He founded twelve communities for monks in Subiaco before establishing Monte Cassino as a pivotal center for Western monasticism. His recognition as a co-patron of Europe alongside Saints Cyril and Methodius further highlights his significance. Moreover, St. Benedict holds a special place in the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, who chose his name in honor of this revered saint.

St. Benedict is often depicted with symbols such as a bell, a broken tray, a raven, or a crosier, each representing various aspects of his life and mission. His feast day is celebrated on July 11, commemorating his lasting legacy and the profound influence of his Rule on religious life.

Through his devotion, wisdom, and reforms, St. Benedict left an indelible mark on the Christian world. His teachings and example continue to inspire countless individuals, guiding them on the path of faith and holiness. As we reflect on his life, let us remember the profound words he left behind: “Let us rise in chanting that our hearts and voices harmonize.”

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