Benedict was born at the end of the fifth century in Norsia in Italy (then the Roman Empire). At the age of around 19 or 20 he abandoned his student life in Rome and went off to live as a hermit, just outside of Subiaco. He wanted to get away from what he considered the paganism of Roman life. For three years he lived in a cave overlooking a lake, relying on food and supplies from a nearby monastery.
Gradually he became recognised as a person of outstanding holiness and when the Abbot of Vicavaro died, the community came to Benedict to plead with him to be their next leader.
Benedict took the hint and left the community at Vicavaro to live once again in his cave near Subiaco. However, his fame seemed to spread even further afield and people began to turn to him increasingly for spiritual direction and advice.
Benedict set up 12 small communities around Subiaco and eventually founded the great Monastery of Monte Cassino, where a community of Benedictine monks still live to this day (albeit in a different building), perched on a mountain overlooking Subiaco itself.
Benedict is most famous for his Rule. This piece of “advice from a father who loves you,” as Benedict himself described it, was originally written as a guide book for monks living in community. Over the centuries it has proved relevant to all sorts of people living in all sorts of environments.
Patron of Europe
Benedict lived in a Roman Empire falling apart. Even before he was born, Rome had been sacked by the barbarians. The communities which Benedict founded – and the movement of Benedictine monasteries and convents inspired by his Rule – gradually brought about a new stability to Europe, education, and a care for the poor and needy.
High on Benedict’s list of priorities for his monks was that they should welcome strangers as if they were Christ himself. Some monasteries today take this so seriously that, when visitors stay for a meal, they are given seats of honour at the top table and offered the food first. They are waited upon by the monks (including the Abbot) and shown the utmost respect. Many of these visitors in other circumstances would be considered down and outs.
The most striking element of Benedict’s rule is the instruction to listen. “Attend with the ear of your heart,” he says. Benedictine life is a mixture of work and prayer with an attentiveness to listen to the Lord speaking to us through both.
St Benedict Abbot & Patron of Europe. Feast Day: 11 July
A prayer attributed to St Benedict:
Gracious and holy Father,
please give me:
intellect to understand you;
reason to discern you;
diligence to seek you;
wisdom to find you;
a spirit to know you;
a heart to meditate upon you;
ears to hear you;
eyes to see you;
a tongue to proclaim you;
a way of life pleasing to you;
patience to wait for you;
and perseverance to look for you.