Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict, Abbot
c. 480–c. 550

July 11—Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Europe and monks

His Rule helped create Europe, one monastery at a time

Before the time of today’s saint, to be a monk meant to wander into the Syrian desert and never come back, to climb a rocky summit in the Sinai and never descend, to sit cross-legged atop a pillar, to fast to emaciation, or to remain wordless as a hermit in a damp cave in Lebanon. Saint Benedict changed all of this. This revolutionary introduced evolutionary change, a new way for monks to be radically committed to Christ. No more would a monk have to perch like a hawk in its eyrie, alone, gazing over the valley below. When Benedict opened his mouth and called the monk out of his desert, down from his mountain, off of his pillar, and out of his cave, monks answered. Benedict founded Western monasticism, the communities of monks who pray, eat, work, and socialize together in a common chapel, refectory, field, and workshop. Benedictine monks created Europe out of the vacuum of blackness and disorder which enveloped the land after Roman order disintegrated. So many centuries later, the pioneering path that Benedict cut for Western civilization is difficult to appreciate. What was fresh is now ancient. What was revolutionary is now just the way things are.

Little is known with certainty of Saint Benedict’s life. No contemporary preserved his essential details, as the great Saint Athanasius did for Saint Anthony of the Desert. Decades after Benedicts’s death, Pope Saint Gregory the Great recorded some precious few anecdotes of the great monk’s life, but the lack of hard facts and historical chronology leave room for speculation. What is known for certain is that he held in his hands what the world had to offer for a few short years and then dropped it like a murder weapon. He would live for Christ and Christ alone. He joined a primitive community of consecrated men for several years but departed after some unspecified intrigues to form his own small monasteries. Exercising spiritual and practical fatherhood over his brother monks, he was inspired to write a Rule. Benedict became famous, in time, not due to a wealth of biographical detail but because of his Rule. Saint Benedict is his Rule and his Rule is him.   

The Benedictine Rule came to dominate all of Europe. In a Christian age when monasteries dotted every low valley and high town, when the local abbot was as powerful as the bishop, and when schools and culture were synonymous with monastic learning, these communities almost always lived by the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict’s Rule became widespread because it was both deeply spiritual and imminently practical. It demanded uncompromising dedication to work and prayer but held individual and community goods in a careful balance. A Benedictine monastery was not just a place for penance or asceticism but a family. It was a finely tuned orchestra with the abbot waving his wand at the front, eliciting from the monks’ individual gifts a common harmony to soothe God and correctly order nature itself. The monastery’s structured routine of chanting the Divine Office, of work, of study, of constructing a community for community’s sake, gave Europe a finely tuned rhythm that drove technology, the arts, and scholarship forward by leaps and bounds over other lands. 

Until the time of Saints Francis and Dominic in the early 1200s, there was only one founder worth noting in the church, and that was Saint Benedict. The immense legacy of the founders of large, powerful, and lasting Orders in the Church is mysterious. Founders influence the Church’s spirituality and theology almost as much as Divine Revelation itself. And Benedict was the founder of all founders. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Benedict’s only serious competition for the greatest saint of the first millennium, also left a widely adopted rule but it never produced the unified and practical communities which Benedict’s Rule generated. Saint Benedict rests in peace near his twin sister, Saint Scholastica, in a crypt under the historic Monastery of Monte Cassino. The “upper room” of Monte Casino became European culture’s symbolic Acropolis and Temple Mount, the beacon to the town, the lighthouse of Western civilization, and it was Saint Benedict who first lit its lamp.

Saint Benedict, you were a humble monk whose life remains largely unknown, yet you left a massive legacy. Help each Christian in his home, church, and workplace to labor from the shadows to create light, to be the unseen cause behind great effects, and to light lamps that guide others through the darkness.