A Biography of St. Benedict of Nursia
Abbot and Confessor 480-547 AD

  
Fr. James Rooney

“Benedict the man of the Lord, gentle of countenance, was adorned with
angelic ways; and so great a brightness shone round about him, that,
although yet upon the earth, he might be dwelling among celestial beings.”

[Fourth antiphon for the Psalter, Benedictine Office of Lauds]

St. Benedict of Nursia is considered to be the “Father” of western monasticism, and because of the influence of western monasticism upon western spirituality, he is also one of the main contributors to the Western Orthodox spiritual tradition. Whenever we say the Offices of the Church, be they monastic or parochial, we are saying liturgies founded upon the prayer disciplines of this holy Saint. Whenever we practice our Lenten disciplines, we do so following some of the guidelines which he laid out. When we confess our sins, we are often following the pastoral instruction of St. Benedict. Thus, he is more than the father of some generic western form of piety; he is a founder of much of the Western Rite practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Ironically, he did not set out in life to lead and instruct others; he simply wanted to enter solitude and say his prayers. Fortunately, the Lord had other plans for him, and for us.


St. Benedict was born in the Italian town of Nursia in the mountains east of Rome. He is traditionally believed to have been born in the year 480, although the actual year of his birth is not certain. Little is known of his early life, though it seems he was taught the Christian faith from his youth. When he was in his late teens, sometime in the late 490's, his parents sent

him to Rome to receive a more formal education. It was there that he began to develop a desire for a deeper spiritual life, and there, also, that he became disillusioned with the great city.

His disappointing discovery in Rome was that the capitol city had seemingly become a place where barbarism and paganism were rampant. The city had been conquered by the Goths, the people had become disillusioned, and heresy, immorality and disbelief seemed, in Benedict’s mind, to be everywhere. One writer says of Rome at this time that “there was not a sovereign or a ruler who was not an atheist, pagan or a heretic.”[1] In Benedict’s eyes, most of his schoolmates emulated their errant elders, and he grew disappointed and disgusted. Fearing that his own Christian discipline might be adversely affected by this situation, he decided to quit his education and leave Rome.

Around the age of 20, he and his nurse [an older female attendant who worked for the family, and who had attended to his needs during his schooling] moved into the mountains east of Rome, where Benedict entered more intently into the disciplines of prayer and solitude. We don’t know how long they were there, but Benedict quickly gained attention for his spiritual progress; one story is told that this attention is partly due to an event which included his nurse. It seems that she accidentally broke an earthenware vessel which she had borrowed. Being grieved at her misfortune, Benedict felt compassion and miraculously repaired it; this brought him undue attention and many visitors, and left him with no solitude and little time for the prayers he so deeply loved.

When he could endure this notoriety no longer, Benedict left the family attendant, and retiring further into the mountains, resumed another attempt at the solitary life and at uninterrupted prayer. It was in the mountains of Subiaco that he met a monk named Romanus. Romanus was a member of a nearby monastery, and a veteran monk. Understanding Benedict’s intent, Romanus guided the Saint to a nearby cave, where Benedict was to remain in solitude and prayer for about three years. Romanus regularly brought him bread and water, but to preserve his solitude, these were hoisted up to him by rope.[2]

After some three years alone, St. Benedict once again found his solitude being interrupted.   A local priest, who had sought Benedict after the Lord had revealed the monastic’s whereabouts in a dream, discovered his retreat. He visited with St. Benedict and received his holy counsel, but upon leaving, he must have revealed the saint’s whereabouts, as others quickly began to find him as well. They sought him out for advice and instruction, and many brought him food and gifts. This intrusion into his solitude was not to his benefit, however, as he was stirred to thoughts of the world from which the visitors had come. This enabled Satan, in the form of a raven, to tempt him to the sin of lust. Benedict defeated this desire within himself by throwing himself into a briar patch.[3]

While at Subiaco, St. Benedict, now having a reputation as a great spiritual father, received an invitation to take charge of a monastery in nearby Vicovaro. He reluctantly accepted the call to become abbot, because the monks there had a reputation for being lax in the spiritual life, and St. Benedict had little respect for undisciplined piety. Indeed, Benedict warned them that, as abbot, his ways would be strict and they would probably not like his discipline, but they insisted. It wasn’t long, however, before they were offended by his rigid expectations, but, instead of asking him to leave, they attempted to poison him. They offered him his daily portion of wine, which they had tainted with poison, but when Benedict blessed the cup, it shattered. [4] He realized, then, what the monks had attempted,  and  resigning his position as abbot, he left Vicovaro.

He returned to Subiaco, but not to solitude. Almost immediately, would-be monks began flocking to him, and he was left with no choice but to instruct them in the spiritual life. He also began to organize them into functional monastic communities. Indeed, he formed 12 different monastic communities all of which lived under his guidance. The monks were instructed in disciplined prayer [the eight canonical offices] and work. In Gothic/Roman society of that time, manual labor was scorned by many as being beneath their dignity, but Benedict viewed it as an act of humility to engage in manual labor. Thus the notion of daily work was incorporated into his spiritual discipline.

Things were not always good, however, as one story indicates. A local priest named Florentius became jealous over the reports of St. Benedict’s spiritual abilities. He not only slandered the Saint, but attempted to poison him as well. When his varied attacks against St. Benedict failed, Florentius turned his attention to St Benedict’s monastic communities. He tried to introduce immorality among the brothers by bringing prostitutes to the monasteries and tempting the monks to fornication. St. Benedict, noting that this assault was personal and fearing for his monks,  decided to quietly leave so that his monks would no longer be attacked. He set his affairs in order and withdrew to the territory of Monte Cassino.

Monte Cassino was the site of very ancient pagan celebrations, and included a temple to Apollo. Locals still offered regular sacrifice there, but St. Benedict believed that this would be an ideal place to begin a Christian community. He settled in, then initiated a fast of  40 days. When his fasting was complete, he began preaching the Gospel to all pagans who came to the site. Many were converted, and it wasn’t long before the pagan faith was replaced, the temple removed and, around 530, an abbey was built in its place.

Thus began the most famous chapter of St. Benedict’s life. It was during this time that he designed his famous “Rule,” [5] which was to become the foundation stone of western spiritual discipline. The rule included all the canonical offices for daily prayer, instructions on living according to the liturgical calendar, a list of expectations and functions for abbots and priors, rules of discipline for monks, work assignments and expectations, rules governing the consumption of food and drink, assignments of silence, rules for travel, and, most importantly, and perhaps inherent throughout the rule, counsel on the pursuit of humility.

St. Benedict was not just a godly abbot. He was a saint whose ministry was attended by repeated miracles, two of which have already been mentioned. He cured the sick, fed the hungry, and always expected his monks to emulate his piety. One story tells of his response during a serious famine in nearby Campano. St. Benedict gave away all but five loaves of the monastery’s food to help alleviate the famine. He told his monks, “you will not have enough today, but tomorrow you will have too much.”[6]  Indeed the following morning, the monks found 200 bushels of flour delivered to the doors of the monastery by an anonymous donor.

Around 542, St. Benedict received a premonition of his impending death, but it wasn’t until 547 that he knew the year to be at hand. Six days before his death, he told his monks that he was soon to leave them, and he ordered them to dig his grave. Shortly thereafter, he was stricken with fever. On his last day, he went to the church, where he received the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord for the last time. Supported by several of his brethren, who held him upright, Benedict said his last prayers on this earth, then died standing on his feet with his hands uplifted to heaven.[7] He was buried beside his sister St. Scholastica [8]; their burial place was on the site of the altar to Apollos which he had earlier removed.

Consequently, St. Benedict, who had fled Rome in order to enter into solitary prayer, died in the arms of those whom he had trained. Though he had diligently sought the solitary life, he became, instead, an advocate and example of the corporate life. Though he had intended to address only his own spiritual condition, he inevitably became a spiritual father to all those who came to him.  His witness to the Faith occurred in another era, but we in the Western Rite Tradition, formed by the prayers and discipline which he left us, are the living recipients of his holy example.

 

 

“Benedict thou father and guide of monks, thou most holy Confessor of the Lord,
intercede for us all and for our salvation.”
[Antiphon for the Benedictus, Benedictine Office of Lauds]

 

 

 

 

Sources

[1] Herbert J. Thurston, and Donald Attwater, eds. Butler’ Lives of the Saints, [Christian Classics,
Westminster, Maryland, 1990] Vol. I p. 651.

[2] It might be noted here that many icons or images of St. Benedict include the image of a cave,
accentuating the story of his solitude at Subiaco.

[3]  Icons of St. Benedict often include the image of the briars.  

[4]  Images of St. Benedict often include the cup which was used to poison him.

[5] Most icons of St. Benedict portray him holding either a scroll or a book. This represents his holy Rule.

[6] Thurston, Attwater, Ibid., p 654]

[7] His primary feast day is 21 March in the western calendar, 14 March in the eastern calendar. Parishes and monasteries dedicated to him also commemorate a secondary Benedictine feast known as the Solemnity of our Holy Father Benedict, which is commemorated on 11 July.  

[8] SS. Benedict and Scholastica are believed to have been fraternal twins, and to have been relatively
inseparable for most of their lives. His biography tells us little about her, but we do know that she soon joined him in the monastic life, was abbess of a nearby monastery, and, in death, shared a grave with him.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309

FatherKavanaugh@gmail.com

940.692.3392

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