Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia lived from 480 to 547.
He founded a number of monasteries in Italy,
near Subiaco and later at Monte Cassino.
He is regarded as the founder of
Western Christian monasticism,
and is honoured as the patron saint of Europe

He is best know for writing his guide to community living,
the Rule of St Benedict. This work still has
relevance today and has provided me with inspiration
and guidance on the values we need for life in the 21st Century

I was brought up a Catholic and remain a lax Catholic after turning the corner from a complete fall out with Catholicism between 18 to 50. I partly rediscovered my faith when my son went to the Benedictine Monastic school that I had attended. All those years later it is a different place. It has become less dogmatic (although to be fair it always was more liberal than many at the time), more compassionate and more professional, probably because most of the teaching posts have been taken over by lay staff.

One big difference is the inclusion in school life of St Benedict and an encouragement to observe and live by the Rule of St Benedict. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Benedict and his Rule were hardly mentioned. There was no English translation available then (the first English translation did not appear until the mid ’70s), which probably had much to do with his regrettable absence from my formative years.

Unlike my parents, as a parent myself I was encouraged to join in in the spiritual and pastoral activities of the school, and came to know quite bit about Benedict and his Rule. In my exploration (which went far beyond the school gates) I discovered in the Rule a blueprint for a way of life that not only resonated strongly with me, but also seemed to meet my need for an alternative to the egotism, materialism and greed of my earlier life.

Written in 516 it may have been. That does not detract from its continuing relevance nearly 1,500 years on, as Joan Chichester points out in her commentary on the Rule. It remains easy to understand and has applications to life today and the alternative timeline that I and many of my fellow humans now want to follow.

Benedict wrote his Rule in order to guide and advise the monks in his communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that ‘community’ is central to his Rule. In writing about community, Benedict decrees that ‘No one is to pursue what is judged better for self, but instead what is judged better for someone else.’ If that isn’t a dictum for modern life, then I don’t know what is.

His longest chapter is about humility and in today’s narcissistic and ego-centric world Benedict’s advice hits hard. Some may find it too difficult and reject it whilst others may see it as a manifesto for a better way of life. He sets down six core principles and a twelve step ladder for achieving the level of humility that will enable his communities to flourish with peace and understanding – so perhaps we should not dismiss it too readily.

His fourth, fifth and sixth degrees or steps of humility illustrate what I mean. The fourth encourages suffering and patience in the face of adversity. Today this quality is often called ‘resilience’ and promoted as a virtue. It also means stepping back and listening to others.

In today’s language, Benedict’s fifth degree of humility would be described as self-disclosure. Benedict encourages his community to be genuine, to have integrity, to not pretend it (or they) are something they are not, to be open and acknowledge and accept failures and faults. If we do, we begin to understand that its not actually as bad as we thought. So powerful is the act of self-disclosure that an entire profession of psychologists, counsellors and therapists has grown up around this step.

If the Benedict’s fifth degree of humility is an integral part of our lives today, the sixth is definitely not. In his sixth step, Benedict writes that this step is that ‘a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he is given.’ That may sound tough. However, Benedict was not the first to advocate it. Since the dawn of civilisation, philosophers have understood that being content with what we have, even if its not much, is a surer route to happiness than satisfying the desire for what you don’t have. The ancient Greeks had a word for it: kenosis, an emptying of oneself. Karen Armstrong, the author and commentator, describes this as an “emptying of yourself of the greed, selfishness and preoccupation that, perhaps inevitably, are engrained in our thoughts and behaviours but are also the source of much of our pain”. Another word for this is egotism. The antidote for egotism is compassion, and its source is humility.

Humility may seem an anachronistic quality in today’s world where books about personal growth and being a better ‘I’ take up an increasing amount of room on the shelves. However, Benedict’s wisdom on this matter should not be discounted. Indeed, it can be seen as the route to a better world. We just need to realise that humility, like vulnerability, is not a weakness. It is a strength, and a powerful one at that.

Bio

  • Born 480, the son of a Roman noble from Nursia (Umbria)
  • c500, leaves home, moves to Rome to study
  • Moves to Subiaco to get away from the hub of the city, becomes a monk and a hermit living in a cave
  • On the back of his humility and piety, is appointed abbot of a nearby monastery in Subiaco
  • Lasts three years and returns to his cave after an attempt by the community to poison him
  • Writes his Rule in 516
  • In 530, leaves Subiaco and the twelve monasteries he has founded and moves South to Monte Cassino
  • c530, founds the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino (site of a major World War II battle)
  • Died 547
  • 1964, named Patron Protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI

Positions held

Abbot of numerous monasteries in the Subiaco area of Umbria in Italy and founder and Abbot of the monastery at Monte Cassino

Influence

Benedict had a significant impact on European culture and civilisation. The years following his life are sometimes known as the Benedictine Centuries and he is credited with helping Europe emerge from the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. His work led to the development of monasticism in Europe and today monasteries (Benedictine and others) still us the Rule as the guide to monastic life.

Publications

The Rule of St Benedict, 516

Further information

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia

The School of Life: https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/st-benedict/:

The Rule of St Benedict: A number of English Translations are now available. Those written by Timothy Fry and Abbot Patrick Barry of Ampleforth are considered authoritative

Commentary: Joan Chittister’s commentary, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St Benedict Today, (Harper, 2013), provides a thorough commentary and exploration of the relevance of the Rule to life today

 

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