An Introduction to Saint Benedict
Saint Benedict has been a guide in the search for God since the early sixth century. It was then that he wrote his Rule for Monks, and it outlines a life of work and prayer -- done for the glory of God.
The second source for understanding Benedict is the biography by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604). Gregory writes that Benedict was born into a comfortable family in Nursia, a small city in central Italy. In pursuit of a bright future, the young Benedict went off to Rome for studies. But the call to seek God soon drew him into a very different sort of life.
Benedict's first taste of the monastic life was as a hermit. In solitude he prayed, read and worked. Not surprisingly, he began to draw a steady stream of visitors who sought his wisdom and advice. This life had its challenges; and while many came to admire him, a few resented his reputation for holiness.
Benedict's next venture came when a group of monks invited him to be their abbot. According to Gregory, they were an independent lot, and soon they wearied of his leadership. Fortunately, Benedict resisted the poisoned cup they offered one day, and wisely he moved on. From his experience he distilled a shrewd understanding of human nature, and this became the foundation of a Rule that even today inspires a wide range of people.
In his Rule Benedict sought to impose nothing harsh or burdensome. His monastery was a school of the Lord's service, where the abbot served as father, and the monks were brothers. Permeating all was the presence of Christ. One was to see Christ in everyone: in the abbot, in the young and old, and in the guest.
A balance of prayer, work and sacred reading were the key elements of this life. But monks were also to have proper food, sleep, and clothing. For Benedict, extreme self-denial did not lead to God. Instead, in a balanced life one would better discern the hand of God.
Nor was this a community that shut out the world. In a highly symbolic story, Gregory recounts the barbarian chief who threatened the monastery. Rather than flee, Benedict went out to meet him, and with his words he turned back the invaders. That set a tone that ever since has caused Benedictine monks and nuns to be in conversation with the world.
Part of the genius of Benedict lay in his awareness of human differences. He sought to challenge the robust and to nurse along the weaker brethren. All were individuals, each needing distinctive support.
Particularly important was his teaching on work. Monks should work, but Benedict did not specify the sort of work they should do. All talents were useful. And so, ever since, monks and nuns in the Benedictine tradition have labored not only as contemplatives, but also as missionaries and pastors, scholars and teachers, tillers of the soil, and guestmasters. In everything they work toward a common goal: the experience of God in the school of the Lord's service.