In the year 529, St. Benedict laid the foundation for his monastery at Monte Cassino. In the same year, Plato’s academy was shut down. The light of learning passed from Greek hands to communities of monks to be kept burning through the dark ages ahead.
Benedictines are widely known for preserving the Catholic written tradition through the early medieval era. Monasteries were oases of learning, where texts were copied and preserved in the scriptoriums, and where the young were sent for their schooling. This model led in turn to developing cathedral schools and eventually the great universities of Europe. It is hard to imagine what the Catholic Church would be like today without the role of the Benedictine preservation of wisdom. Yet while this may be one of the Order’s greatest fruits, it’s not the only one.
Benedict the Founder
St. Benedict lived at the convergence of two eras. The age of martyrdom had ended 200 years previously, giving rise to a new radical way of living for God – monasticism. The word in its original Greek, monasterion, has for its root monos, meaning “alone.” The suffix sterion implies a place for living. The monastic movement, begun in the deserts of Egypt, blossomed into a spiritually competitive culture, each man trying to outdo the other in a whole host of sometimes mysterious ascetical practices – standing on poles, long-term fasting, and the like. Even when these men lived in community, the goal of desert common life was independence. It was the beginners who lived together, hoping to reach an advanced stage, where they were ready to journey out to the wilderness alone.
Like some of his forerunners, St. Benedict had a different vision. Men joined Benedict’s monastery not to be trained in holiness and then depart for solitude, but rather to achieve a holy solitude all the while in the midst of the community. After several attempts at establishing this life with varying degrees of success, St. Benedict founded the monastery at Monte Cassino, where at last he wrote his now famous Rule of life, which would lay the groundwork for a balanced and sustainable model of monasticism for ages to come.
While the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) are common to all religious orders, each community understands them differently in light of its particular charism. Benedictines profess stability, conversion of life, and obedience (which includes chastity and poverty). The vow of stability, as one writer puts it, teaches us that “God is not elsewhere.” Our attention may be pulled in every direction by this fast-paced world of ours, but Benedict teaches us that if we want to find God in this world, sometimes we have to stay put. Only when we stop, when we make time for silence, can we learn to listen in silence before God and before our neighbor. This leads to the second vow, conversion of life. For we are converted whenever we grow close to something as great as God. And what is that conversion, that change in us? Humility. Finally, obedience is a part of our life whether we like it or not. In our lives we are always subject to someone, whether it’s a boss at work or calling our mother on her birthday. Benedict says, though, that one needs a spiritual father. Only when we’re obedient to a truly holy person can our own prayer life take off.
There are two further lessons unique to Benedict which we can learn today. The first is from the motto of his Order, Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). For Benedictines, the two are intertwined, as they begin in the chapel and the kitchen with the same invocation: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” On the one hand, prayer is a sort of work. They “clock in” at different hours of the day to pray the psalms, and they spend a required amount of time in Lectio Divina (prayerfully reading Scripture) every day, to “plow the soil of the heart.” Prayer may at times be beautiful and fulfilling. It’s best when it’s consistent. On the other hand, Benedict prescribed work to his brothers. This was a) for their own sustenance and the feeding of the poor, and b) to keep the brothers from idleness. How much do we see our own work aimed at supporting our own family and the poor? And how much do we see it as keeping us from idleness? Our work may not consist in baking bread or tending beehives, but Benedict reminds us that all work can be made into a holy activity.
The second lesson is hospitality. “All guests that come to the monastery should be received like Christ” (Rule, 53.1). Benedict himself had learned from his twin sister, Scholastica (see story here), that God delights in hospitality to guests. I knew an old priest whose last words were, “We don’t realize the blessing we have in each other. Mary visited Elizabeth. Love grows when we visit one another.” We may not always feel that love grows with every visitor, but we’re called to treat them that way. Each knock on the door is an invitation to the virtue of hospitality.
Benedict and the Dominican Order
The Benedictine life has influenced the Dominican Order in numerous ways. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of our greatest saints, spent nearly a decade as an oblate at Monte Cassino. The Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina is one of the forms of prayer enshrined in our own Constitutions. Their preservation of learning made possible the rise of the universities, the original setting for much Dominican ministry. Perhaps most importantly, though, the Benedictines remind us that sanctity is never a solo affair. As noted in the Rule that we Dominicans follow, the Rule of St. Augustine, “The chief motivation for your sharing life together is to live harmoniously in the house and to have one heart and one soul seeking God.” Through the intercession of this holy founder of Western monasticism, may we all encourage one another to grow in holiness, so that all may be one (John 17:21).
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St. Benedict