1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Benedict of Nursia, Saint
BENEDICT OF NURSIA, SAINT (c. 480-c. 544), the patriarch of Western monks. Our only authority for the facts of St Benedict’s life is bk. ii of St Gregory’s Dialogues. St Gregory declares that he obtained his information from four of St Benedict’s disciples, whom he names; and there can be no serious reason for doubting that it is possible to reconstruct the outlines of St Benedict’s career (see Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, iv. 412). A precise chronology and a pedigree have been supplied for Benedict, according to which he was born in 480, of the great family of the Anicii; but all we know is what St Gregory tells us, that he was born of good family in Nursia, near Spoleto in Umbria. His birth must have occurred within a few years of the date assigned; the only fixed chronological point is a visit of the Gothic king Totila to him in 543, when Benedict was already established at Monte Cassino and advanced in years (Dial. ii. 14, 15). He was sent by his parents to frequent the Roman schools, but shocked by the prevailing licentiousness he fled away. It has been usual to represent him as a mere boy at this time, but of late years various considerations have been pointed out which make it more likely that he was a young man. He went to the mountainous districts of the Abruzzi, and at last came to the ruins of Nero’s palace and the artificial lake at Subiaco, 40 m. from Rome. Among the rocks on the side of the valley opposite the palace he found a cave in which he took up his abode, unknown to all except one friend, Romanus, a monk of a neighbouring monastery, who clothed him in the monastic habit and secretly supplied him with food. No one who has seen the spot will doubt that the Sacro Speco is indeed the cave wherein Benedict spent the three years of opening manhood in solitary prayer, contemplation and austerity. After this period of formation his fame began to spread abroad, and the monks of a neighbouring monastery induced him to become their abbot; but their lives were irregular and dissolute, and on his trying to put down abuses they attempted to poison him. He returned to his cave, but disciples flocked to him, and in time he formed twelve monasteries in the neighbourhood, placing twelve monks in each, and himself retaining a general control over all. In time patricians and senators from Rome entrusted their young sons to his care, to be brought up as monks; in this manner came to him his two best-known disciples, Maurus and Placidus. Driven from Subiaco by the jealousy and molestations of a neighbouring priest, but leaving behind him communities in his twelve monasteries, he himself, accompanied by a small band of disciples, journeyed south until he came to Cassino, a town halfway between Rome and Naples. Climbing the high mountain that overhangs the town, he established on the summit the monastery with which his name has ever since been associated, and which for centuries was a chief centre of religious life for western Europe. He destroyed the remnants of paganism that lingered on here, and by his preaching gained the rustic population to Christianity. Few other facts of his career are known: there is record of his founding a monastery at Terracina; his death must have occurred soon after Totila’s visit in 543.
Rule of St Benedict.—In order to understand St Benedict’s character and spirit, and to discover the secret of the success of his institute, it is necessary, as St Gregory says, to turn to his Rule. St Gregory’s characterization of the Rule as “conspicuous for its discretion” touches the most essential quality. The relation of St Benedict’s Rule to earlier monastic rules, and of his institute to the prevailing monachism of his day, is explained in the article Monasticism. Here it is enough to say that nowadays it is commonly recognized by students that the manner of life instituted by St Benedict was not intended to be, and as a matter of fact was not, one of any great austerity, when judged by the standard of his own day (see E. C. Butler, Lausiac History of Palladius, part i. pp. 251-256). His monks were allowed proper clothes, sufficient food, ample sleep. The only bodily austerities were the abstinence from flesh meat and the unbroken fast till mid-day or even 3 P.M., but neither would appear so onerous in Italy even now, as to us in northern climes. Midnight office was no part of St Benedict’s Rule: the time for rising for the night office varied from 1.30 to 3.0, according to the season, and the monks had had unbroken sleep for 7½ or even 8 hours, except in the hot weather, when in compensation they were allowed the traditional Italian summer siesta after the mid-day meal. The canonical office was chanted throughout, but the directly religious duties of the day can hardly have taken more than 4 or 5 hours—perhaps 8 on Sundays. The remaining hours of the day were divided between work and reading, in the proportion (on the average of the whole year) of about 6 and 4 hours respectively. The “reading” in St Benedict’s time was probably confined to the Bible and the Fathers. The “work” contemplated by St Benedict was ordinarily field work, as was natural in view of the conditions of the time and best suited to the majority of the monks; but the principle laid down is that the monks should do whatever work is most useful. There were from the beginning young boys in the monastery, who were educated by the monks according to the ideas of the time. We have seen St Benedict evangelizing the pagan population round Monte Cassino; and a considerable time each day is assigned to the reading of the Fathers. Thus the germs of all the chief works carried on by his monks in later ages were to be found in his own monastery.
The Rule consists of a prologue and 73 chapters. Though it has resisted all attempts to reduce it to an ordered scheme, and probably was not written on any set plan, still it is possible roughly to indicate its contents: after the prologue and introductory chapter setting forth St Benedict’s intention, follow instructions to the abbot on the manner in which he should govern his monastery (2,3); next comes the ascetical portion of the Rule, on the chief monastic virtues (4-7); then the regulations for the celebration of the canonical office, which St Benedict calls “the Work of God” or “the divine work,” his monks’ first duty, “of which nothing is to take precedence” (8-20); faults and punishments (23-30); the cellarer and property of the monastery (31, 32); community of goods (33, 34); various officials and daily life (21, 22, 35-57); reception of monks (58-61); miscellaneous (62-73).
The most remarkable chapters, in which St Benedict’s wisdom stands out most conspicuously, are those on the abbot (2,3, 27,64). The abbot is to govern the monastery with full and unquestioned patriarchal authority; on important matters he must consult the whole community and hear what each one, even the youngest, thinks; on matters of less weight he should consult a few of the elder monks; but in either case the decision rests entirely with him, and all are to acquiesce. He must, however, bear in mind that he will have to render an account of all his decisions and to answer for the souls of all his monks before the judgment seat of God. Moreover, he has to govern in accordance with the Rule, and must endeavour, while enforcing discipline and implanting virtues, not to sadden or “overdrive” his monks, or give them cause for “just murmuring.” In these chapters pre-eminently appears that element of “discretion,” as St Gregory calls it, or humanism as it would now be termed, which without doubt has been a chief cause of the success of the Rule. There is as yet no satisfactory text of the Rule, either critical or manual; the best manual text is Schmidt’s editio minor (Regensburg, 1892). Of the many commentaries the most valuable are those of Paulus Diaconus (the earliest, c. 800), of Calmet and of Martène (Migne, Patrol. Lat. lxvi.).