St. Benedict of Nursia, Founder of Western Monasticism

Commemorated March 14/27

Saint Benedict, founder of Western monasticism, was born in the Italian city of Nursia in the year 480. When he was fourteen years of age, the saint's parents sent him to Rome to study. Unsettled by the immorality around him, he decided to devote himself to a different sort of life.

At first St Benedict settled near the church of the holy Apostle Peter in the village of Effedum, but news of his ascetic life compelled him to go farther into the mountains. There he encountered the hermit Romanus, who tonsured him into monasticism and directed him to live in a remote cave at Subiaco. From time to time, the hermit would bring him food.

For three years the saint waged a harsh struggle with temptations and conquered them. People soon began to gather to him, thirsting to live under his guidance. The number of disciples grew so much, that the saint divided them into twelve communities. Each community was comprised of twelve monks and was a separate skete. The saint gave each skete an igumen from among his experienced disciples, and only the novice monks remained with St Benedict for instruction.

The strict monastic Rule St Benedict established for the monks was not accepted by everyone, and more than once he was criticized and abused by dissenters.

Finally he settled in Campagna and on Mount Cassino he founded the Monte Cassino monastery, which for a long time was a center of theological education for the Western Church. The monastery possessed a remarkable library. St Benedict wrote his Rule, based on the experience of life of the Eastern desert-dwellers and the precepts of St John Cassian the Roman (February 29).

The Rule of St Benedict dominated Western monasticism for centuries (by the year 1595 it had appeared in more than 100 editions). The Rule prescribed the renunciation of personal possessions, as well as unconditional obedience, and constant work. It was considered the duty of older monks to teach the younger and to copy ancient manuscripts. This helped to preserve many memorable writings from the first centuries of Christianity.

Every new monk was required to live as a novice for a year, to learn the monastic Rule and to become acclimated to monastic life. Every deed required a blessing. The head of this cenobitic monastery is the igumen. He discerns, teaches, and explains. The igumen solicits the advice of the older, experienced brethren, but he makes the final decisions. Keeping the monastic Rule was strictly binding for everyone and was regarded as an important step on the way to perfection.

St Benedict was granted by the Lord the gift of foresight and wonderworking. He healed many by his prayers. The monk foretold the day of his death in 547. The main source for his Life is the second Dialogue of St Gregory.

St Benedict's sister, St Scholastica (February 10/23), also became famous for her strict ascetic life and was numbered among the saints.

St. Gregory the Dialogist so admired St. Benedict that he devoted a large section of his “Dialogues” to the venerable one’s life. We present a few of these chapters here, which show St. Benedict’s stern but soul-saving care for his monks.

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How Benedict reformed a monk that would not stay at his prayers.

In one of the monasteries which he had built in those parts, there was a monk who could not continue at prayers; for when the other monks knelt down to serve God, his manner was to go forth, and there with wandering mind to busy himself about some earthly and transitory things. When he had often been admonished by his Abbot for this fault without any amendment, at length he was sent to the man of God, who likewise very much rebuked him for his folly. Notwithstanding, returning to his monastery, he followed the holy man's admonition; but, on the third day, he fell again to his old custom, and would not stay within at the time of prayer. Word was once more sent to the man of God, by the father of the Abbey he had appointed there.

Benedict returned the answer that he would come himself, and reform what was amiss, which he did accordingly. It so fell out, that when the singing of psalms was ended, and the hour come in which the monks took themselves to prayer, the holy man perceived that the monk, who used at that time to go forth, was drawn out by the skirt of his garment by a little black boy. On seeing this, he spoke secretly to Pompeianus, father of the Abbey, and also to Maurus saying, "Do you not see who it is, that draws this monk from his prayers?" and they answered him, that they did not. "Then let us pray to God," he said, "that you also may behold whom this monk follows." After two days Maurus saw him, but Pompeianus could not.

On another day, when the man of God had ended his devotions, he went out of the oratory, where he found the foresaid monk standing idle. For the blindness of his heart he struck with a little wand, and from that day forward he was so freed from all allurement of the little black boy, that he remained quietly at his prayers, as the other monks did. The old enemy was so terrified, that he dare not suggest any such thoughts again. As though by that blow, not the monk, but the devil himself had been struck.

Of a fountain that sprung forth in the top of a mountain, by the prayers of the man of God.

Among the monasteries which he had built in those parts, three of them were situated on the rocks of a mountain, so that it was very painful for the monks to go down and fetch water, especially because the side of the hill was so steep that there was great fear of danger. Therefore the monks of those Abbeys with one consent came to the servant of God, Benedict, giving him to understand, how laborious it was for them daily to go down to the lake for water. They added that it was very necessary for them to move to some other places.

The man of God, comforting them with sweet words, caused them to return. The next night, having with him only the little boy Placidus (of whom we spoke above), he ascended up to the rock of that mountain, and continued there a long time in prayer. When he had done, he took three stones, and laid them in the same place for a mark, and so, none of them being privy to what he had done, he returned to his own Abbey.

The next day, when the foresaid monks came again about their former business, he said to them: "Go your way to the rock, and in the place where you find three stones laid one on another, dig a little hole, for almighty God is able to bring forth water in the top of that mountain, and so ease you of that great labor of fetching it so far." Away they went, and came to the rock of the mountain according to his directions. They found it as if it were sweating drops of water. After they had made a hollow place with a spade, it was immediately filled, and water flowed out abundantly. So plentifully, that even to this day, the water springs out and runs down from the top of that hill to the very bottom.

Of the fantastical fire, which burnt the kitchen.

Then the man of God thought it good that they should presently dig up the ground in the same place before his departure. This was done, and a deep hole made, the monks found there an idol of brass, which being for a little while by chance cast into the kitchen, they beheld fire suddenly to come from it, which to all their sight seemed to set the whole kitchen on fire. For the quenching of it, the monks by casting on of water made such a noise, that the man of God, hearing it, came to see what the matter was.

He himself beheld not any fire at all, but they said that they did. He bowed down his head forthwith in prayer, and then he perceived that they were deluded with a fantastical fire. He therefore bide them bless their eyes, that they might behold the kitchen safe and sound, and not those fantastical flames, which the devil had falsely devised.

How by revelation venerable Benedict knew that his monks had eaten out of the monastery.

Among other miracles which the man of God did, he began also to be famous for the spirit of prophecy: as to foretell what was to happen, and to relate to them that were present, such things as were done in absence. The order of his Abbey was, that when the monks went abroad (to deliver any message) never to eat or drink anything out of their cloister: and this being diligently observed, according to the prescription of their rule, on a certain day some of the monks went forth on such business: and being enforced about the dispatch thereof to tarry somewhat long abroad, it fell so out that they stayed at the house of a religious woman, where they ate and refreshed themselves. And being late before they came back to the Abbey, they went as the manner was, and asked their father's blessing: of whom he demanded where they had eaten: and they said nowhere.

"Why do you," said he, "tell an untruth? For did you not go into such a woman's house? And eat such and such kind of meat, and drink so many cups?" When they heard him recount so in particular, both where they had stayed, what kind of meat they had eaten, and how often they had drunk, and perceived well that he knew all whatsoever they had done, they fell down trembling at his feet, and confessed that they had done wickedly: who immediately pardoned them for that fault, persuading himself that they would not any more in his absence presume to do any such thing, seeing they now perceived that he was present with them in spirit.

How the man of God knew that one of his monks had received certain handkerchiefs.

Not far from his Abbey, there was a village, in which very many men had, by the sermons of Benedict, been converted from idolatry to the true faith of Christ. Certain Nuns also there were in the same town, to whom he often sent some of his monks to preach to them, for the good of their souls. On a day, one that was sent, after he had made an end of his exhortation, by the entreaty of the Nuns took certain small napkins, and hid them for his own use in his bosom: whom, on his return to the Abbey, the man of God very sharply rebuked, saying: "How comes it to pass, brother, that sin is entered into your bosom ?" At which words the monk was much amazed for he had quite forgotten what he had put there; and therefore knew not any cause why he should deserve that reprehension: whereupon the holy man spoke to him in plain terms, and said: "Was not I present when you took the handkerchiefs of the Nuns, and put them up in your bosom for your own private use?" The monk, hearing this, fell down at his feet, and was sorry that he had behaved himself so indiscreetly: forth he drew those napkins from his bosom, and threw them all away.

How holy Benedict knew the proud thought of one of his monks.

Once upon a time, while the venerable Father was at supper, one of his monks, who was the son of a great man, held the candle. As he was standing there, and the other ate his meal, he began to entertain a proud thought in his mind. He spoke to himself: "Who is he, that I wait on him at supper and hold him the candle? And who am I, that I should do him any such service?"

Immediately the holy man turned and with severe rebuke spoke to him: "Sign your heart, brother, for what is it that you say? Sign your heart." Forthwith he called another of the monks, and bid him take the candle out of his hands. He commanded him to cease his waiting, and to retire.

Benedict, being demanded of the monks what it was that he had thought, told them, how inwardly that monk had swelled with pride, and what he spoke against the man of God, secretly in his heart.

Then they all realized very well that nothing could be hidden from venerable Benedict, seeing that the very sound of men's inward thoughts came to his ears.

Of certain nuns absolved after their death.

GREGORY: His common talk, Peter, was usually full of virtue: for his heart conversed to above in heaven, that no words could in vain proceed from his mouth. And if at any time he spoke aught, yet not as one that determined what was best to be done, but only in a threatening manner, his speech in that case was so effectual and forcible, as though he had not doubtfully or uncertainly, but assuredly pronounced and given sentence.

For not far from his Abbey, there lived two Nuns in a place by themselves, born of worshipful parentage: whom a religious good man served for the dispatch of their outward business. But as nobility of family does in some breed ignobility of mind, and makes them in conversation to show less humility, because they remember still what superiority they had above others: even so was it with these Nuns: for they had not yet learned to temper their tongues, and keep them under with the bridle of their habit: for often by their indiscreet speech they provoked the aforesaid religious man to anger; who having borne with them a long time, at length he complained to the man of God, and told him with what reproachful words they entreated him: whereupon he sent them by and by this message, saying: "Amend your tongues, otherwise I do excommunicate you"; which sentence of excommunication notwithstanding, he did not then presently pronounce against them, but only threatened if they amended not themselves.

But they, for all this, changed their conditions nothing at all: both which not long after departed this life, and were buried in the church: and when solemn mass was celebrated in the same church, and the Deacon, according to custom, said with loud voice: "If any there be that do not communicate, let them depart": the nurse, which used to give to our Lord an offering for them, beheld them at that time to rise out of their graves, and to depart the church. Having often times, at those words of the Deacon, seen them leave the church, and that they could not tarry within, she remembered what message the man of God sent them whiles they were yet alive. For he told them that he deprived them of the communion, unless they amended their tongues and conditions. Then with great sorrow, the whole matter was signified to the man of God, who immediately with his own hands gave an oblation, saying: "Go your ways, and cause this to be offered to our Lord for them, and they shall not remain any longer excommunicate": which oblation being offered for them, and the Deacon, as he used, crying out, that such as did not communicate should depart, they were not seen any more to go out of the church: whereby it was certain that, seeing they did not depart with them who did not communicate, that they had received the communion of our Lord by the hands of his servant.

PETER: It is very strange that you report: for how could he, though a venerable and most holy man, yet living in mortal body, loose those souls which stood now before the invisible judgment of God?

GREGORY: Was he not yet, Peter, mortal, that heard from our Saviour: "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, it shall be bound also in the heavens: and whatsoever you shall loose in earth, shall be loosed also in the heavens?" [Matt. 16:19] whose place of binding and loosing those have at this time, which by faith and virtuous life possess the place of holy government: and to bestow such power on earthly men, the Creator of heaven and earth descended from heaven to earth: and that flesh might judge of spiritual things, God, who for man's sake was made flesh, vouchsafed to bestow on him: for from there our weakness rose up above itself, from where the strength of God was weakened under itself.

PETER: For the virtue of his miracles, your words do yield a very good reason.

How a monk, forsaking the abbey, met with a dragon on the way.

GREGORY: A certain monk there was so inconstant and fickle of mind, that he desired to leave the Abbey. For this fault of his, the man of God daily rebuked him, and often times gave him good admonitions. But yet, for all this, he would by no means tarry among them, and therefore continually begged that he might be discharged.

The venerable man, wearied with his importunity, in anger bid him depart. He was no sooner out of the Abbey gate, when he found a dragon in the way waiting for him with open mouth. About to be devoured, he began in great fear and trembling to cry out aloud, saying, "Help, help! for this dragon will eat me up."

At the noise the monks ran out, but they saw no dragon, only the reluctant monk, shaking and trembling. They brought him back again to the Abbey. He forthwith promised that he would never more forsake the monastery, and so ever after he continued in his profession. By the prayers of the holy man, he saw the dragon coming against him, whom before, when he did not see him, he had willingly followed.

How holy Benedict wrote a rule for his monks.

GREGORY. I am desirous, Peter, to tell you many things of this venerable father, but some of purpose I let pass, because I make haste to treat also of the acts of other holy men. Yet I would not have you be ignorant of the fact that the man of God, among so many miracles for which he was so famous in the world, was also sufficiently learned in divinity.

He wrote a rule for his monks, both excellent for discretion and also eloquent for its style. If any be curious to know further of his life and conversation, he may understand all his manner of life and discipline in the institution of that rule for the holy man could not otherwise teach, than he himself had lived.

See also
St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome St. Gregory the Dialogist, pope of Rome
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