We know more about St Benedict from his spiritual and monastic heritage than we do from any accurate biography. He is believed to have been born around the year 480 into a noble Roman family in Nursia (the modern Norcia) in Umbria in Italy. When he was around twenty years old, while studying in Rome, he turned away from the chaos and corruption of the Empire and moved to a place in the Simbruini mountains, about forty miles from the city.
After meeting a monk called Romanus of Subiaco, Benedict became a hermit and lived in a cave in the mountains. By 1529 he had established a kind of monastic life, where the companions who had gathered about him could share a common life of prayer. This community eventually settled on a hill near Cassino, where a great monastery gradually developed, now called Monte Cassino. Benedict guided the community as its abbot until his death around the year 547.
There he also wrote his “Rule of Saint Benedict” to guide the daily living of the monks. The unique balance and reasonableness of this rule resulted in it being adopted by most religious communities that were founded throughout the Middle Ages. For this reason, Benedict is often called the founder of western monasticism. His remarks on monks drinking wine give a good example:
Each one has his own gift from God, the one in this way, the other in that. Therefore it is with some hesitation that the amount of daily sustenance for others is fixed by us. Nevertheless, in view of the weakness of the infirm we believe that a hemina [just under half a liter] of wine a day is enough for each one. Those moreover to whom God gives the ability of bearing abstinence shall know that they will have their own reward. But the Prior shall judge if either the needs of the place, or labour or the heat of summer, requires more; considering in all things lest satiety or drunkenness creep in. Indeed we read that wine is not suitable for monks at all. But because, in our day, it is not possible to persuade the monks of this, let us agree at least as to the fact that we should not drink till we are sated, but sparingly…
His spiritual advice is equally moderate:
let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in the purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard. For this reason prayer ought to be short and pure, unless, perhaps it is lengthened by the inspiration of divine grace. At the community exercises, however, let the prayer always be short, and the sign having been given by the Superior, let all rise together.
Thus Benedict taught us “to walk in God’s ways, with the Gospel as our guide”. From Monte Casino many other Benedictine communities of both men and women have been established all around the world.