Benedict was born of noble lineage in the small town of Nursia, in Umbria, central Italy. As a young man, he studied in Rome, but soon became disillusioned by the state of society, its corruption and violence. So he decided to withdraw as a hermit to a cave in the country around Subiaco.
After a few years however, tales of his spiritual maturity and wisdom spread far and wide. He attracted more and more disciples, whom he guided in the spiritual life and organized into monasteries dedicated to the education of the young.
Success brought further opportunities to Benedict, and in 529, when he was in his 50s, he moved to Monte Cassino. It is there that he established the great abbey which became the motherhouse of the order for the reclamation and regeneration of a Christian Europe.
It was at Cassino that he promulgated his Holy Rule, to form monks in the spiritual life according to the evangelical counsels. At its core was the twin injunction, Ora et labora, “to pray and to work”. Prayer was the humble acknowledgement of God’s presence throughout the day, through the singing of the psalms in common, at measured intervals from dawn to midnight. Work meant manual labour, hitherto performed by slaves, whereby his monks reclaimed the land, and vested physical work with a new dignity.
“By labouring under obedience, men will be brought back to God, from they have strayed by the idleness of disobedience,” as Benedict was wont to say. Monks lived in communities ruled over by a superior, who was chosen for his prudence, his moderation and his spirituality. Visitors to Cassino were impressed by the joyful and dignified way of life Benedict had started. He was constantly requested to start foundations in other places too.
The contribution of Benedict to western civilization cannot be measured. His monks copied, studied and taught the Greek and Roman classics in their monastic schools when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Pope Paul VI called Benedict the “patron saint of all Europe”, and the rule of St Benedict became the spiritual basis for countless religious orders and secular universities.
Truly this great man lived up to his name – Benedict – by becoming a “blessing” to his country and his age.