The Holy Rule: Introducing St Benedict


Preferring Nothing Whatever to Christ


Before we can embark on any kind of reading of the Rule of St Benedict, it behoves us to say something about the man who is its author.  In one way, that should not prove very difficult – there is but one work that purports to be an account of his life, written by Pope St Gregory the Great in the form of a conversation with one of his associates, the Deacon Peter.  The work occurs in the course of a longer work, the Second Book of Dialogues, all of which tell tales of holy men who, by and large, have fallen out of memory and veneration.  All, that is, except Benedict.  But other works by Benedict himself – letters, commentaries, homilies or sermons – do not exist, and indeed never seem to have existed.  The only other document which sheds any light on this man, whose veneration as the Father of Western Monasticism has been long established, is the Rule which bears his name and authority.  And while it says nothing about his historical person and what he did, it is a powerful tool for coming to know a man whose influence as teacher, reformer, founder and formator is as strong today as it ever was.

All that said, the Dialogues of Gregory the Great give us a picture of what kind of man tradition says Benedict was.  For a writer such as Gregory, and for the audience for which he wrote, it wasn’t necessary to give a blow by blow account of historical points.  What was most important was to convey the sort of man that Benedict was, some of the more memorable things that tradition says he did, and the influence he had.  This type of writing – a stylised pseudo-biographical sketch, scant on historical accuracy but packed with good yarns, interpretation and commentary – fits in with the hagiography (literally, writing about holy people) which builds up around the lives of saints.  And if we are honest ourselves, we all love a good story.

Gregory’s account of Benedict’s life doesn’t tell us exactly when  he was born nor when he died.  Tradition has placed these dates, trying to reflect some of the historicity which is suggested by Gregory’s account, as c.480 – c.547.  He was born in a town called Nursia (modern day Norcia, and still in existence), into what appears to have been a well-to-do family, and, when he reached the age when a public career naturally beckoned, the young Benedict was sent off to Rome to begin his formal studies.  His name – Benedictus – means ‘Blessed’, it’s worth noting.  It wasn’t long before a deeper desire made itself evident to him – that he should please God alone – and so he left the very liberal and vice-bound City and headed off to acquire the monastic habit, as Gregory says famously, “learnedly ignorant and wisely uninstructed”.

Against what would become his own advice in the Rule (Chapter 1) Benedict chose to begin his search for the monastic habit by becoming a hermit, thus choosing the solitary life first.  Perhaps this is an indication that his initial zeal was very great and, as sometimes happens in that first flush of enthusiasm, we can push things to the extreme, only to be brought back down to earth by our experiences.  His eremitical life was lived at Subiaco, where he came under the guidance of another monk, Romulus.  It was he who carried Benedict’s monastic formation – for want of a better phrase – through to some sort of completion.  Certainly in this time, Benedict is shown to be a man immersed in Sacred Scripture, one who has to deal with temptations which seek to get the better of him – and sexual temptations in particular, which he drives away by rolling, naked, in thorn bushes (not to be even remotely recommended) – a man who is growing in human and spiritual maturity, and so becoming a man fully himself.

Benedict’s name becomes famous, to the extent that a community of monks nearby, in Vicovaro, invite him to become their superior.  However, Benedict’s dim view of their very lax way of monastic living and his attempts to impose some sort of discipline on them ends up with them trying to poison him, and so he returns to Subiaco, to resume his solitary life.  At this point, Gregory uses a phrase describing Benedict which has become, to some great extent, almost synonymous with the goal of monastic living – that he was able to live alone with himself (habitare secum).  This extraordinary and beautiful phrase – which Peter the Deacon asks Gregory to explain – seems to try and sum up Benedict’s being at peace with himself under the gaze of God, and being at peace basking in that divine gaze, something which will be directly reflected in the first step of humility in the Rule (Chapter 7).  It’s the goal for us all – to be entirely at home with ourselves.

At Subiaco men flock to Benedict and he begins the process of founding monastic communities.  There is no doubt that, from this point on, Benedict’s extraordinary example and holiness draw others to the way of life which he has adopted and which he shares readily with others.  This makes his monastic community of communities – since that is what it appears to be – a startling reality in the country of that time.  The Italian peninsula was, after all, a place of war and invasion, of famine for a great part of the time, and dire need.  In all of this, we have a story of people seeking a way of life which will lead them to God, a way of life which offers stability and a sense of community, a way of life which has a point, not just in this life, but reaching beyond it to the next life.  And, of course, in Benedict it is certainly a life founded in the Gospel – as the Rule essentially is, an evangelical document about how to live a life centred in and shaped by the Gospel.  So, this is the desire of those who seek to follow him and learn from him.

Needless to say, Gregory shows Benedict’s holiness through a series of miraculous events and deeds worked by the man of God.  And there are miracles aplenty!  For the most part, these miracles reflect and are based in miraculous works recorded in Sacred Scripture – and especially in the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, two mighty men of God.  They will continue to be a part of Benedict’s work and presence throughout the rest of the account.  The miracles, of course, have a manifold significance.  Yes, they witness to Benedict’s own outstanding holiness and that he is become an instrument of grace for those around him.  In this sense, it is God to whom the glory must be given for the work that he does in his servant.  But it also demonstrates the place of Sacred Scripture in this instruction – the word of God is really alive and active in Gregory’s conversation with Peter, and the constant reference which he makes over the course of the dialogue shows that he – Gregory – has plunged himself deep into Scripture’s riches.  Again and again, Sacred Scripture is held up to us as the irreplaceable rule of life.

After Subiaco, Benedict goes on to found the monastery which will be, and is today, always associated with him – Monte Cassino.  To do so he must first destroy the pagan temple to Apollo which he finds there and build in its place a church dedicated to St John the Baptist.  So, Benedict’s mission, at least partly, is to challenge the ancient paganism which still tries to insinuate itself into life.  And if this was good for Benedict it is good for us today – more than ever a neo-paganism tries to push aside the Gospel and twist truth to suit itself.  The spirit of Benedict is needed more than ever to bear witness against this and challenge its promotion in the public square especially.  Gregory will present, at Monte Cassino, the Ancient Enemy doing his best to outwit the now established spiritual master, but Benedict, seeing everything with the eyes of faith, getting the better of the Devil.  Things have not changed that much in 1500 years!  Coupled with Benedict’s wonder-working is a prophetic charism which allows him to see events yet to come.  This of course needs to be interpreted in the context of Gregory’s dialogue – Gregory himself is very much aware of the historical events which separate him from Benedict, and things which have indeed come to pass in the years since the saint’s death.  But also that prophetic vision of Benedict’s shows a man very much in touch with his own times, and the presence and intervention of God through developing historical scenes.  Benedict is a man of his time – and this account of his life shows him, especially at Monte Cassino, turning his eye and attention toward the world and its needs while remaining steadfast in prayer (and this, in Gregory’s account, quite literally) at his monastery.  Surely a lesson already for us – turning our back on things of the world does not mean turning our back on the world and its needs, and that deep awareness of society’s needs and appeals for help forms a constant backdrop to the life of the monastic, and in fact to the life of anyone who takes following of Christ seriously.

Towards the end of his life, Benedict is granted the most extraordinary of visions, and the passage in the Dialogues has rightly become famous.  Gregory reports:

“When the brothers were still asleep, the man of God, Benedict, got up to watch in prayer before the time for the Night Office.  Standing at the window and praying to almighty God in the middle of the night, he suddenly saw a light pour down that routed all the shadows.  It shone with such splendour that it surpassed daylight, even though it was shining in the darkness.  A wonderful thing followed in this vision, for as Benedict reported later, the whole world was brought before his eyes as if collected in a single ray of sunlight.  As the venerable father gazed intently in the dazzling splendour of this light, he saw the soul of Germanus, bishop of Capua, carried to heaven in a fireball by angels.

“No matter how little divine light a person sees with, everything created seems small.  For the capacity of the mind is expanded by the light of interior contemplation.  It is so enlarged by God that it becomes greater than the world.  Indeed, the soul becomes greater than itself through contemplation.  For when the contemplative soul is ravished by the light of God, it is dilated.  When it looks down in its elevated state it understands the insignificance of things in a way it could not when it remained below.  Now a person who could see a fiery ball and angels mounting to heaven, that one certainly must have been seeing with the light of God.  So why is it surprising that he saw the whole world concentrated before him if he himself was lifted out of the world in the light of the spirit? 

“When it is said that the whole world was collected before his eyes, this does not mean that heaven and earth were shrunk, but that the soul was expanded.  Swept up into God, it can easily see what is beneath God.  Thus to that light which lights things for the exterior eyes, there corresponds an interior light in the mind.  When it has raised the soul on high, it shows her how narrow are all things below.”

Dialogues II.XXXV, St Gregory the Great

Whether this event actually took place or not, Gregory is teaching us that, at this stage, Benedict had entered so fully into the mystical taste of God’s presence in his life and around him that he was granted this grace of contemplation – the fullness of the experience of the divine presence, which is God’s gift to us entirely.  Thus the process of Benedict’s own monastic conversion is almost complete – very little needs to be done after this, and the vision itself is a signal that his own purification is nearing perfection.

And before Benedict dies, Gregory reminds us of a salient point:

“I don’t want you to miss the fact that among the many miracles that made him famous, the man of God’s teaching also flashed forth brilliantly.  For he wrote a Rule for monks that was outstanding for its discretion and limpid in its diction.  If anyone wants to examine his life and customs more closely, they can find in the same Rule all that he modelled by his conduct.  For the holy man could in no way teach other than he lived”.

Dialogues II.XXXVI, St Gregory the Great

And that exquisite phrase – he could in no way teach other than he lived – has become a signal description for St Benedict and the benchmark for all who have come after him and would seek to be teachers: example of life is the first way in which we invite others to follow.  It indicates further that our discipleship and Gospel living is specifically about bringing the many parts of ourselves into a whole – the harmony which Benedict has achieved in the wonderful marriage of interior self and exterior self, where the one mirrors the other, is the fullness of personhood, surely, the fullness of our being restored to the image and likeness of the One who created us and which defines us.

St Benedict’s feast day is celebrated on 11th July, and his death and passing from this life (the feast of the Transitus of St Benedict) on the 21st March.

Should you wish to read Gregory the Great’s account of Benedict’s life it can be found in translation with an accompanying commentary:

Terence Kardong osb, The Life of St Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary (Liturgical Press, 2009)

-Part of our ‘The Holy Rule of St Benedict’ series-

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