Monasticism can be traced back to the fourth century and over the centuries there were several attempts to write a Rule by which the lives of monks would be ordered. In the sixth century Benedict took one such Rule by an Italian monk known as the Master and developed it into, as Carolinne White comments, “the gold standard against which all later forms of western monasticism measured themselves.”
Benedict’s birth and early life
Benedict was born in the region of Nursia around 480 and was sent to Rome for his education. Because he was shocked by the liberal nature of life there he chose to withdraw and take the life of solitude in a cave at Subiaco. Monks from a nearby monastery asked Benedict to be their abbot after theirs had died, but they wouldn’t submit to his leadership and tried to poison him. Their efforts failed and Benedict withdrew again.
Before long Benedict attracted more followers and established twelve monasteries in the area, each of twelve monks and an abbot. He moved to Casinum, now known as Monte Cassino, in about 530 and founded a new monastery on the site of a pagan temple to Apollo. It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict wrote the Rule.
The Rule of Benedict
As Esther de Waal describes, “[The Rule] is clearly set out, divided into seventy-three chapters, which look in turn at all the essentials of worship, work, study, hospitality, authority, possessions demanded by a life lived out in community following the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum.” Conversatio morum means continuing fidelity to the monastic life. Obedience was to each other, to the abbot, to the Rule and to God. By obedience they were accountable to the other monks and to the abbot.
The life of a monk under the Rule consisted of opus Dei, the work of God, which was communal times of prayer at regular hours or offices during the day; communal work, typically linked to agriculture and studying Scripture, or lectio divina. The Rule prescribed eight offices a day which consisted of singing Psalms, readings from Scripture and prayer. Columba Stewart remarks that “Benedict expected his monks to spend up to three hours a day in lectio.” There was also time for private prayer either at work or in the oratory.
Monks were not allowed to keep their own possessions but all their needs were provided for by the community. The monks took it in turns to perform the duties in the monastery, although in some monasteries certain monks were allowed to specialise, for example being in the choir.
Stewart goes on to say that “Two fundamental insights govern all that Benedict writes of the monastic life, … the divine presence is everywhere, and Christ is to be met in other people.” The Rule instructed Benedictines to serve the sick as if serving Christ, to show humility to guests as if they were before Christ and to welcome guests with hospitality as if welcoming Christ.
Was this, is this, a reasonable way to serve God in the world?
Monks joining a monastery felt a call to live in community with others seeking to serve God in this way. Gerald Sittser states that “The goal of his [Benedict’s] monasteries was to help facilitate the restoration of the image of God in sinful humans.” By living together and sharing the ascetic life Benedict believed the community would serve God and help each other. Stewart says “The genius of Benedict was to situate the individual search for God within a communal context that shaped as well as supported the quest.”
This was also the example of the early church, who “…were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” The main difference was that Benedictine monasteries were single sex communities, predominantly male, although there were and are Benedictine orders for women, as opposed to the early church communities which were in the context of family units.
Seeing Christ in others echoes Jesus’ words from Matthew 25, “’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ … ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Sharing life in community with others is the way God intended from the beginning. God saw “it is not good that the man should be alone.” Living with others we become aware of our own faults and short comings. If we are prepared to learn from these encounters then we become richer and more rounded people as a result. Living in a closed community such as a monastery brings an added spiritual dimension to these relationships.
Scriptural basis for the Rule
The Rule relies heavily on Scripture taking slightly more from the New Testament than the Old Testament. De Waal estimates over 300 references in total, although as Benedict didn’t provide any Scripture references it is hard to give an exact figure. Benedict’s use of Scripture and the sense and meaning of Scripture certainly adds weight to the Rule. Within the Rule also, the lectio divina or divine reading of Scripture and other works of Christian literature, ensure the monk’s life was steeped in the Word of God; as did the singing of Psalms during the offices.
Stewart quotes Bernard of Monte Cassino writing in the thirteenth century that “in psalmody we speak to God; in lectio God speaks to us through the Scriptures. In the first we ask him about things; in the second, we understand his answer.” This desire to know God, to follow him and more importantly to be changed by him is one of the blessings of following the Rule. Throughout Scripture God yearns to be in such a relationship with his people. It is a recurring theme through the Old and New Testaments.
Stability and humility
Benedict’s emphasis on stability and fidelity to the monastic life was a good remedy to coping with life in a changing world and the affliction known as accidie. This is where the days seem to drag and the monk yearns for a different life because anything would be better than this. The longest chapter in the Rule is on humility, a trait which is not highly regarded in our time, but which helps the monk to serve those he comes into contact with. Benedict saw humility in this life as a way to ascend to heaven in the next.
The missionary work of monasticism
Gregory tells of a village near the monastery at Monte Cassino where Benedict and his monks converted a large number of inhabitants. Indeed much of England and northern Europe was evangelised by monks from Benedictine monasteries. The traditional view is that both Pope Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury, who Gregory had sent as a missionary to England, were Benedictine monks.  Augustine is known as the “Apostle to the English” for bringing Christianity to England, and monks from Benedictine monasteries continued to evangelise the rest of England where they met with Celtic Monasticism which had been successful in Scotland and northern England.
Sittser describes how “Benedictine monasticism excelled in doing missionary work. Monks developed an effective method of Christianising tribal groups that had invaded Europe. They would travel to some remote corner of Europe, build a monastery there, make contact with local tribal groups, learn the language and over time introduce them to the Christian faith.” So the mission of the monasteries was not just a personal walk with God but also life changing to their neighbours.
The influence of monasticism in society
As the need for missionary work diminished, some monasteries became centres of education and academic study. Monks from a privileged background would prefer study to manual labour and it couldn’t be presumed that monks from poorer backgrounds could read and write so education became important. According to Anthony Meisel and M. L. del Mastro monasteries were influential in “theology, philosophy, art, architecture, music, science, history – all were marked and some were reshaped by the contributions of the monks.”
As monasteries prospered they became wealthy landowners and abbots would become important figures in local politics. Bishops, writers and artists came from monasteries and de Waal notes that “In the Middle Ages half of the cathedrals in England were under Benedictine control.” In agriculture the expertise built up by monasteries over the centuries was shared to the benefit of other farmers. This influence meant that society could be shaped by Christian communities so that they were honouring to God.
However with wealth and power came corruption in some parts. Stewart notes that by the end of the Middle Ages some monasteries had abandoned the daily office and became more interested in worldly power. The influence and status of some abbots meant they had lost their original ascetic life and were more interested in the comforts they enjoyed. As Meisel and del Mastro put it, “they lost the power of the Spirit as they turned to worldly power.”
Some monastic communities tried to reform themselves and return to a stricter interpretation on the Rule. One example is the Cistercian Order which was founded by Robert of Molesme in 1098 with the intent of following the Rule as Benedict would have in his day. In order to serve God they preferred to turn back from the way Benedictine monasticism had developed and put a greater emphasis on manual labour.
Alternative forms of monasticism
Benedictine monasticism had developed from Rome and spread over western and northern Europe. Other forms of monasticism had developed in the Eastern Church and after Patrick had brought Christianity to Ireland a Celtic monasticism had flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries.
George Hunter argues that the Celtic model of monasticism, which was replaced by the Benedictine Rule following the Synods of Whitby in 664 and Autun in 670, was more able to evangelise the different tribal groups of Ireland, Scotland and northern England. They did this by adapting to the cultures of the people groups they met as opposed to bringing in a model from Rome and instructing people on the Roman way of doing things which included worship in Latin rather than in the local language.
Hunter quotes a study by John Finney which came to the conclusion that the Celtic way of mission is more effective in the post modern West than Roman ways such as Benedictine monasticism due to its effectiveness in people having a sense of belonging before they believe.
Benedictine monasticism was a reasonable way to serve God from its beginnings in the sixth century to its height of influence in the twelfth century. The Rule was not excessively arduous to follow and its flexibility meant it was adopted or adapted widely. There are still Benedictine monasteries today attracting men and women who still aspire to follow the Rule set by Benedict. There are also its spiritual heirs like the Taizé Community which has attracted hundreds of thousands of young people from around the world who wish to spend a week sharing the simple life of community in their small village in France or at the annual events in major European cities.
Sittser says “the monastery emerged as a force for good in a world that seemed to be falling apart.” And de Waal adds that the Benedictine moderation in all things is perhaps a good model for those in the twenty first century seeking to lead a life considerate of the diminishing resources in the world caused by consumer society.
T. Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages: and the Beginning of the Modern World (New York: Anchor Books, 2006)
G. G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000)
A. C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro, trans., The Rule of Saint Benedict (New York: Image Book, Doubleday, 1975)
Oblate Spring, ‘Conversatio Morum’, http://oblatespring.com/oblatespring0202conversatio.htm, October 2009
G. L. Sittser, ‘Rhythm’, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007).
C. Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1998)
E. de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1999)
C. White, ed., ‘Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great’, Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998)
Wikipedia, ‘Rule of Saint Benedict’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_Saint_Benedict, October 2009
 Oblate Spring, ‘Conversatio Morum’, http://oblatespring.com/oblatespring0202conversatio.htm, October 2009