Today is the feast day of Benedict of Nursia in both the Catholic and Anglican liturgies. Benedict who lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries (i.e. 1500 years ago) is regarded as a father of western monasticism. While we know very little about his life, we do know that he was educated in Rome, abandoned urban life to live as a hermit in a cave some 40 miles or so from Rome (at that time, quite a distance). Eventuallly a community grew up around the hermit, and so he organized these followers into twelve communities — the rudimentary beginnings of the Benedictine order. Eventually he withdrew to Monte Cassino, eighty miles south of Rome, where he established a monastery on the site of a temple to Apollo. That monastery, incidentally, remains active today, even though the abbey was severely damaged in World War II.
Even though I think it’s a bit disingenuous to give Benedict all the credit for western monasticism (after all, Brigid’s monastery in Kildare was said to have been founded about the year 470, a decade before Benedict was born), he is clearly a major figure in the tradition, simply because of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which remains the gold standard of monastic rules. Many branches of the western monastic tree can be traced back to Benedict: the Cistercians arose out of a reform of Benedictine monasticism that began in the year 1098, while the Trappists are a 17th century reform of the Cistercian order. Of course, the Trappists are very dear to me, not only because one of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist, but also because of how my spiritual life has been and continues to be nurtured at the Trappist monastery not far from where I live. So even as a layman living a married life, I find that Saint Benedict reaches across the centuries and touches my ongoing journey of prayer and contemplation. For this I am thankful.
In our day, Benedictine spirituality is more accessible to laypersons than ever before, thanks not only to oblate programs (where laypersons can adopt a rule of life in relation to a particular monastic community, while living an ordinary life) but also to books written specifically for the laity, book which unpack the treasures of the Benedictine way for our time. Here are a few such titles:
- Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict
- Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition
- Esther De Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality
- Eric Dean, Saint Benedict for the Laity
- David Robinson, The Family Cloister: Benedictine Wisdom for the Home