Today is the feast day for Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. 1500 years after his death, Benedict will be celebrated in churches around the world today (and remembered again in almost every intro to Western Civ course this fall). Not bad for a college drop-out who wanted to live in a cave.
Early in the 6th century, when the Roman Empire faced attacks from without and discontent from within, there came a point when most people knew that things had to change but no one was certain what would come next.It was a moment in history not unlike our own. About that time, a middle-class young Italian named Benedict left his home in Nursia to go to school in Rome only to find that the Empire which had been centered there was almost completely gone. In a moment of clarity, Benedict saw that the system of education which had been designed to prepare him for a world that was passing away could only lead to a dead end. While it could teach what had worked in the past, the system did not have the resources to present a way forward. A different kind of school was needed. Benedict went to a cave, built himself a prayer cell, and so enrolled in the university of the world-to-come.
What came of his studies was a short document called The Rule of Saint Benedict. It was originally written to serve a few communities in Italy and might have easily been lost, as hundreds of documents like it no doubt were. But it wasn’t. Instead, it became a spiritual classic and one of the most important texts in Western civilization.
The power of Benedict’s Rule was this: in a world that was falling apart, it gave structure to small communities of faith that could experiment in a new kind of community. It did not aim to restore Rome to its former glory or even to reform the church. The Rule simply offered people a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Rule guided communities that existed as points of light in a sea of dark despair. By some estimates, it was the monks who saved civilization. At the very least, they established hospitals and sowed the seeds of democracy in Western culture.
As we celebrate Benedict today, here’s a little video on his witness–and why we need it today.