More than 1,500 years ago, a wealthy young man named
Benedict of Nursia left the nightclubs and vices of Rome for the rugged
mountains of the countryside. He left to seek what was meaningful, true and
enduring. He left to seek God.
Benedict settled alone in a tiny cave near Subiaco, about 30
miles outside of Rome. There, he entered into a life that was profoundly
counter-cultural for its silence, simplicity and seclusion. Benedict relished
it! Finally, he could think in peace. He could pray as long and as deeply as he
wished without interruption. He could reflect on what he observed and felt.
But Benedict's peace was to be compromised. Known now as a
wise man, people began arriving at his cave asking for guidance in their own
spiritual quests. They asked him to mentor their journeys.
Somewhat regretfully, Benedict began to understand God was
calling him to something new. God was calling him to be with others who shared
his desire to seek the Divine. God was calling him out of solitude and into
The Birth of Western Monasticism
Benedict established 12 small monasteries around Subiaco
before relocating to Monte Cristo (shown above) in about 525. Once there, he established the
monastery he would live in for the rest of his life (while his twin sister,
Scholastica, established a monastery for women nearby). Benedict also wrote his
, a work that would help define, inspire and guide monastics for the next
The Rule made it clear that the sole objective of
monasticism was to seek God. Other orders may form for missionary and
ministerial purposes, but monastics were to come together to form stable
communities of seekers. All work they would perform would be in service to this
The Rule also humanized the severe asceticism of the earlier
Eastern monastics. Rather than commit themselves to a life of deprivation,
mortification and discomfort, the Rule of Benedict urged compassion and service
to one another, along with such comforts as a full night's sleep, warm clothing
and sufficient food for each monk. Indeed, Benedict's vision was to create a
peaceful, supportive, loving family of equals.
Benedict's model caught on, and Benedictine monasticism
became the norm throughout the west. By the beginning of the 14th
Century, the Order of St. Benedict had grown to include an estimated 37,000
monasteries! Still Thriving Today
A story from Sr. Joan Chittister's book, "The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages,"
offers a clue to why a 1,500-year-old
religious order still is thrives today: Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, "Holy One,
is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?"
And the Holy One answered, "As little as you can do to
make the sun rise in the morning."
"Then of what use," the surprised disciple asked, "are
the spiritual exercises you prescribe?"
"To make sure," the elder said, "that you are not asleep
when the sun begins to rise."
Benedict's monasticism was founded on one simple precept: to
aid monks in their search for God. He wrote: Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and
attend to them with the ear of your heart. ... In drawing up its regulations, we
hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned,
however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to
safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the
road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. ... Your
way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must
come before all else.
The Rule stresses listening to one another, listening to
God. It urges gentleness and humanity, a lack of hierarchy, an indistinction
between rich and poor. It mandates that "all be received as Christ." And it
specifies monastery regulations, although nothing harsh, nothing burdensome
As Sr. Joan hints in her story, Benedictine
spirituality is really about helping one another - through life in community,
daily communal prayer, meals and leisure - to be awake when the sun begins to
rise. To be able, as Benedict wrote, to open our eyes to the light that
comes from God, and our ears to the voice from the heavens