Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Rule of Saint Benedict,
and How the Man of God Set all in Order

The great defect in the monastic life of the West before the time of St. Benedict was the want of unity. The Eastern Rule, not being adapted to the needs of a colder climate, was only partially kept, and each head of a religious house governed according to his own ideas. Some undertook too much, and, growing weary of a life of excessive austerity, cast away all restraint; whilst others allowed themselves so much liberty that they did small honour to their religious profession. Law and order in the monastic life were needed, and they were given to the world in the Rule of St. Benedict.

The Father of Western monasticism, as he has been called, had had a long experience of human nature; he knew its strength and its weakness, its aspirations, and its needs. He himself had practised great austerities in his cave at Subiaco, but he had realized that such a life was for the few rather than for the many. And the religious life, as he had dreamed of it, was to be for all, for every class of mind and for every degree of learning, for the educated and for the ignorant, for sinners and for Saints. So with the wisdom that comes of experience and the understanding that comes of sympathy, he set to work to compile his Rule, the principles of which he had already put into practice in his government of the monasteries of Subiaco.

The monastery was to be, above all, a family; there was to be no distinction of rank or condition. No man of noble birth was to be preferred, on that account, before one who had been a slave; the sole distinction was to be personal merit. At the head of all, as father of the family, was the Abbot. To him all owed respect and obedience, an obedience that was to be prompt, cheerful, and unquestioning. He was to act as a true father, gentle with the weak, stern towards the rebellious, just towards all, ruling as the representative of Christ, rather by love than by fear. Chosen by the common consent of the monks, he was to be chaste, sober, and merciful. He was to act with prudence when correcting those beneath him, remembering that he, too, was human and subject to the frailties of human nature. He was to rule so that the strong might still have something to strive for, and the weak might have nothing to fear.

There were to be no excessive austerities; humility and obedience were to be the service of the Benedictine monk, and by the practice of these virtues he was to offer himself a living sacrifice to his God. The cloister was to be a school of useful workers, whose labours were sanctified by prayer; the bodies of the monks were to be kept healthy, that they might be more fit for both.

The long tunic and hood which formed the monastic dress were the ordinary working clothes of the people. Cleanliness was to be observed by all, and to be provided for by the authorities. The food, though simple, was to be sufficient to sustain the strength of men who were hard workers, for the life of the monks was one of labour, and they ate their bread literally in the sweat of their brow.

Idleness, as St. Benedict well knew, is the enemy of all good, and in the monastery there was work for all. Reading, study, manual labour, succeeded each other at regular intervals; the monks were in turn preachers, writers, historians, husbandmen, and workmen, as each had capacity. Even the infirm and the sick were to be encouraged to undertake some occupation adapted to their strength, that none, being idle, might fall an easy prey to temptation. Yet to the sick all tenderness was to be shown. "Let them be served in very deed as Christ Himself," says St. Benedict; and everything was to be done to make them contented and happy.

There was to be no "mine and thine" in the monastery, for everything was to be in common, and all that was necessary for the brethren was to come to them through the hands of the Abbot.

The great spiritual centre of monastic life was to be the public prayer in common, the recitation of the Divine Office, which was to be the fruitful source of strength, zeal, and inspiration. The day was so planned that work and prayer succeeded each other; but if the prayer was to be the "Work of God," the work was to be also a prayer.

No novice was received in the monastery until his virtue and perseverance had been put to the test. If, after having been two months in the house he was considered a suitable subject, the Rule was read to him. "Here is the law under which you desire to fight," they then said to him: "If you can keep it, remain; if not, you are free to depart."

It belonged to the Abbot to arrange that each one should have the work that was best suited to his abilities, and as everything used in the monastery was made by the monks, there was scope for every talent. Each department was under the care of a competent overseer who was responsible for everything that concerned it. That the monks were excellent workmen and husbandmen few people will dispute. They came to a bare and barren country and made it blossom like the rose. Mark the poet draws a picture of their work at Cassino in a poem, where he makes the mountain thank the Saint for all that he has done for it. "Thou changest the desert lands into smiling gardens, and coverest the barren mountain with fruitful shoots, and the rock marvels at the wheat crops and the fruits that are not its own, and the wood becomes green with waving apple-trees."

There are writers of the present day who are careful to point out to us how far from unworldly was the eagerness of the monks to select the most beautiful spots wherein to build their monasteries. The true state of things was very different. It was more often than not on the barest and most barren land that they settled, and in the sweat of their brow that they tilled the land and made it fruitful. In the days when slavery lay like a curse upon Europe and labour was considered a disgrace, Benedict the patrician, with Placid and Maurus and others of the noblest of the families of Rome, went forth to labour side by side with the son of the slave. "Let him that is the greatest among you be your servant," said their Master, and in the monastery that precept was obeyed.

But it is not only in the fertility of the land that the work of the monks has survived. By their patient labour in the scriptorium were preserved and handed down to future generations the treasures of classical literature and the only histories of the time that we possess. The Holy Scriptures, the works of the Fathers of the Church and many others, would have been lost to the world had it not been for their diligence; and it is from their chronicles chiefly that our knowledge of the Saints is drawn.

Many of the monks, by the Abbot's orders, devoted themselves to study, for among other things the monastery was a school. Boys and youths, as was the case with Maurus and Placid, were received into the house and educated, either for the religious life or for a worldly career. Teachers had to be provided for the young pupils, that they might learn to read and write, to interpret and to transcribe. Grammars and textbooks had to be compiled for their use, and multiplied by copying.

It was the custom in those days for parents to dedicate their children while still in early youth to the religious life. As the little Samuel was dedicated to the service of God by his pious mother, so did these good people bring their sons to the monastery. The little neophytes were offered before the altar; the sacred corporal was wrapped round their baby hands, and they became from henceforth one of the religious family. These infant novices brought an element of youthful gaiety into the monastery, they were brought up and instructed by the elder brethren, and they usually made good and fervent monks. They were the children of the house; around it clustered all the sweetest memories of their early days; the Abbot was their father, the brethren their family.

St. Boniface, the Apostle of Germany, became a monk at five years old, our own St. Bede at seven. This was the age at which the little oblates began their education. Their first lesson book was the Psalter, which, as soon as they could read, they learnt by heart. Grammar followed, with the study of the Latin tongue and literature, not so difficult to them, since it was their native language. At fourteen those who were dedicated to the religious life began the studies necessary for a monk; while those who were destined for the world entered on their secular career. For the former, natural taste and capacity were taken into account. The higher education might consist of theology, medicine, mathematics, painting or music, sculpture or wood carving, while transcription was the most common study of all. Those of the monks who had no "book-learning" were trained in manual labour; but all lent a hand in the cultivation of the monastery lands.

The care of guests and pilgrims was entrusted to monks of tried virtue. They were to treat the guests who came to the monastery as if they were Christ Himself, remembering that He had said, "I was a stranger and ye took Me in." On their arrival their feet were washed by the Abbot, who took his meals with them and showed them every courtesy. The poor were to be treated with no less honour than the rich, since they were the especial representatives of Christ.

In the time of St. Benedict a continual stream of guests passed backwards and forwards from Monte Cassino. Abbots of other religious houses came to seek his counsel; nobles and Bishops came to see the quiet, strong, peace-loving man who by his wisdom and keen power of sympathy had become the centre of the lives and interests of all around him. The poor and the destitute came to him for succour in their distress, the sinful and sorrowful for spiritual help. And all these, going their different ways in the world, spread abroad the fame of the holiness of the monks and the peace of the monastic life, which seemed to them like a foretaste of the peace of Paradise. And men who were weary of the world, with its sin, its turmoil and unrest, hearing of this oasis in the desert, came to offer themselves to Benedict as disciples, that they, too, might learn the way of peace. Even the barbarians, as we shall see later, felt themselves strangely attracted by they knew not what of unearthly magnetism, and in the presence of Benedict laid aside their savagery and became meek as little children. They were rough and unlearned, but their strong natures were capable of receiving the Christian faith. For "paganism, vanquished by the Cross, the subduer of the world, did not surrender itself to the discretion of a proud conqueror; it surrendered to Christ, who was meek and humble of heart."