This Saturday 11 July marks the feast day of St Benedict of Nursia, who holds the unique position of being universally admired both in and outside of Christian circles for his ideas on discipline, wisdom and community.
He founded twelve monastic communities at Subiaco, Italy and today is regarded as the founder of Western monasticism and is a patron saint of Europe.
Born around 480 AD, St Benedict was a nobleman who lived during the collapse of the Roman Empire.
‘Benedict comes along at a time when the Roman empire was breaking up,’ says Rev. Prof. Austin Cooper OMI, Senior Fellow of Catholic Theological College and member of the Department of Church History and the Department of Pastoral and General Studies.
‘There was no sense of the power or protection of government, and people wanted local leaders. He was not a political answer to a political problem, but he did offer people a way of life in a disintegrating social environment,’ says Fr Austin.
Arguably St Benedict’s greatest legacy is the Rule of Saint Benedict, the set of rules he gave his monks, which later became one of the most influential works shaping medieval Europe. The Rule champions values of balance, discipline and moderation.
St Benedict’s Rule organised the day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, reading, and labour. His rules also include clear instructions on hospitality, diet, and kitchen duty.
The Benedictine motto is Ora et labora (pray and work), reflecting Benedict’s view that monastic contemplation and work were an inseparable pair.
‘The Rule is something every Christian can draw something from,’ says Fr Austin.
‘As we start to read the Rule, it calls to mind the image of the prodigal son; of the love of God coming to each one of us, regardless of how unimportant or sinful one might feel. There’s a warm welcome for us. God is always welcoming us home. For Benedict, this life is a process of constantly returning to God.’
‘And we don’t do this once and for all, this is something we need to be constantly working at.’
‘We come back by listening to God’s word and reciting the divine office, that is, the Psalms. Even if you don’t have time, most people can say some prayers every day. St Benedict would say it’s a daily occupation, seeing how we can be open to the faith, hope and love that God pours into our hearts.’
Through his gentle discipline in directing people back to God, St Benedict has become emblematic of quiet perseverance.
‘He encourages us to stick at it, not just giving up. It’s a call to today’s Christians to being open to God each day, even if it’s just five minutes. And as we do this, we become more tolerant, much more patient, much more loving with the people around us.’
Fr Austin explains there’s still a great respect for The Rule of St Benedict. ‘Coming out of it is a great sense of balance – we need time for God, we need time for work and we need time for recreation. The more you go into it the more it sounds very humane, wise and sensible. And anybody who adapted it for their own life would become more balanced, sensible and likeable people,’ he says.
Especially when set against the backdrop of global disruption, whether that be a global pandemic or the collapse of the Roman Empire, there’s something attractive about a life of structure and harmony.
‘The structure and the process. That’s what Benedict would be on about: not about the great success of the end goal, but faithful to the process of human development. A balanced life.’