Saint Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, in Umbria, a region of Central Italy. While there isn’t extensive biographical information on the life of Benedict, there is a clear and well-defined “spiritual portrait” of this Godly man. He was a compassionate, disciplined abbot, a worker of miracles and respected for his holy way of life. His motto and golden rule? Ora et Labora – pray and work. He believed each day should be divided in this way: eight hours of prayer, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of manual work, sacred reading, and works of charity.
Benedict left home in 500 AD at the age of twenty, abandoning both his literary studies and his carefree, dissolute lifestyle. He was sent to Rome to study and then afterward, was to assume his expected career as a Roman noble. However, he grew unhappy and dissatisfied with life there. Taking with him only his old nurse as a servant, he withdrew to a place of solitude. He met by chance a monk, Romanus of Subiaco, whose influence led Benedict to become a hermit. For three years he lived in a cave beneath the Monastery of Subiaco. Benedict’s cave became known as Sacro Speco (Holy Cave or Grotto of Prayers.) There, forgoing human companionship, he matured in both mind and character.
In time and with reluctance, Benedict agreed to become abbot of a small, neighboring monastery. He knew in his heart that “their manners were diverse from his and therefore, they would never agree together.” Yet they were so insistent, he eventually gave consent. The monks grew to hate Benedict’s regimen with such intensity that they plotted his murder. They offered him a glass of poisoned wine. According to witnesses, when he made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, as was the custom, it shattered, spilling the wine upon the floor. Benedict, for his part, called his monks together and said he forgave them. He reminded them of his own doubts from the beginning. His final words to them were, “Go your ways and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”
Perhaps Benedict was too strict with his first monks or perhaps they were simply unsuited for his leadership. Regardless, years later, Benedict wrote a rule of life that remains a model of monastic moderation. He performed signs and wonders, calling forth water from a rock, raising the dead, and other miracles. Yet it is his rule that earned him the title “Founder of Western Christian Monasticism.” His seventy-three short chapters comprise wisdom of two kinds: spiritual (how to live a Christ-centered life) and administrative (how to run an efficient monastery.) The Rule of Saint Benedict is a balance of practical moderation without compromise. He understood the difficulties inherent in differences of age, capabilities, dispositions and spiritual needs. He said, “In drawing up these regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.” Knowing himself and having suffered throughout his life, he made allowance for weaknesses and failure, as well as mercy for the physically unable.