When you ask our students who we are they reply, “Benedictine”. That’s the name on our website, on our shirts, on our signs, and in our hearts. But what is the history behind our name. Recently I gave an informative speech in my speech class and as I was trying to find a topic to speak about I realized that while we Benedictine students know that’s the name of the school we go to, do we really know who we are named after and why?
Most of us can say that we are named after Saint Benedict; Benedict, Benedictine we can see the resemblance. Most of us can also say that he was a monk and that the monks that live across the street at Procopious Abbey are Benedictine monks, or monks that follow the order of Saint Benedict. A few of us, when asked about something Benedict did can say he wrote the book called the, “Rule of Saint Benedict” but what else did he do, where did he live, how did he become a monk, and why is he so special that we have monks who follow his teachings and a whole University named after him?
Most of the information we have on Saint Benedict comes from Gregory the Great’s book called the, “Dialogues”, and from Saint Benedict’s the, “Rule of Saint Benedict”. From these two books and what we know about the time that Saint Benedict lived scholars have pieced together his life.
Saint Benedict was born at the end of the third century in the year c. 480 in Nursia, what is now Norcia in the region of central Italy called Umbria. He was born into a Roman noble family. He had a twin sister named Scholastica, or better known as Saint Scholastica. Because Saint Benedict was born into a wealthy family he was sent to Rome to study. During that time he saw his fellow students fall into “evil” lives. Seeing this, Benedict realized he wanted a life with God. So, at the age of twenty, Benedict left behind Rome, his studies, and in doing so his father’s money. He traveled to Enfide now Affile in the province of Rome in Italy. According to Saint Gregory the Great’s “Dialogues” we learn that while staying at a village Saint Benedict performed a miracle; mending a broken sieve. Because of this he gained a lot of attention from the villagers which is something he did not want. Saint Benedict wanted to go somewhere alone. He traveled up into the mountains of Subiaco where he met a monk called Romanus who spoke with him about his journey and gave him the monk’s habit. Saint Benedict told Romanus how he wished for solitude so Romanus advised Saint Benedict to become a hermit. Following Romanus’ advice, Saint Benedict lived in a cave as a hermit for three years. For a long time he lived undisturbed and unknown to others aside from Romanus who would bring Benedict bread to eat. According to Pope Gregory, the first person to visit Benedict aside from Romanus was a priest who had a mystical experience. He heard a voice say to him as he made his meal, of how His (God’s) servant (Benedict) was hungry while the priest mad his meal. So the priest set out to find Benedict. That was the first visit. The next visit we known about is some shepherds who thought Benedict was a wild animal on account of his animal hair robe. From then on there are many accounts of people bringing Benedict food, if he would accept it and listen to his teaching and advice.
Nearby Saint Benedict’s cave there was a group of monks whose Abbot had recently died. The monks approached Benedict pleading with him to take the position. At first Benedict refused saying that his ways and the monk’s ways were too different. After much begging he finally went with the monks and became their abbot. But just as Benedict said their ideas on monastic discipline were too different. Benedict instituted a strict discipline that did not work with the monks’ s previous relaxed ways. The monks grew to despise Benedict and in an attempt to get rid of him they poisoned his wine. When Saint Benedict made the sign of the cross over the cup it shattered. Benedict immediately knew what the monks had tried to do and told them to find another Abbot that they would like. He then left to go back to his cave. But the knowledge of his holiness and wisdom followed him and solitude was no longer an option.
Saint Benedict had been fostering an idea to create a single great religious order that brought together monks and those that wished to escape from the material obsessed world. So over the next few years Benedict created twelve monasteries around Subiaco. He set it up so that each monastery had their own prior but Benedict had general control over them.
At first the monks did not have any set rules although it is believed that they may have followed the Eastern Rule of Saint Basil and from one record found, saint Benedict’s deeds. This may have been the start of where the, “Rule of Saint Benedict” came from. According to the Rule saint Benedict wanted to create, “a school for the Lord’s service”
According to Saint Gregory the Great Benedict most notably taught Placidus and Maurus who would later be very important to Benedict. During this time one of Benedict’s accomplishments was to break the old view of monasteries on manual labor. When Romans conquered a people they would make them into slaves and force them to perform menial tasks giving rise to society’s belief that manual labor was degrading and servant’s work. Benedict believed that not only was labor good and honorable but it was spiritually conducive. Thus one of the Benedictines mottos, “to pray is to work” or “ora et labora” was formed.
Saint Benedict stayed in Subiaco until the monasteries were established and permanent. It is believed that a priest named Florentius was jealous of Benedict’s success and tried to undermine his great work. At first he poisoned Benedict’s bread and according to Saint Gregory the Great’s “Dialogues” Benedict knew it was poisoned and told a raven that would come for some food at that time, to take it and put it where no man would find it. The raven did so and then came back for his food. This story is actually illustrated by the statue at the entrance to the second floor of the library in Kindlon. Benedict is holding “The Rule” and a staff in either hand with the raven and bread at his feet. After several more attempts by Florentius to corrupt Benedict’s monks and knowing it was because of himself Benedict left.
He made his new place at Monte Cassino that had been offered to him for use by the father of Placidus. There Benedict created his famous Great Benedictine Monastery which he ruled over as Abbot. Benedict gathered all of the monks under him into one great establishment. It is believed that during this time Benedict wrote his book, “Rule of Saint Benedict”
During his time at Monte Cassino Saint Benedict prophesied many things and performed many miracles. People from all over especially Rome, which was nearby, would come to visit, hear his teachings and wisdom, and ask for his blessing.
In the year 547 Saint Benedict was given a vision of his death. He told his monks to prepare his grave. As soon as it was completed Benedict fell ill with fever and six days from the time of his vision, he asked his fellow monks to support him. They went to the altar where Benedict received the Eucharist for the last time and while praying with his arms lifted to heaven, he died. Benedict died only a little while after his sister Saint Scholastica. An illustration of Benedict’s death can be seen on the fourth floor of the Kindlon building in the chapel near the adoration chapel.
Benedict was canonized as a saint in 1220 by Pope Honorious III. He is the patron saint of many things but most commonly known for: the protection against poison, monks, fever, farmers, schoolchildren, and as the patron saint of Europe.
He is celebrated throughout the world for his creation of Western Monasticism. And because during Saint Benedict’s time it was the fall of Rome many of the towns and villages were left deserted. If not for Saint Benedict and his monks we would not have much of the knowledge and manuscripts of that time. The monks preserved the documents of that era by transcribing them. The monasteries were also places of life and safety for many of the citizens who had lost much in the fall. According to “Western Europe in the Middle Ages” The early middle ages were also known as the, “Benedictine centuries”.
Saint Benedict is much more than a name on a university and his impact stretches far and wide. I hope that by reading this you have a better understanding of just who our namesake is.
“Saint Benedict of Nursia” Catholic Online. Web.
“SAINT BENEDICT ABBOT,FOUNDER OF WESTERN MONASTICISM—480-550 A.D. ” EWTN Online Library. Web
“Benedict of Nursia” Wikipedia. Web
“The Rule of Saint Benedict”
“Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great”