In the early sixth century, what had been the Western Roman Empire is in turmoil. In France and Germany, the Franks arebeating off related tribes to establish dominance. Italy is ruled by the Ostrogoth, Theodoric, under a treaty with the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Only Ostrogoths can serve in the military; as balance, only Romans can serve in the machinery of government. On Theodoric’s death in 526, this stability breaks down. War between his successors and the Eastern Roman Empire sees Italy return to Roman rule for a brief period, before later being progressively lost to the Lombards.
Against this backdrop, a young nobleman, a Roman, abandons his studies and leaves Rome in search of a virtuous life. After three years as a hermit, he is asked to become abbott of a monastery in the neighbourhood. He goes on to found 12 monasteries, and eventually the foundation at Monte Casino, where he remains for the rest of his life. At Monte Casino, he writes what he calls ‘a little rule for beginners’. This rule is designed to give his motley collection of serfs, scholars, shepherds, and wealthy scions of nobility a common-sense set of instructions for finding God in the ordinary circumstances of daily life.
1400 years later, the Rule of St Benedict still guides monastics and lay people.
Benedict envisioned a balanced life of prayer and work as the ideal. Monastics would spend time in prayer so as to discover why they’re working, and would spend time in work so that good order and harmony would prevail in the monastery. Benedictines should not be consumed by work, nor should they spend so much time in prayer that responsibilities are neglected. According to Benedict, all things—eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working, and praying—should be done in moderation. In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sister Joan Chittister writes that in Benedict’s Rule, “All must be given its due, but only its due. There should be something of everything and not too much of anything.”
Benedict stressed the importance of work as the great equalizer. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest, from the least educated to the most educated, was to engage in manual labor—a revolutionary idea for sixth-century Roman culture. Prayer, in a Benedictine monastery, was to consist of the opus Dei (the work of God—Psalms recited in common) and lectio (the reflective reading of Scripture whereby God’s word becomes the center of the monastic’s life). Prayer was marked by regularity and fidelity, not mood or convenience. In Benedict’s supremely realistic way, the spiritual life was something to be worked at, not merely hoped for. [Sr Jane Michelle McClure OSB]
The Benedictine rule emphasises the importance of community life (with the three vows of stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life – particularly the rhythms of work and prayer – and obedience), hospitality, and stewardship.
My parish priest is fond of pointing out that St Benedict’s ideal of prayer was to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day – twice in the prayers of the daily office, and once at Mass.