Perhaps no other theologian or church reformer has affected Christian monasticism as much as Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547). What we know of St. Benedict primarily comes from the pope-saint, Gregory I, who wrote his Dialogues near the end of the 6th century. Although the Dialogues contain little to no dates, and folklore and legend have a heavy presence in the text, St. Gregory’s account of Benedict’s life is generally considered to be factual. According to St. Gregory, Benedict of Nursia had quite an interesting life.
St. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble. He received an early education at Nursia, but obtained higher and fuller schooling in the city of Rome. Sometime after completing his education, Benedict fled the city and its luxurious lifestyle. Forsaking his noble birth, St. Benedict withdrew to the countryside and eventually became a hermit, living somewhere near modern Affile and the foothills of Abruzzi. There, he gained a lofty reputation as a miracle healer and as a generally pious person.
Drawn by the hermit’s reputation, local monks approached St. Benedict and begged him to become their abbot. The monks managed to convince St. Benedict, so the hermit returned with the monks to lead the monastery. The local monks, however, soon began to regret St. Benedict’s presence. Benedict did not just want to continue the monastic status quo—the man was a revolutionary who demanded more discipline and piety in his monastery. Yet, the monks, many of whom were former nobles like Benedict, did not appreciate their new abbot’s strict rules.
Eventually, the unhappy grumblings of the monks devolved into murderous plotting. According to the ancient sources about Benedict’s life, the monks may have attempted to end their abbot’s life in two ways. They apparently poisoned Benedict’s bread and then his wine, with the wine attempt being the most spectacular—according to the story, St. Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine and the cup shattered, spilling its contents on the floor. Whether by luck, by God or by caution and cunning, St. Benedict survived the assassination attempts carried out by his ungrateful charges.
When St. Benedict learned that the monks of his monastery were trying to kill him, he resigned as abbot and returned to his life as a hermit. The saint, however, did not remain in isolation for long. As more and more disciples flocked to St. Benedict, he was convinced to try his hand at monasticism, once more. He founded twelve monasteries and imposed on them his Rule of St. Benedict. Now, he is considered the father of Western monasticism and was even declared the patron saint of Europe in 1964, by Pope Paul VI.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.