St. Benedict Biography

St. Benedict was the founder of the celebrated Benedictine order.  His is the most illustrious name in the early history of Western monasticism.  To him, more than to any other, the monastic system, which was destined to exercise such an influence for centuries, owes its extension and organization.


Benedict was born at Norcia in Umbria about the year 480.  He belonged to an old Italian family, and was early sent to Rome to be educated.  The disorder and vices of the capital drove him into solitude while still a youth.  It was a time of public peril and social ruin. The Roman Empire was crumbling to pieces, shaken by the successive inroads of Barbarians, and a prey to every species of violence and corruption.  Young Benedict fled from the wickedness around him and gave up his literary studies and preferred to be wisely ignorant.

When Benedict fled from Rome he took refuge in a solitary gorge formed by the Anio, in its picturesque course, about 40 miles from the city.  There, in a dark inaccessible grotto near Subiaco, he found seclusion and shelter.  After spending about three years in retirement, a neighboring convent of monks insisted upon choosing him as their head.  He warned them of the severity of the rule he would be bound to exercise, but they would not be dissuaded from their purpose.  He had hardly commenced his office, however, when they broke out into fierce resentment against him, and attempted to poison him.  The cup containing the poison was no sooner taken into the hands of Benedict than it burst asunder; and, calmly reproving them for their ingratitude, he left them and withdrew once more into his solitude.

By this time, however, the fame of Benedict had spread, and it was impossible for him to remain inactive.  Multitudes gathered around him, and no fewer than twelve select cloisters were planted in the lonely valley of the Anio and on the adjacent heights.  Young Patricians from Rome and elsewhere were attracted to these fraternities, amongst them one of the name of Maurus (St. Maur) who began to share in popular esteem something of the sanctity and miraculous endowments of Benedict, and who was destined to be his successor.

The Feast of Saint Benedict is celebrated on March 21.

 

After a time, Benedict journeyed southwards and settled at Monte Cassino, an isolated and picturesque hill near the source of the Liris.  There at this time an ancient temple of Apollo still stood, to which the ignorant peasants brought their offerings.  Benedict, in his holy enthusiasm, proceeded to demolish the temple and to erect in its place two oratories, one to St. John the Baptist and the other to St. Martin, whose ascetic fame had traveled to Italy from the south of Gaul.  Around these sacred spots gradually rose the famous monastery that was destined to carry the name of its founder through the Christian world and to give its laws "to almost the whole of Western monasticism."

Benedict survived fourteen years after he began this great work.  His sanctity and influence grew with his years, in illustration of which it is told how the Barbarian King Totila, who made himself master of Rome and Italy, sought his presence, and, prostrating himself at his feet, accepted a rebuke for his cruelties, departing a humbler and better man.

Benedict’s last days were associated with the love and devotion of his sister Scholastica, who too had forsaken the world and given herself to religious life.  She had established a nunnery near Monte Cassino, but the rules of the order permitted the brother and sister to meet only once a year.  Benedict had come to pay his accustomed visit.  He and Scholastica had spent the day in devout converse, and, in the fullness of her affection, Scholastica entreated him to remain, and "speak of the joys of heaven till the morning." Benedict was not to be prevailed upon, but when his sister burst into a flood of tears and bowed her head in prayer, the heavens became overcast, thunder was heard, and the rain fell in torrents, so that it was impossible for Benedict to depart for the night, which was spent in spiritual exercises.

Three days later Benedict saw in vision the soul of his sister entering heaven, and a few days afterward his own summons came.  He died on his feet in the original chapel at Monte Cassino.  The death of Saint Benedict came in AD 547.

The Feast of Saint Benedict is celebrated on March 21.