Feast of St. Benedict, Patron Saint of Europe

St. Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict of Nursia

Today is the Feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the Patron Saints of Europe.  Below is a description of St. Benedict from the Irish Jesuits:

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – c. 547) known as the Father of Western monasticism had a huge influence in his own time and in succeeding centuries. His monks were a source of stability in the highly disordered state of Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the northern tribes (Vandals, Huns, etc.) and laid the ground for the emergence of the cultural wealth of the Renaissance from the 12th century onwards.

Benedict was born about 480, the son of a Roman noble from Nursia (modern Norcia, in Umbria) and it is believed he was a twin of St Scholastica. Little certain is known about his life as the only source is the Second book of Gregory’s Dialogues. It has been described as “the biography of the greatest monk, written by the greatest Pope, himself also a monk”. It is more a spiritual portrait than a factual biography.

Benedict began studies in Rome but left before completing them to become a hermit in Subiaco. Over a period of three years in solitude, Benedict matured both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man. At the same time he became deeply respected by people in the neighborhood, so that when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the monks begged him to be their abbot. Although he did not agree with their lifestyle, he finally accepted. However, it did not work, so much so that the monks tried to poison him and he went back to his hermit’s cave. The legend is that they tried to poison his drink but, when he blessed the cup, it shattered. They then tried to kill him with poisoned bread but, when he blessed it, a raven came and snatched it away. Many other miracles were attributed to him and many people came to him for direction. So he built 12 monasteries each with a superior and 12 monks. He himself lived in a 13th with some whom he thought were more promising. Benedict, however, was the father or abbot of all the groups.

Benedict later for Monte Cassino, near Naples, where he drew up the final version of his Rule. This contained much of the traditional monastic teaching of earlier monks like Cassian, Basil and probably also the so-called Rule of the Master, though much modified by Benedict. His vision was a life characterized by prudence and moderation rather than severe asceticism and lived within a framework of authority, obedience, stability, and community life. ‘Stability’ meant that a monk would generally stay permanently in the monastery which he had joined. It was a way of life which was complete, well-ordered and practical. The monk’s day was taken up with liturgical prayer, complemented by sacred reading and manual work of various kinds which took care of the community’s needs.

Benedict was not a priest and there is no evidence that he intended to found a religious order.  His principal goal and achievement was to write a Rule or way of life. Today’s Order of St Benedict (OSB) is of later origin and not a “religious order”” as commonly understood but rather a confederation of congregations into which the traditionally independent Benedictine abbeys have affiliated themselves for the purpose of representing their mutual interests, without however losing any of their autonomy. Benedict’s own personality is reflected in his description of the kind of person the abbot should be: wise, discreet, flexible, learned in the law of God, but also a spiritual father to his community. Gregory’s Dialogues spoke of him as having second sight and miraculous powers.

Because of its inner qualities and the endorsement it received from secular rulers and other founders of religious institutes, Benedict’s Rule became the standard monastic code in the early Middle Ages. Because of it flexibility, it could be adapted to the different needs of society in different places. In a world of civil turmoil with the break-up of the Roman Empire, it was the monasteries which became centres of learning, agriculture, hospitality, and medicine in a way which Benedict himself could never have imagined.

The best known symbols connected with Benedict are a broken cup (containing poison) and a raven.

Benedict spent the rest of his life realising the ideal of monasticism contained in his rule. He died at Monte Cassino, Italy, according to tradition, on 21 March 547.

He was named patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. His feast day, previously 21 March, was moved in 1969 to 11 July, a date on which his feast had been celebrated in several places.  Together with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) Benedict was declared a Patron of Europe by Pope John Paul II in 1999).

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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2 Responses to Feast of St. Benedict, Patron Saint of Europe

  1. William I had been thinking about Benedict these past several days–I have company coming and I always think of his rule and the importance of hospitality—I thought that perhaps I should explore, more in depth, The Rule in my blog as it is such a wonderful code for life—but you’ve beaten me to it—most delightfully so—thank you for sharing something that people of all faiths may benefit from as it speaks to simply doing the “right thing”—blessings—Julie

    • Julie, thank you for the kind words. You have a keen insight on hospitality and how it was a priority for St. Benedict. I am struck as I have been reading the daily readings the last few weeks how high a priority the ancient Middle East culture placed on hospitality (and as I understand it, still does today). The Irish Jesuits had an interesting comment on that in today’s reflection: “In the Middle East hospitality has always been important. Unfortunately, in our security-conscious urban Western world, it does not flourish. Largely, because of those unnecessary possessions which Jesus would liberate us from.” I know that this is an area where I have a lot of room to improve. I wish you well hosting your guests.

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