The Rule of the Benedictines, the Black Monks of Europe
The Order of St. Benedict ( Ordo Sancti Benedicti in Latin, abbreviated as OSB), known also as the Benedictines (sometimes referred to as Black Monks, due to the color of their religious habits), is a monastic religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. Strictly speaking, however, the Benedictines do not constitute a single religious order, since each of its monasteries is autonomous. This order consists of monks, lay brothers, and nuns who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.
The fortunes of the Order of St. Benedict may be said to have waxed and wane over the course of its long history. In the centuries after the death of its founder, the order flourished in Europe, and became an important institution in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. As a consequence, its monasteries grew in size and wealth.
Inevitably, its monks grew decadent, leading to its decline later on. The Protestant Reformation during the 16th century dealt a heavy blow to the Benedictines and greatly reduced their numbers. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Benedictine Confederation was established, and serves as the international governing body of the order.
The Order of St. Benedict is named after St. Benedict of Nursia, whom the Benedictines consider to be their founder. Despite the great importance of St. Benedict in the history of Europe and Christianity, it seems that there was little written about him by contemporaries.
Much of what we know about the saint’s life is found in Book II of Pope St. Gregory I’s Dialogues, which is believed to have been written around the end of the 6th century AD, several decades after St. Benedict’s death. According to the author, the information about the saint was obtained from four of St. Benedict’s disciples.
The Life of St. Benedict
St. Benedict was born around 480 AD in Nursia, Italy, to a good family. His parents sent him to be educated in Roman schools. Rome, at that time, was decaying and undergoing a process of transformation, from being the imperial city of the caesars to that of the medieval popes.
Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–543), founder of the Benedictines. Detail from a fresco by Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455) in the Friary of San Marco Florence. (Eloquence / Public Domain)
While in Rome, St. Benedict found the depravity of its inhabitants unbearable, and therefore retired first to Enfide (modern Affile) in the Simbruinian hills, and then to a cave in the rocks above Subiaco, in the foothills of the Abruzzi, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the east of Rome. It may be mentioned that the practice of retreating from the world originated in Eastern Christianity and was established several centuries before St. Benedict was born. In any case, the saint lived alone in his cave for three years and was provided with food and monastic garb by Romanus, one of the monks from one of the many monasteries nearby.
Despite his isolation, St. Benedict became renowned for his sanctity and was eventually asked to became an abbot of a monastery. Although St. Benedict tried to reform the monastery, his efforts were resisted, and on one occasion, an attempt was even made to poison him. As a consequence, the saint left the monastery and returned to his cave.
Still, his fame continued to spread, and this time, people came to him and sought to become one of his disciples. As a result, St. Benedict founded 12 monasteries, each with 12 monks, with himself being in overall control.
Unfortunately, St. Benedict had to leave the area, as he was disturbed by the intrigues of a neighboring priest. Nevertheless, the 12 monasteries he founded continued to exist.
The saint traveled southwards and several of his disciples followed him. They settled on the summit of Monte Cassino, a hill to the west of the town of Cassino, which is located about 76 miles (123 kilometers) to the southeast of Rome. It was here, in 529 AD, that St. Benedict established the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which is considered to be the first Benedictine monastery.
The abbey was destroyed and rebuilt several times in its history, which spans about 1,500 years. The last time the abbey was rebuilt was after the Second World War. During the infamous Battle of Monte Cassino, which took place in 1944, the Allies mistakenly suspected that German troops were hiding in the abbey and therefore bombarded the building. In reality, the abbey was sheltering civilians, who had sought refuge in it.
Monte Cassino, home of the Benedictines, in ruins after Allied bombing in February 1944. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2005-0004 / Wittke / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Returning to the story of St. Benedict, the saint is said to have converted the population of the surrounding region from paganism to Christianity as a result of his preaching. Saint Scholastica (the twin sister of St. Benedict, according to tradition), came to Monte Cassino as well, and lived not far from her brother’s abbey as the head of a nunnery.
Tradition states that St. Benedict died on the 21st of March, around 547 AD, and was buried in the abbey he founded. He was later canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1220. In 1964, he was declared as the patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI.
The Benedictines’ Way of Life - The Rule of St. Benedict
The Rule of St. Benedict (Regula Sancti Benedicti in Latin) was written by St. Benedict after the establishment of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 529 AD. The Rule consists of a Prologue and 73 chapters and reflects St. Benedict’s own experiences as a monk and abbot. Additionally, the Rule contains wisdom drawn by St. Benedict from older monastic tradition, especially The Rule of the Master, which was written by anonymously.
The Rule deals with various aspects of monastic life. For instance, in Chapter 1, St. Benedict speaks about the different types of monks, and proceeds to expound the values that an abbot ought to possess in the chapter that follows. In Chapter 4, a list of 73 ‘instruments of good works’ is provided, which may be applied not only to monks, but also to any lay Christian. Chapters 8 to 19 deal with regulations regarding the Divine Office.
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This manuscript, housed in the Bodleian library in Oxford, is a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict. (Aelfgar / Public Domain)
The daily running of worldly affairs in the monastery are also considered in the Rule. For example, the hours when the monks should have their meals are provided in Chapter 41, whereas the quantity of food and drink are dealt with in Chapters 39 and 40 respectively.
It is thanks to his Rule that St. Benedict became regarded to be the founder of the Order of St. Benedict, and even referred to by some as the ‘Father of Western Christian monasticism’. Nevertheless, it may be pointed out that there is no evidence to prove that the saint had any intention to establish a distinct religious order. Moreover, the Rule was written specifically with the monastic community at Monte Cassino in mind.
Less than 50 years after the Abbey of Monte Cassino was founded, it was destroyed by the invading Lombards. As a consequence, the monks fled to Rome and were housed by Pope Pelagius II in a monastery next to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. The monastic community remained there for almost a century and a half, as the abbey was only rebuilt during the 8th century AD.
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The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino. (Halibutt / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Thanks to the presence of the monks in Rome, several copies of the Rule survived in Roman libraries. Additionally, the monks’ residence at the heart of Christendom may have been an important contributing factor to the spread of St. Benedict’s ‘brand’ of monasticism into the rest of Europe. The popularity of Benedictine monasticism also received a boost from Pope St. Gregory I’s Dialogues, which praises both St. Benedict and his Rule.
The Benedictines’ Mission
The first ‘foreign mission’ that the Benedictines in Rome were given was the evangelization of England. The task was given to monastery’s prior, St. Augustine (of Canterbury), who set out for England in 595 AD with 40 companions. St. Augustine and his companions traveled through France and left behind the tradition of Benedictine monasticism in the places they stopped.
It is likely that some copies of the Rule were also left behind by the monks, as Benedictine monasticism seems to have been gradually introduced to the main monasteries of the country during the 7th century AD. St. Augustine and his companions finally arrived in England in 597 AD, and soon after their arrival, established the first Benedictine monastery at Canterbury. This was followed shortly after by the foundation of other monasteries throughout the island.
The Benedictine saints - Bonifatius, Gregorius the Great, Adelbertus of Egmond, and priest Jeroen van Noordwijk. (King of Hearts / Public Domain)
By the early 8th century, English monks could boast that they followed only the Rule of St. Benedict, which made them the first ‘true Benedictines’. It may be mentioned that while Benedictine monasticism was also spreading in France, the abbots there were using the Rule in conjunction with the writings of other monastic fathers.
Benedictine monasticism, however, was destined to supersede the other monastic traditions practiced in Western Europe. As seen in the cases of France and England, old monasteries adopted the Rule at the same time as the establishment of new Benedictine ones. In time, there were hundreds of Benedictine monasteries and thousands of monks spread over a number of different countries, though unified only by the Rule and their allegiance to Rome.
Thus, under the auspices of Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious, reforms began in the Holy Roman Empire with the aim of confederating the empire’s monasteries. In 816/7 AD, a synod of abbots, led by St. Benedict of Aniane, declared that the Rule of St. Benedict was binding for all monks of the Holy Roman Empire, whose territories included modern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, as well as parts of Italy and Austria. Thus, the observance of the monasteries throughout the empire became unified.
Benedict of Aniane (747–821). (Tanja5 / Public Domain)
These reforms of the 9th century AD not only brought unity to the Benedictines, but also greatly enhanced their influence throughout Europe thanks to royal patronage. The Benedictine monasteries greatly benefited from this and became the leading centers of scholarship in the continent, as well as the repositories of literature and learning. It was in the Benedictine monasteries that manuscripts were collected, preserved, and copied by hand.
The Benedictines also amassed great wealth, as they were patronized by the secular elite. The decadence of its monks, due to such worldly wealth, affected the Benedictines negatively and the order began to decline around the middle of the 12th century.
The 13th century saw the establishment of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders, which further reduced the influence of the Benedictines in Western Europe. Nevertheless, the Benedictines still maintained a strong presence in Europe. It is estimated, for instance, that at the beginning of the 14th century, the Benedictines had around 37,000 monasteries.
It was during the 16th century, during the Protestant Reformation, that the Benedictines were dealt a severe blow. The number of monasteries at that time was reduced to around 5,000. In some countries, such as Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden, the order was wiped out entirely by the middle of the century, and the property of the monasteries confiscated by each country’s government.
The monasteries of England suffered the same fate during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, while those in France fell victim to the French Revolution during the 18th century. Still, the Benedictines continued to survive in Catholic countries, and even flourished. In addition, in 1581, the first Benedictine monastery outside Europe was established in Brazil by Portuguese Benedictine monks.
During the 18th century, the Benedictines faced a new threat, as new philosophical and political trends viewed monasticism as inhibiting the progress of society through its backwardness and superstitious beliefs. It is claimed that in the decades after 1760, more than 95% of monasteries in Europe were suppressed by governments or destroyed as a result of wars or revolutions.
Still, Benedictine monasticism could not be destroyed completely, and even experienced a revival during the middle of the 19th century. This revival occurred not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world as well, such as North and South America.
Roman Catholic Benedictine monks singing Vespers on Holy Saturday in Morristown, New Jersey, U.S. (John Stephen Dwyer / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Towards the end of the 19th century, the pope, Leo XIII, sought to bring some sort of unity to these scattered monasteries (like St. Benedict of Aniane more than a millennium before him). Therefore, on the 4th of January 1888, the Benedictine College of Sant’ Anselmo was established on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Five years later, the college became the headquarters of the newly-created Benedictine Confederation.
In addition, the pope created the office of abbot primate, who was to serve as the head of this federation of autonomous congregations. As of 2018, the Benedictine Confederation consists of around 7,500 monks in 400 monasteries, as well as around 13,000 nuns and sisters.
Top image: St. Benedict of the Benedictines receiving Totila, king of the Ostrogoths. Source: Paklao / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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