Benedict decided to leave Rome. Probably burned out by all the
social chaos, he decided to live the solitary life. However, stray
monks asked Benedict to be their leader, He relented, but evidently
did not endear himself to these monks--and they actually tried to
poison him. Later his monastic efforts took a more positive turn.
Benedict's first established monastery was at Subiaco (in Italy),
and later he founded the world-famous abbey of Monte Casino.
It was here that Benedict penned his Rule. In these monasteries
the Benedictine Tradition began--officially assumed to have
started in 480 c.e.
In these early monasteries Benedict's monks were not what we
might expect. Some of these fellows were rough, illiterate
actually, so the Rule (and its points) oft addressed this situation.
For a long period the Benedictines pretty much concentrated in
Italy. However, eventually Pope Gregory the Great asked a small
party of these monks to establish a mission in Britain. Led by a
monk named Augustine a monastery was eventually established in
Canterbury. Even later a British monk called Boniface took the
Benedictine mission to Germany. And over a few centuries there
were Benedictine houses all over the face of Europe. Indeed, for
nearly a thousand-year period in Europe, from around 500 c.e. to
1500 c.e., historians called this the "Benedictine Age." And in due
course Benedictine monasteries dotted the planet.
Essentially during this early European period the Benedictine
monks became the beacons of a civilization that had faded out
fast after the demise of the Roman Empire. The monks kept it
alive, teaching the peasantry the rudiments of agriculture and
how to establish fisheries. In their scriptoriums the monks
tediously duplicated not only the Bible but also great pagan
works of Hellenistic Civilization. These works were secured by
the monks from the Muslims, who actually had kept these scientific
and philosophical writings safe over the centuries. In time the
Benedictines established schools. There was the inner school,
especially designed for the monks. And eventually the monks
made available outer schools that educated the children of the
aristocracy. Their monasteries were not only beacons, but points
around which towns evolved, Once again the flow of civilization
was moving forward.
And what accounts for the success of the Benedictine Tradition--
especially throughout the so-called Dark Ages before the
Renaissance? From a tangible perspective, the Benedictines
concentrated on "community." They were an experimental
community based on the Rule. The Rule stressed that the
Benedictine monastic community was a "School for the Lord's
Service." It was a school where the individual monk would hone
his soul in relation to the other, in community. There were
elements in this Rule that served this purpose--such as
Obedience, Stability, and Conversio Morum.
Obedience was to the abbot, who represented Christ in his
community. Stability was about faithfully staying true to one's
location, living out one's entire life in the monastery. And
Conversio Morum was about an evolving conversion of
manners, moving ever towards the Christ Life. (These above-
stated elements of the Rule were also supported by a variety of
other elements--all of which I'll address further into my journal.
But Obedience, Stability, and Conversio Morum related directly
to an effective community that provided the environment for the
"School for the Lord's Service." It provided structure towards
becoming more civilized and Christ-centered.
I would like to harken back to the "school" that is part of the
Benedictine Tradition. When new monks move beyond their
novitiate, there's the monastic school that provides a serious
academic education that focuses on their vocation. Of course it
includes Christian theological studies, but surely too the reading
and study of the great spiritual treasures of the Church.
On a daily basis, also, there's Lectio Divina, which originally was
reading a passage from Scripture and then meditating on such,
listening, pondering how its wisdom might touch one in special
ways. Today Lectio can also include other forms of spiritual
readings as well as Scripture.
Incorporated in the Benedictine Tradition is the idea of the
"Love of Learning." Over the centuries this special love has
reached out, even far beyond the monastery walls. In today's
world there are monk-scholars in many corners of academe.
But more often they work in theological schools, learning and
teaching. And what is it that they are trying to learn?
It's about what the monk loves most! God. The major mandate in
the Benedictine Tradition is "To Seek God." But as a seeker
discovers, scholarship only touches the surface when it comes
to seeking God. As the Benedictines long ago discovered, there
are many other avenues of approach.
Two other elements of the Benedictine Tradition are significantly
important. Sometimes they go together, as put Ora et Labora. In
Latin they mean Prayer and Work. The main focus of the
Benedictine monks is what is called Opus Dei. Again, from the
Latin which means the "Work of God," Throughout a given day,
monks come together in choir, singing the Great Prayer, their
Work of God. They sing the Psalms, they chant, they sing this
prayer--and it's their major work as Benedictines!
As for prayer, the Benedictines also have engaged in various
forms of such. These past few decades, too, they have had
exchanges with Buddhist monks. And from the Buddhists, the
Benedictines have moved into the depths of silent prayer.
The Benedictines also work, laboring in many endeavors. In
their early days, through the Middle Ages, more than often they
worked the land. Over time monasteries accrued large land
holdings, from donations mostly. Today Benedictines can be
found selling their products, once marvelous liquers. Now they
mainly run private schools and retreat facilities. They serve as
academics, as spiritual masters providing talks, writing books.
They even design websites--probably a spinoff from their