Benedict of Nursia was born in AD 480 just at the time when the Roman Empire was ending and the Middle Ages beginning. That Christianity and learning were kept alive during the troubled millennium between Rome's fall and the Renaissance was something that Benedict played a significant part in.
Benedict was born to a noble family in Nursia, Italy, and had a twin sister, Scholastica. He went to Rome to study but, troubled by the city's immorality, left for the countryside to become a hermit in a life of prayer and solitude. Acquiring a reputation for wisdom and holiness, Benedict was asked to become the leader of a local monastery after the death of its abbot. During his time there, Benedict thought how best to organise monasteries. Benedict left and, aided by followers, founded twelve monastic communities.
Around AD 530, Benedict moved to a hilltop in southern Italy where, after destroying pagan sites, he founded a new monastery at Monte Cassino which, on numerous occasions over subsequent centuries, found itself brutally attacked. Following its destruction at the hands of Allied bombers in 1944, it has now been beautifully restored.
Benedict led the monastery of Monte Cassino for nearly two decades and in this time created his guidelines for monastic life. He died in AD 547 and having acquired a reputation not just for sound management but also for miracles, he was soon declared a saint.
Benedict's importance lies in the directions he offered on how monasteries were to be run. Christian communities, whether monasteries or convents, were already in existence for those who wanted to dedicate themselves to God and be separate from the sinful world. There was, however, no consistent rule on how such communities were to be run and many had become places of chaos, conflict and corruption.
With a combination of deep spirituality and profound realism, Benedict set out how he believed monastic communities should be structured. His guidance was circulated in what has become known as The Rule of Saint Benedict, a series of short chapters on the monastic life. In this work, Benedict offers firm, sensible and gracious guidance that balances an aspiration for deep spirituality with wise rulings on how to manage the practical challenges of communal life. In an age when many Christian communities were pursuing extreme emphases, Benedict offered 'nothing harsh, nothing burdensome'.
There is much that is striking in Benedict's Rule. So, for example, he divided the monks' day into three, with eight hours allotted for sleep, prayer and work. This gave rise to the Benedictine emphasis on Ora et Labora – prayer and work. Another touch of Benedict's wisdom can be seen in how he instituted firm discipline to prevent monks promoting their own agendas. At the same time, he prevented the opposing risk of the community dominating the individual by advocating sensitive and gentle care for each member of the monastery.
The realisation by the church hierarchy that the Rule of Saint Benedict brought order and stability meant that it soon became the governing document for religious communities, whether of men or women, across Western Europe.
One emphasis of Benedict that was to be of lasting benefit was the way he valued the wisdom of both Scripture and the secular world. He set a pattern in which a monastery had a school that educated young boys, a library filled with books and manuscripts, and a 'scriptorium' in which manuscripts were copied by hand. This gave rise to an enduring monastic culture in which knowledge of all kinds was carefully transmitted from generation to generation. The result was that Benedictine monasteries became important places for the preservation of learning, and monasteries in general remained the intellectual centres of Europe for nearly 600 years until the new universities began to take their place.
I think Benedict poses three challenges to us today.
First, Benedict challenges us over living. He believed that Christians were to live their lives for God, whether that was in prayer, work or spiritual reading. He believed that what we call 'our time' is in fact actually given by God to us as a gift to be used wisely.
Second, Benedict challenges us over learning. Instructing his followers to read, memorise and study the Scriptures, he encouraged them to set aside four hours a day for this. In an age where many Christians can manage no more than a few minutes 'quiet time', that's definitely worth considering.
Finally, Benedict challenges us over our legacy. Living at a time when the Christian world around him seemed to be in danger of being overwhelmed, Benedict committed himself to preserve the faith. The result was that, as the floodwaters of chaos and ignorance swept across Europe, the monasteries kept safe from destruction much that was holy and good.
We live in a very different time to Benedict. But as our world seems to turn against Christianity and its culture, he poses a question: how are we to respond to the challenges the church faces today?