St. Benedict of Nursia Essay - Critical Essays

St. Benedict of Nursia


St. Benedict of Nursia c. 480-c. 547

Italian saint and theologian.

Considered the father of Western monasticism, Saint Benedict of Nursia is among the most influential of the early Medieval Christian saints. The founder of the original Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy, Benedict is credited with composing the first true text for monastic rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Written during the decline of the Roman Empire and the nascent era of the Medieval papacy in Rome, the Regula Sancti Benedicti (c. 540; Rule of Saint Benedict) outlines the ideals of life in a religious community of monks. It is known for its emphasis on compassion and spiritual counsel, and for its relative leniency in describing the requirements of monastic life—the precepts of the Rule notably contrast with those of the more austere Eastern monasticism and focus on sanctity, virtue, humility, and obedience rather than on material self-denial. Today the Rule continues to be embraced by the Western monastic community and remains one of the most enduring and studied documents in Christian literature.

Biographical Information

Most of what is known about Benedict's life comes from the second book of St. Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which he devoted entirely to Benedict. According to Gregory, Benedict was born at Nursia, an area in the Sabine hills of central Italy (what is now the province of Umbria) in about 480. Born into a well-to-do family, he was educated at Roman schools in his youth and later, at the age of fourteen, traveled to the imperial capital of Rome to complete his studies. While there, Benedict experienced first-hand the decadence and vice of the waning Roman Empire. Disgusted with what he saw, he left the capital city to join a loosely organized community of religious ascetics at Enfide (now the town of Affile). Finding his life in the Simbrunian hills unsatisfactory, Benedict retreated to a cave some forty miles east of Rome at Subiaco. After three years of living in seclusion, engaged in prayer and introspection broken only by brief contact with a monk named Romanus, he emerged from his cave and accepted the request of the local monks to become abbot of their monastery at Vicovaro. Disharmony and an attempt on his life forced Benedict to return to the cave. Unable to maintain solitude, however, as word of his wisdom and sanctity spread throughout Italy, Benedict, with the assistance of his numerous disciples, formed a conglomeration of small monastic communities at Subiaco. Still persecuted by his more ambitious underlings, Benedict later traveled south and created his famous hilltop monastery, Monte Cassino, above the city of Cassino in the province of Campagna. He resided at Monte Cassino for the remainder of his life as abbot of the monastery. There he probably wrote the majority of his monastic Rule and, according to Gregory, performed many miracles. Among the most famous is one that is said to have occurred during the well-documented visit of the Gothic King Totila to Monte Cassino in 542, for which Benedict reputedly prophesied the King's second sack of Rome and death within the next decade. Benedict is believed to have died at Monte Cassino in about 547. His feast day is celebrated by monks on March 21, the traditionally accepted day of his death, while the Roman Catholic Church has since reserved July 11 as the saint's day.

Major Works

Benedict's only extant literary work is the Regula Sancti Benedicti (Rule of Saint Benedict), his holy rule for monks. A work of somewhat less than 20,000 words composed over several decades, the Rule consists of seventy-three chapters and was originally codified in about 540. The Rule itself is primarily concerned with the spiritual and material life of cenobites—monks who live together in the community of the monastery and observe strict obedience to their abbot. Loosely structured, the document is generally organized by subject matter. It begins with a prologue—probably written after the rest of the Rule was complete—and several chapters which act as a general constitution for the monastery and offer instructions on living a spiritual life. As for political organization, the Rule invests supreme authority over the monastery in the abbot, who is in turn accountable only to the word of God and to the Rule itself. The balance of the Rule details the structure of life at the monastery, including a proper regimen of prayer, study, consumption, and manual labor, as well as correct behavior for monks and punishments for those who fail to meet these requirements. The Rule also includes a considerable discussion of the opus Dei, or "work of God," the liturgy the monks were to recite daily, which has since been given Benedict's name as the Cursus S. Benedicti. Among the most compelling portions of the Rule for critics are those dealing with the monks' spiritual instruction, particularly its seventh chapter, entitled "On Humility." In this chapter, Benedict describes twelve degrees of humility, which he arranges using the common Medieval symbol of the ladder of ascent to heaven. For Benedict, each rung of this ladder represents one aspect of the virtue of humility that the monk must embrace, from his initial fear of God to a vow of silence and a continual awareness of his sinful guilt. Only when the monk has accepted these twelve aspects of humility will he reach the goal of union with God, according to Benedict. In addition to many passages aimed at the spiritual edification of monks, Benedict's Rule also contains a great many mundane or bureaucratic pronouncements designed to assure that the Benedictine monastery runs smoothly and in accordance with the decree of God.

Textual History

Critics believe that Benedict drew on many sources for his Rule. In addition to the Bible and the writings of the great Catholic fathers St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Basil, and others, the Rule of Saint Benedict demonstrates a significant debt to the earlier treatise Regula magistri, or Rule of the Master, as well as to the thought of Abbot John Cassian of Marseilles. Most critics are careful to point out, however, that the work is not a compilation of previous writings. In its original form, the Rule was composed in the lingua vulgaris, or vulgar Latin, the vernacular of Benedict's day, and thus departs in many respects from Classical Latin syntax and grammar. The last seven chapters of the work appear to have been added sometime after Benedict had codified the prior sixty-six, and its prologue was most likely written last. The oldest extant copy is an Old English text that is preserved at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, England, and was probably written by Benedictine monks in Canterbury in the early eighth century. Among the best-preserved manuscripts is a transcription produced one century later at Aachen, Germany. In 1928 Dom Benno Linderbauer produced his critical text of the Rule in Latin, the S. Benedicti Regula monasteriorum, which was considered standard in the first half of the twentieth century, while the latter half of the century has seen a proliferation of commentaries on and translations of the Rule, attesting to its continued significance and interest to the Catholic clergy, laymen, and contemporary scholars.

Critical Reception

Because critics have observed that Benedict borrowed liberally from the Regula magistri and various other sources in composing his Rule, the question of its originality has been a perennial theme of scholarly inquiry. While arguments on both sides of this question continue to be offered, there is critical consensus that, despite Benedict's considerable debt to prior spiritual literature, his Rule reflects a quality of innovation unique in the genre. Benedict himself humbly described the work as "a little rule for beginners," which scholars have since interpreted as a reflection of the deep humility he championed in the document. Overall, commentators have seen the Rule as simply a model of monastic behavior and have warned against extrapolating Benedict's words outside of the context of the monastery. Antoine Vergote is representative of many scholars in arguing that the Rule does not present "a universal, religious human ideal" and in emphasizing its focus on monastic obedience, humility, and self-discovery as a means of human redemption. More recently, critics have pondered whether the Rule should be interpreted literally in modern times; most have observed that Benedict's tendency to embrace the subjective qualities of human nature in the document has contributed to the enduring currency of his Rule and to its continued applicability in modern life.

Principal Works

Regula Sancti Benedicti [Rule of Saint Benedict] c. 540

Principal English Translations

The Rule of Saint Benedict [edited and translated by Justin McCann] 1952

The Rule of Saint Benedict [edited and translated by Cardinal Gasquet] 1966

Households of God: The Rule of Saint Benedict with Explanations for Monks and Lay-People Today [edited and translated by David Parry] 1980

Benedict's Rule: A Translation and Commentary [edited and translated by Terrence G. Kardong] 1996

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Cuthbert Butler (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: "St. Benedict" and "St. Benedict's Idea" in Bendictine Monachism: Studies in Benedictine Life and Rule, Longmans, Green and Co., 1919, pp. 1-10; 23-34.

[In the following excerpt, Butler surveys St. Benedict's life and monastic ideals.]

St Benedict

One morning, in the early spring of the first year of the century, I was standing at a cave, looking out into the darkness that still enshrouded the scene. And as I looked the first streaks of dawn began gradually to lift the shroud of night and to reveal, first the rugged mountains across the ravine that lay beneath my feet; and then the cruel naked rocks, with never a tree or shrub to...

(The entire section is 8415 words.)

Cardinal Gasquet (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Rule of Saint Benedict, translated by Cardinal Gasquet, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1966, pp. ix-xxviii.

[In the following introduction to his 1929 translation of the Rule of St. Benedict, Gasquet examines Benedict's religious and monastic ideals and the influence of these in early medieval Europe.]

The Rule of St. Benedict may fitly find a place in any collection of classics. As a code of laws it has undoubtedly influenced Europe; and, indeed, there is probably no other book, save of course the Holy Bible, which with such certainty can be claimed as a chief factor in the work of European civilization. It is undeniable...

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Justin McCann (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: "The Text-History of the Rule" and "The Contents of the Rule" in Saint Benedict, Sheed and Ward, 1937, pp. 117-46.

[In the following excerpt, McCann offers a textual history of the Rule of St. Benedict and summarizes its principal statements on the structure of Benedictine monastic life.]

Scripsit monachorum regulam discretione praecipuam, sermone luculentam

(Dial. II, 36)

There are two standard modem editions of the Latin text of the Rule, those of Abbot Butler (2nd ed., 1927) and Dom Benno Linderbauer (1928). Dom Linderbauer's is a...

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Stephanus Hilpisch (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "St. Benedict and His Foundation" in Benedictinism through Changing Centuries, translated by Leonard J. Doyle, St. John's Abbey Press, 1958, pp. 11-7.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in German in 1950, Hilpisch comments on St. Benedict's life and the organization of his monastery at Monte Cassino.]

Benedictine monachism, customarily called the Benedictine Order in later times, is the oldest monastic community of the Western Church, its origin dating all the way from Christian antiquity. Its founder, teacher and lawgiver, St. Benedict, was born about the year 480 in the Sabine mountains, in the old Italian province of Nursia. His parents belonged...

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Ildephonse Cardinal Schuster (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "The Liturgical Work of St. Benedict" in Saint Benedict and His Times, translated by Gregory J. Roettger, O. S. B., B. Herder Book Co., 1951, pp. 228-36.

[In the following essay, Schuster details the influential liturgy St. Benedict outlined in his Rule—later known as the Cursus S. Benedicti.]

Besides the Roman rite, the Oriental rite, and the Ambrosian rite, the Middle Ages also recognize a Cursus S. Benedicti, that is, they give the Patriarch's name to the entire liturgy of the Divine Office which the monks day and night chanted in their monastery churches. This special rite of the Opus Dei, as the Patriarch usually calls the Divine...

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Justin McCann (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: A preface to The Rule of Saint Benedict, edited and translated by Justin McCann, The Newman Press, 1952, pp. vii-xxiv.

[In the following excerpt from his preface to The Rule of Saint Benedict, McCann recounts the early history of the Rule and discusses issues surrounding its language and textual history.]

Saint Benedict lived and worked in central Italy in the first half of the sixth century, the approximate date of his death being A.D. 547. His life began and ended with periods of devastating war, during which Italy was gravely disorganized; but at its centre, under the masterful rule of Theodoric (493-526), it knew some thirty years of peace....

(The entire section is 4495 words.)

Sighard Kleiner (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Foreward," "The Cult of the Rule," and "The Rule of Today" in Serving God First: Insights on "The Rule of St. Benedict," translated by James Scharinger, Cistercian Publications, 1985, pp. 3-10.

[In the following excerpt from his Dieu premier servi (Serving God First), originally published in French in 1974, Kleiner comments on the spiritual importance of the Rule of St. Benedict and its enduring role in Christian life.]

Serve God First: there is here a norm, a measure, a hierarchy of values. It appears to be beyond question, yet it is not easy. We hear about the human crisis nowadays. A crisis is a reversal of values and criteria....

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Antoine Vergote (lecture date 1976)

SOURCE: "A Psychological Approach to Humility in the Rule of St. Benedict," American Benedictine Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 404-29.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1976, Vergote offers an interpretation of humility in the Rule of St. Benedict, tracing the ideals of obedience and self-knowledge expressed in Benedict's text and in the Christian scriptures.]

I humbly beg you to listen, for you have given me a stiff challenge: I must speak to you about a text which is so familiar to you and about which I know so little. And I must do this before exegetes, historians, philologists and I don't know what.


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David N. Bell (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Vision of the World and of the Archetypes in the Latin Spirituality of the Middle Ages" in Archives: D'Histoire Doctrinal et Littéraire du Moyen Age, Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1978, pp. 7-31.

[In the following excerpt, Bell discusses various interpretations of St. Benedict's visio mundi, or "vision of the world," as recorded in Gregory the Great's biography of Benedict.]

Our source for this mysterious vision is Gregory the Great's life of Benedict, which forms the second book of the Dialogues. The saint (Gregory tells us) was standing at the window of a tower, and saw, to his wonder, "sicut post ipse narravit, omnis etiam mundus velut...

(The entire section is 3319 words.)

André Zegveld (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "A Guide: The Rule of St. Benedict," The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 372-93.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Zegveld presents an overview of the fundamental concerns in the Rule of St. Benedict and explores how the Rule is to be interpreted and obeyed in the modern era.]

The Call

In the writings of the New Testament a strong undercurrent of longing for the Kingdom of God makes itself felt, a longing for a new world, a new society entirely penetrated by the spirit of Jesus Christ, a desire for a new heaven and a new earth, in a word, for a life based on the...

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Benedicta Ward (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Miracles of St. Benedict" in Benedictus: Studies in Honor of St. Benedict of Nursia, edited by E. Rozanne Elder, Cistercian Publications, 1981, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Ward investigates accounts and changing conceptions of the miracles associated with St. Benedict.]

'One day when the brethren of this monastery were quarreling, one of them met St Benedict outside the door and the saint immediately gave him this command: "Go and tell the brethren that they give me no rest. I am leaving this house and let them know that I shall not return until I bring from Aquitaine a man who shall be after my own heart." "1 The place is the abbey of St...

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Thomas X. Davis (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Loss of Self in the Degrees of Humility in the Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter VII" in Benedictus: Studies in Honor of St. Benedict of Nursia, edited by E. Rozanne Elder, Cistercian Publications, 1981, pp. 23-9.

[In the following essay, Davis summarizes the twelve degrees of humility in the Rule of St. Benedict, focusing on the state of selflessness required to achieve humility and realize the complete love of God.]

The God-Exemplar

'In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord.1 In the christian dimension, the loss of...

(The entire section is 2726 words.)

A. W. Richard Sipe (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Psychological Dimensions of the Rule of St. Benedict," The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, December, 1983, pp. 424-35.

[In the following essay, Sipe endeavors "to extrapolate ten essential psychological features that show [Benedict's] understanding of the human experience" that are addressed by the monastic experience.]

Benedict of Nursia, born in 480 A.D., wrote a brief rule—an order for a way of life—for monks. In 1980, approximately 30,000 men and women around the world claim this rule as their guide. That one fact alone would be of interest: why do some things endure over long centuries? But it is not simply durability that impresses...

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Peter E. Hammett (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Care for the Individual in the Rule of Benedict," The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, September, 1988, pp. 277-86.

[In the following essay, Hammett demonstrates "how a genuine care for the subjective dimensions of the monk's personality" is reflected in the Rule of Benedict.]

We live in a world which places a great deal of emphasis on the subject and on the psychological aspects of the person. Since the Enlightenment, philosophy's turn to the subject and a deepening understanding of the psychological dimensions of the human person have become characteristic of our contemporary Western world-view. The basic thesis of this paper is that this turn to...

(The entire section is 3732 words.)

Jerome Theisen (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Personal Prayer in the Rule of Benedict," The American Benedictine Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 291-303.

[In the following essay, Theisen focuses on the methods of prayer and sacred reading contained in the Rule of St. Benedict.]

The monk in Benedict's monastery leads a rather simple and balanced life: public prayer with the community; private reading, study, and prayer; manual labor; public reading; refection; and sleep. In this paper I propose to look at 1) features of personal or private prayer in the Rule of Benedict, 2) notions of listening to the word of God, 3) values of sacred reading, and 4) methods of listening and praying. My...

(The entire section is 4808 words.)

Adalbert de Vogüé (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Humility" in Reading Saint Benedict: Reflections on the "Rule," translated by Colette Friedlander, 0. C. S. O., Cistercian Publications, 1994, pp. 75-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in French in 1991, de Vogüé undertakes an exegesis of the seventh chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, which describes a monk's spiritual ascension to heaven upon the ladder of humility. Footnote numbers designate line numbers of the Rule throughout this essay.]

This chapter [the seventh], which is longer and more important than any other, does not simply describe one of the monk's great virtues. Because that virtue, as we have seen, encompasses...

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Further Reading

Blecker, Michael Paulin. "Roman Law and 'Consilium' in the Regula Magistri and the Rule of St Benedict." Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies XLVII, No. 1 (January 1972): 1-28.

Details the influence of Roman law in matters of the consilium, or "corporation," on sixth-century monasticism as evidenced in the Regula magistri, and subsequently in the Rule of St. Benedict.

Chamberlin, John. The Rule of St. Benedict: The Abingdon Copy. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1982, 87 p.

Translation of an important tenth century Old English manuscript of the Rule preceded by a brief introduction on...

(The entire section is 676 words.)