St. Benedict of Nursia Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.