History of St Benedict
Benedict, a young middle class Italian, went to study in Rome at the end of the 5th century only to find the Empire in total disarray. Christianity was the official religion but the church was also in turmoil. Sound familiar?
Discovering there was no help in the capital, Benedict returned to the model of the desert fathers and set up home in a cave. As many have learned, an authentic search for God attracts others. Before long he needed to write a Rule for the strange assortment of lay people gathered around him. This has proved invaluable down the centuries and across denominations. Today there is even interest from the business community in using Benedict’s wisdom to inform management principles.
Benedict guides his monks and nuns toward a balance of prayer, work, study, and leisure. Their vows have much to say to those outside the cloister, but beware – they are counter cultural:
- Stability: Benedictine monks and nuns vow to remain all their lives with one community. They give up the temptation to move on in search of an ideal situation. The notion that things would be better somewhere else is usually an illusion. There is no escape from oneself. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behaviour, giving up one’s preferences, forgiving.
- Obedience: Benedict’s take on obedience is the opposite of our understanding. He begins his Rule with the words: ‘Listen with the ear of the heart’. It is firstly a call to listen to God, made explicit in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Abbot is to listen to all – even the youngest and least experienced. This fosters a loving interdependence on each other and God.
- Conversion or ‘conversatio morum’: This is difficult to define. Those in the cloister come to understand it as they live it, but struggle to explain. Alongside stability and obedience, it has to do with fidelity to a way of life in a community that is on the move with face turned to God daily through the gift of divine grace.
This is an ancient Benedictine custom about slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures. It starts as we listen deeply with ‘the ears of our heart’ and become atuned to the presence of God in that special part of His creation – the Bible. There are four stages:
- Lectio: slow reading of the scriptures, letting go of the mind into the heart.
- Meditatio: as we read, and re-read, we listen attentively to hear the word or phrase that God has for us today.
- Oratio: prayer as dialogue with God – a loving conversation with one who has invited us into His embrace. This is where we make our response to Him.
- Contemplatio: we practice silence, letting go of our own words whilst we rest and enjoy being in God’s presence.
St Ignatius of Loyola came to faith under the influence of Benedictine monks whilst recovering from severe canon shot injuries to his legs. Perhaps without St Benedict, there might not be Ignatius – with all the implications for the growth of Christianity. It is widely agreed that Benedictine monks saved Europe after the fall of Rome and afterwards cultivated a continent able to produce a man like Ignatius.
Ignatian prayer exercies have stood the test of five centuries and are used widely across the denominations today.