Few saints have left such a palpable impact on the world as St. Benedict, founder of the great Italian monastery at Monte Cassino and author of a Rule that set a standard for the Western monastic tradition. Benedict evidently had an extraordinary power to read and discern the souls of others, and his Rule shows his rare insight into human nature. Whereas earlier monastic experiments had stressed rigorous asceticism and self-denial, Benedict’s Rule was designed for ordinary human beings. The element of discipline was shifted from externals to the interior, from the flesh to the will. In place of an emphasis on fasting and mortification, Benedict substituted the discipline of humility, obedience, and accommodation to community life. Rather than envisioning a collection of individuals competing in the quest for perfection, Benedict stressed the role of community as a school for holiness.
Benedict’s emphasis on the balance of work and prayer, his validation of community, and his regulation of monastic life eventually set the pattern for Western monasticism. In part this was aided by the official sponsorship of Church authorities like Pope Gregory—a monk himself. But a significant factor was the intrinsic attraction of the Rule itself and its underlying balance, moderation, and humanity. Throughout the centuries Benedictine monasteries—marked by a vision of peace, wholeness, and ecology—have offered the witness of an alternative society governed by the spirit of Christ.
“We are about to open a school for God’s service, in which we hope nothing harsh or oppressive will be directed.” —St. Benedict