MUENSTER, Sask. — The Rule of St. Benedict is a model for community life both inside and outside monasteries, Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB, explained to students and staff Dec. 3 at St. Peter’s College. The Rule strives to bring the kingdom of God to earth by promoting community life that is based on Scripture, Novescosky said while discussing St. Benedict and the Rule of St. Benedict at a campus ministry luncheon.
St. Benedict, the author of the Rule, was born in Nursia, Italy in AD 480, just after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. He went to Rome as a young man to study and became discouraged over the lack of zeal there for Christianity. Seeking solitude with God, St. Benedict left Rome to live in a cave at Subiaco, Italy. Monastic life was practiced during this period and he became known to monks who travelled through the area. Monks became aware of the holiness and leadership of St. Benedict and some came to pray with him. They founded the first Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, south of Rome.
As their numbers continued to grow, St. Benedict sent monks on missions to establish other monasteries. While serving as abbot of Monte Cassino, St. Benedict wrote an administrative and spiritual guideline for community life, known today as the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule builds community life by promoting love of God and neighbour through a schedule arranged around prayer and work, Novecosky said.
The Rule challenged accepted norms of the stratified society where slavery was acceptable and the wealthy and powerful were in control. St. Benedict counterbalanced these norms by emphasizing that all monks work and be treated equally and fairly. Everyone was subject to the precepts of the Rule, regardless of whether they came from the lower or upper class.
Status in monastic life was based on the day a person entered the monastery and not on the prominence of a monk in his former life outside the monastery. This injunction was radical in an era when people of both nobility and poverty joined monasteries. Even the young were to be listened to, Novecosky said, because St. Benedict believed that sometimes they had the best ideas.
Citing Chapter 4 of the Rule, Novecosky gave insight into St. Benedict’s notion of community life: “’Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit.’ ”
St. Benedict was aware of differences in personalities and aptitudes, Novecosky said, since he insisted that the monastic community be sensitive to the different needs of its members. The talents and health of monks were to be considered when assigning their work.
The Rule guarded against excesses in behaviour by emphasizing moderation in everything. There were monastic movements where monks practiced radical asceticism by sleeping as little as an hour each day; bathing in only cold water, or fasting on very little food.
Monastic life was conceived in a world where violence and revenge were widespread. The Rule legislated for correction and punishment to control disruptive behaviour, but discipline was informed by Scripture, Novecosky remarked. St. Benedict instructed abbots, in Chapter 64 to: “’always let mercy triumph over judgment . . . hate faults, but love the brothers. When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel.’ ”
Benedictines eventually established monasteries throughout Europe; the centuries from 600 to 1200 have been called the Benedictine Centuries. Benedictines opened schools and provided priests for local parishes. Monasteries had guest wings, which would be today’s motels and hotels.
Monks safeguarded learning by copying Bibles and books by hand in scriptoriums and storing them in the first libraries. A famous monastery, Cluny, was founded in southern France in 910. It contained the largest church in Europe until St. Peter’s was built in Rome 700 years later. Benedictines were innovative, inventing, among other things, the mechanical clock, the pillow case, champagne, the tide mill (a water mill driven by the ocean tide) and blast furnaces.
St. Benedict is recognized as one of the greatest and wisest figures in monastic history, Novecosky commented. In 1965 Pope Paul VI named him the Patriarch of Europe. One scholar commented that the Rule of St. Benedict is second only to the Bible in its influence on Europe.
There are 7,500 Benedictine monks and 15,000 Benedictine nuns throughout the globe. The Benedictines are present in Europe and America, but are declining in numbers. They are growing in strength in Asia and Africa, he said.