A Brief History of the Benedictine Order

As I’m hoping to spend time in a number of Benedictine monasteries on my walk to Rome, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post on the history, teachings and way of life of the Benedictine Order of Monks or the ‘Black Monks’ as they are popularly known (in reference to the colour of their monastic habits.)

Benedictine Monk in Monastery
Benedictine Monastery of St Scholastica in Subiaco, engraving, Italy, 19th century.

Benedictine monks are a religious order if monks and nuns of the Roman Catholic Church living under the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (circa 480 – circa 547). Because they wear black habits, Benedictine monks are often called “Black Monks.”

The Benedictine order is a federation of independent monasteries dating back to the lifetime of St. Benedict, who first established a hermitage in Subiaco, Italy, and later at Monte Cassino.known today as the Father of Western Monasticism, established a Rule that became the pattern for life in the monasteries of Europe and a standard for monasticism in Western Christianity.

Monte Cassino Abbey

Benedict Of Nursia,known today as the Father of Western Monasticism, established a Rule that became the pattern for life in the monasteries of Europe and a standard for monasticism in Western Christianity.

In about 540 AD, after founding the monastery of Monte Cassino, Benedict wrote his Rule for the monastery, which became the foundation of the Benedictine order.

Benedict’s principal goal was to create a setting and a way of life where the voice if God could be heard without distractions and where the disciplines of of prayer. service, and good works would lead to continual progress in spiritual growth, faith, and ultimately, inexpressible joy in loving and serving God. 

While studying rhetoric and law in Rome, Benedict was so repulsed by the immorality he witnessed in the city that he withdrew from society before completing his education and went to live as a hermit in a cave near Subiaco. During that time, he became the abbot for at least two different groups of monks. Eventually, in about 529 AD, after founding at least a dozen communities for monks, Benedict started a monastery at Monte Cassino, in Italy, where he remained until his death and where he wrote his famous Rule.

Head of St. Benedict of Nursia, fresco by Fra Angelico (c. 1395 –1455). 

Benedict disagreed with the extreme asceticism of some monks and monasteries, and thus, sought to cultivate an environment where ordinary men and women could hear the voice of God and pursue the service of God and their own spiritual development through a balanced life of manual work, prayer, worship, and biblical studies.

Although Benedict did not set out to found an order, his ideas regarding monasticism spread rapidly, and by 541 were introduced into Sicily, and in 543 into France. Pope Gregory the Great (540 – 604), who wrote a biography of Benedict, used his vast influence to make the Rule of St. Benedict widely known. Also, in 580, when Monte Cassino was ransacked by the Lombards, the Benedictine monks escaped to Rome, and likely began to spread their knowledge and practice of monasticism.

As more and more Benedictine monasteries were established throughout Italy, God’s light of truth and love began to shine into the darkness of medieval times. By 597, Benedictine missionaries reached England, and from there spread to Germany, Denmark, and Iceland.

Westminster Abbey was founded in the tenth century by Saint Dunstan who established a community of Benedictine monks.

Because Benedict’s Rule was so flexible and insightful into human nature, it has proven to be remarkably adaptable throughout the 15 centuries following its inception. Even today, the concept of balancing prayer, study, and work still characterizes the day to day lives of humble, quiet, and peace-focused Benedictine monks and nuns around the world.

In about 540 AD, after establishing the monastery of Monte Cassino, Benedict wrote his Rule for the monastery, which became the foundation of the Benedictine order. These guidelines for an ordered and celibate form of communal Christian life were based on disciplines that had already been developing within the church for a couple of centuries before his time. Recognizable influences in Benedict’s Rule include that of Basil the Great, St Augustine, and John Cassian. But it was Benedict’s “little rule for beginners”—the name Benedict gave his Rule—that set the standard for monasticism in Western Christianity.

St. Benedict of Nursia reading his Rule
St Benedict of Nursia (c480 – 547) reading his Rule by Hans Memling.

The Rule of St. Benedict begins with a lengthy prologue of rich teaching followed by 73 short chapters laying out spiritual and administrative guides to the monastic life. The first chapter outlines the qualities of an abbot, who is the spiritual father and supreme authority of the monastery. Most of the remaining sections focus on how to live obediently and humbly in community.

Benedict thought of the heart as a battleground where a constant war between God and evil was fought. He believed the Christian life was a progressive journey of the heart, which consisted of listening to the Word of God putting it into practice in heart and body, and then, “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run in the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Becoming a monk under the Rule of Benedict meant a life-long commitment. After a year on probation, a monk professed three vows: stability (a promise to remain in the community), the reformation of his own life, and and obedience.

Much of the Rule is devoted to developing the monastic family and how life in the community should operate. Benedictine monks spend about four hours a day in the “divine office” of prayer and another four hours a day in reading reading the Scriptures. According to Benedict, manual work is a form of holy prayer. Each monk is given work assignments because labor is a valued and integral part of the human experience.

Work is also crucial because each monastery is to be as independent and self-supporting as possible. In the Middle Ages, when beer was a primary source of nutrition for most people, Benedictine monks became famous for their advanced methods in beer-making. Around 100 monks were needed to operate a brewery.

Benedictine Monks at work
Stained-glass window depiction of Benedictine monks creating the famous 16th century health elixir (beer) at Palais Benedictine, the Benedictine Distillery.

Another prevailing rule Benedict stressed was that to belong to God, one must listen to the voice of God. He underscored the need for silence and gave instructions on how to overcome the obstacles to hearing God’s voice. Coarse jesting and idle conversation were forbidden, and prayerful listening formed the center of Christian life in the monastery. While perpetual silence was not enforced, monks were encouraged to use sign language rather than speak whenever possible, and observe strict silence at night.

Following the Rule of St. Benedict, monks live a common, separated, ascetic life, and submit themselves in unrestricted obedience to their superiors. Benedictine monasteries foster a family atmosphere among the monks and emphasize principles of wise moderation in fasting and other ascetic practices, solid biblical grounding, flexibility, sensibility, and balance between spiritual teaching and practical instruction, as well as the value of physical labor for both the rich and poor.

Pluscarden Abbey in Elgin, Scotland founded in 1230 AD whose Benedictine monks have blessed my crucifix.

Benedictine nuns claim St. Scholastica, the sister of St. Benedict of Nursia, as their founder, but the assertion is without solid historical grounds. History, although unclear as to the exact time when nuns were included in the order, seems to suggest that they have been involved in separate female communities since the very beginning under the direction of Benedict of Nursia. Wherever Benedictine monasteries for monks have existed, there have also been communities for nuns established. In England, the earliest convent for women was founded in 630.

Saints John the Evangelist, Scholastica and Benedict
Saints John the Evangelist, Scholastica and Benedict (The Liesborn Altarpiece), ca. 1470-1480. Artist: Master of Liesborn (15th century)

The role of women within the Benedictine order mimicked the function of noblewomen in society. Nuns devoted themselves to caring for the sick and needy, studying science, literature, and the arts, and the education of children.

One significant contribution of Benedictine monks to Christian history has been the copying and preservation of religious manuscripts and medieval literature, providing consistency and continuity for future generations of the faith. The Benedictine monastic movement has also provided schools for children throughout Europe and other parts of the world.

Benedictine monks are officially known today as the Order of Saint Benedict, even though they do not operate as other orders under a single chain of command. Benedictine communities remain autonomous but are represented internationally by the Benedictine Confederation, an organization that was established in 1893 to serve the group’s shared interests. Benedictine monks work closely with Cistercians and Trappist Monks, who also follow St. Benedict’s Rule.

Today, according to the Benedictine Confederation, there are more than 20,000 monks and nuns in about 400 monasteries throughout the world who live according to the Rule of Benedict.

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