THE year 529, which saw the closing of the Athenian schools of philosophy, saw also the opening of Monte Cassino, the most famous monastery in Latin Christendom. Its founder, Benedict of Nursia, was born at Spoleto, apparently of the dying Roman aristocracy. Sent to Rome for an education, he was scandalized by the sexual license there, or, some say, he loved and lost.1 At the age of fifteen he fled to a remote spot five miles from Subiaco, in the Sabine hills; made his cell in a cave at the foot of a precipice; and lived there for some years as a solitary monk. The Dialogues of Pope Gregory I tell how Benedict fought valiantly to forget the woman
the memory of whom the wicked spirit put into his mind, and by that memory so mightily inflamed with concupiscence the soul of God’s servant… that, almost overcome with pleasure, he was of a mind to forsake the wilderness. But suddenly, assisted by God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes growing hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that when he rose up all his flesh was pitifully torn; and so by the wounds of his body he cured the wounds of his soul.2
After he had lived there for some years, and his steadfastness had won him fame, he was importuned by the monks of a nearby monastery to be their abbot. He warned them that his rule would be severe; they persisted, and he went with them; after a few months of his stern regimen they put poison in his wine. He resumed his solitary life; but young devotees came to live near him and solicit his guidance; fathers brought their sons, even from Rome, to be taught by him; by 520 twelve little monasteries, each with twelve monks, had risen round his cave. When of even these monks many found his rule too strict, he removed with the most ardent of his followers to Monte Cassino, a hill 1715 feet above sea level, overlooking the ancient town of Casinum, forty miles northwest of Capua. There he demolished a pagan temple, founded (c. 529) a monastery, and formulated that Benedictine Rule which was to guide most monasteries in the West.
The monks of Italy and France had erred in imitating the solitary asceticism of the East; both the climate and the active spirit of Western Europe made such a regimen discouragingly difficult, and led to many relapses. Benedict did not criticize the anchorites, nor condemn asceticism, but he thought it wiser to make asceticism communal, not individual; there should be no show or rivalry in it; at every step it was to be under an abbot’s control, and stop short of injury to health or mind.
Hitherto, in the West, no vows had been demanded of those who entered the monastic life. Benedict felt that the aspirant should serve a novitiate, and learn by experience the austerities to be required of him; only after such a trial might he take the vows. Then, if he still wished, he was to pledge himself, in writing, to “the perpetuity of his stay, the reformation of his manners, and obedience”; and this vow, signed and witnessed, was to be laid upon the altar by the novice himself in a solemn ritual. Thereafter the monk must not leave the monastery without the abbot’s permission. The abbot was to be chosen by the monks, and was to consult them on all matters of importance; but the final decision was to rest with him, and they were to obey him in silence and humility. They were to speak only when necessary; they were not to jest or laugh loudly; they were to walk with their eyes on the ground. They were to own nothing, “neither a book, nor tablets, nor a pen—nothing at all…All things shall be held in common.”3 Conditions of previous wealth or slavery were to be ignored and forgotten. The abbot
shall make no distinction of persons in the monastery…. A freeborn man shall not be preferred to one coming from servitude, unless there be some other and reasonable cause. For whether we are bond or free, we are all one in Christ…. God is no respecter of persons.4
Alms and hospitality were to be given within the means of the monastery, to all who asked for it. “All guests who come shall be received as though they were Christ.”5
Every monk must work—in the fields or shops of the monastery, in the kitchen, about the house, copying manuscripts…. Nothing was to be eaten till noon, and in Lent not till sundown. From mid-September to Easter there was to be but one meal a day; in the summer months, two, for then the days were long. Wine was allowed, but no flesh of any four-footed beast. Work or sleep was to be frequently interrupted with communal prayer. Influenced by Eastern exemplars, Benedict divided the day into “canonical hours”—hours of prayer as established by canon or rule. The monks were to rise at two A.M., repair to the chapel, and recite or sing “nocturns”—scriptural readings, prayers, and psalms; at dawn they gathered for “matins” or “lauds”; at six for “prime”—the first hour; at nine for “tierce”—the third; at noon for “sext”—the sixth; at three for “none”—the ninth; at sunset for vespers—the evening hour; at bedtime for “compline”—the completion. Bedtime was nightfall; the monks almost dispensed with artificial light. They slept in their clothes, and seldom bathed.6
To these specific regulations Benedict added some, general counsels of Christian perfection:
1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength. 2. Then one’s neighbor as oneself. 3. Then not to kill … nor commit adultery … nor steal… nor covet … nor bear false witness…. 8. To honor all men…. 11. To chasten the body… 13. To love fasting. 14. To relieve the poor. 15. To clothe the naked. 16. To visit the sick…. 30. Not to do injuries, and to bear them patiently…. 31. To love one’s enemies. … 53. Not to be fond of much talking. … 61. Not to desire to be called a saint… but to be one…. 71. After a disagreement to be reconciled before the going down of the sun. 72. And never to despair of the mercy of God.7
In an age of war and chaos, of doubt and wandering, the Benedictine monastery was a healing refuge. It took dispossessed or ruined peasants, students longing for some quiet retreat, men weary of the strife and tumult of the world, and said to them: “Give up your pride and freedom, and find here security and peace.” No wonder a hundred similar Benedictine monasteries rose throughout Europe, each independent of the rest, all subject only to the pope, serving as communistic isles in a raging individualistic sea. The Benedictine Rule and order proved to be among the most enduring creations of medieval man. Monte Cassino itself is a symbol of that permanence. Lombard barbarians sacked it in 589; the Lombards retired; the monks returned. The Saracens destroyed it in 884; the monks rebuilt it; earthquake ruined it in 1349; the monks restored it; French soldiery pillaged it in 1799; the shells and bombs of the Second World War leveled it to the ground in 1944. Today (1948) the monks of St. Benedict, with their own hands, are building it once more. Succisa virescit: cut down, it blooms again.