The Life of Saint Benedict

The basic facts about Saint Benedict's life come to us from Book Two of the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned as Pope from 590 to 604 A.D., a half-century after the death of Benedict.

The monastic founder was born into a well-to-do family at Nursia, Italy, about the year 480. Although he was sent to Rome for higher education, he left after only a short time because he was disturbed by the vices of his fellow students and by the self-indulgent atmosphere of the big city. Abandoning both his studies and his inheritance, Benedict chose to live as a hermit in a cave at Subiaco.

During this time of solitude and growth in prayer, a monk named Romanus quietly supplied him with necessities. After some three years, monks from a near-by monastery at Vicovaro, hearing of Benedict's reputation for holiness, asked him to be their abbot. Those monks, however, soon found his regulations too much for them; so they tried to serve him poisoned table wine. Their plot failed when Abbot Benedict blessed the goblet, which thereupon broke so that the poison flowed out.

Realizing the futility of trying to govern such an unruly community, he returned to his hermitage in Subiaco. As the fame of Benedict's sanctity spread, more and more people began coming to his cave for spiritual advice. In time a group of sincere disciples gathered around him, and he ultimately banded them into twelve monasteries, each with twelve monks and an abbot. Once again there was an attempt to kill Benedict, this time by a local priest who brought the abbot a loaf of poisoned bread. On this occasion Benedict sensed something amiss and had his pet raven carry the loaf away.

About the year 529, Benedict left the monasteries at Subiaco in charge of others and set off with several companions for Monte Cassino, located on a mountain 80 miles south of Rome. Taking possession of an abandoned fortress on top of the mountain, he proceeded to destroy the pagan shrines established there and replaced them with two Christian chapels.

It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict lived the rest of his life, wrote his Rule for Monks (abbreviated RB), and acquired a reputation as an outstanding man of God who could work wonders. He advised secular leaders, calmed invaders, showed care for the poor, sent out monks to preach, and made a new foundation at Terracina, the first of a long series of monasteries that would eventually grow out of Monte Cassino.

Toward the end of his life, the abbot had a noteworthy encounter with his sister Scholastica, who headed a group of nuns near Cassino. Benedict had to abandon plans to return to his monastery for the night when his sister's prayers brought about a heavy rain storm. As a result, the pair were able to engage in a long spiritual conversation that apparently prepared them for death. Shortly after the encounter, Benedict had a vision of Scholastica's entry into heaven. Then as his own death approached, he looked out of his window to see the whole world gathered in a single beam of light, whereby, as St. Gregory comments, Benedict's spirit was enlarged to embrace all things in Christ. After foreseeing his own death, Abbot Benedict died at Monte Cassino about the year 547.