What we know of St. Benedict is chiefly transmitted to us through the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great. In the Dialogues, we are presented with some wonderful stories of Benedict’s holy life, including the miracles he performed. As a “hagiography” (the life of a saint), it serves more as a spiritual classic rather than as an historical or biographical work.
Dialogues of St. Gregory
St. Benedict was born in Norcia, Italy, in the 5th Century (around 480 A.D.) to a noble family of probable Jewish ancestry. The name “Benedict” means “Blessed by God” and in Hebrew is “Baruch.” Wanting to instill in young Benedict a liberal education, his parents sent him and his nurse to Rome, the seat of the Empire. Benedict’s time in Rome was short lived, however, because the old Roman Empire was in rapid decline politically and morally. The virtuous Benedict and his nurse fled the “Eternal City” to the mountainous region thirty miles outside of Rome in the Aniene valley. It was here that Benedict felt called to live the eremitical life in a cave at a place called Subiaco. Originally, “Sublaqueum” was a villa built by Emperor Nero, located at the site of three artificial lakes; with the passage of time, the name Subiaco (“under the lake”) evolved.
Subiaco and Monte Cassino
Desiring to seek God alone, Benedict lived as a hermit at Subiaco for three years. However, his reputation as a holy man spread, and many people climbed to the rocky heights of “Sacro Speco” (Benedict’s holy cave) to receive spiritual guidance in their pursuit of the solitary way of life. Because of the large number of disciples, Benedict foresaw the necessity of establishing thirteen monasteries in the area, each with its own monastic superior (prior). He directed those monasteries at Subiaco until he was invited to govern a group of monks at Monte Cassino, located on a mountain near present-day Naples, Italy. As abbot–which derives its name from the term “abbas” meaning spiritual father–Benedict spent the rest of his life at Monte Cassino teaching his monks how to live the communal life of prayer and work in Christian service to others. It was there that he wrote his famous Rule for the monasteries in the 6th Century, based on Sacred Scripture and influenced by the spiritual writings of Basil, Evagrius, and Cassian. Benedict’s Rule was not the first rule for monasteries because it resembles in many ways the Rule of the Master–an earlier and more austere guide to the monastic way of life. Benedict’s Rule, however, provided a more humane and balanced approach for Christian communities living together in the monastic enclosure under an abbot. St. Benedict’s Rule, now 1500 years old, still has much spiritual wisdom to offer Christian men and women in the third millennium who are seeking God in their life.