Christian monasticism was introduced to Western Europe in the fourth century by Saint Athanasius. It caught on quickly in Rome and Italy, and spread to Gaul and other countries. The first monks in Italy and Gaul followed Eastern models and rules, which were usually marked by extreme austerity. It was Saint Benedict who adopted monasticism to European needs, and laid the foundations of the great monastic system which bears his name.
Benedict was born in Norcia in Italy about the year 480, and as a youth studied in Rome. Disliking the licentiousness of the city, and feeling that he had a special call from God, he retired to a cave at Subiaco, about forty miles south of Rome. He lived there for three years. His manner of life attracted followers, and this led to the establishment of a monastery at Subiaco, which still exists. Later, probably in 528 or 529, he went further south and built the great abbey of Monte Cassino in the central Apennines. He remained there until his death in 547, and it is there that he drew up his famous Rule for Monks.
The code of monastic laws and observances is known as the Rule of Saint Benedict. It has been justly called the most important ecclesiastical document of the Middle Ages, and has had a strong influence on the development of European history. Indeed it has come to be regarded as one of the half-dozen fundamental documents of the Western civilisation. Its profoundly Christian and humanitarian ethos has filtered through many channels into the very fabric of society, and countless men and women have, over the past fifteen centuries, found in the Rule clear directions on how to fulfil the Gospel call to serve God and one’s neighbour.
The Eastern monastic idea had been one of individual devotion; whereas Saint Benedict taught the monks of the West the value and advantages of the common life. Monks were to pray; but they were also to work and to help others and show hospitality. The excessive austerities of the Eastern and Celtic monks were excluded, and the Benedictine Rule became notable for its spirit of moderation, reasonableness and adaptability. Consequently, it was adopted almost generally by western monks after Saint Benedict’s death, in preference to other monastic rules, including that of Saint Columbanus (530-615), the great Irish missionary abbot.
Benedict’s Rule was actually a compilation drawn from several early Christian sources, though it was, of course, primarily based on Sacred Scripture. In his Prologue, Benedict stated that his motive for writing the Rule was to establish a school dedicated to the service of God. In this school the Christian (and the monk) has to learn to shape his entire life on truly seeking God and coming to Him through love. For Saint Benedict there was only one way to God – to follow Jesus Christ. He told his monks that there is nothing at all they should prefer to Christ. Progress in the monastic life would enable them ‘to walk the way of the commandments of God in unspeakable joy and love.’
During the five centuries which followed Saint Benedict’s death, Benedictine monks were principal agents in developing civilisation, providing learning and spreading the Christian faith throughout Europe. These were known as ‘the monastic centuries.’ With its great liturgical tradition, the Benedictine institute also played a very important part in the development of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the history of the Benedictines in the early Middle Ages is practically a history of the Church and of medieval society as well.