Saint Benedict of Nursia
Feast Day - July 11
Founder of Western Monasticism
 

St Benedict of NursiaSaint Benedict of Nursia, was an Italian monk and author of a rule for monks that became the basis of the Benedictine order, b. Norcia (E of Spoleto).

Saint Benedict went to Rome to study, then withdrew to Subiaco to live as a hermit; after 3 years he was renowned for his holiness.  He founded a community of monks made up of cells of 13 monks each.  This he eventually left, and at Monte Cassino, in an old pagan holy place, he started the first truly Benedictine monastery.

The fruits of Benedict’s experience appear in the Rule of St. Benedict (in Latin), which became the chief rule in Western monasticism under the Carolingians.  The Cistercians also follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule’s 73 chapters are full of a spirit of moderation and common sense.  They set forth the central ideas of Benedictine monasticism. S t. Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, also was a religious.

For prayer, Benedict turned to the psalms, the very songs and poems from the Jewish liturgy that Jesus himself had prayed.  To join our voices with Jesus in praise of God during the day was so important that Benedict called it the "Work of God." And nothing was to be put before the work of God.  "Immediately upon hearing the signal for the Divine Office all work will cease." Benedict believed with Jesus that "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God' " (Matthew 4:4).

  This prayer, called the Divine Office, was to be chanted from the breviary at specific times of the day.  If a monk could not make it to chapel, he was to immediately fall to his knees in the place where he in the fields, in the stable, wherever he was and perform the Work of God under the vault of the sky.  There was nothing special about praying in a chapel -- or praying outdoors -- but there was something very special about the prayer.  "We believe that God is everywhere," but "without doubt, we believe this is so especially when assisting in the Divine Office." The Church still believes Benedict's and considers the Divine Office the prayer of the Church. 

But it wasn't enough to just speak the words.  Benedict instructed his followers to practice sacred reading -- the study of the very Scriptures they would be praying in the Work of God.  In this lectio divina, he and his monks memorized the Scripture, studied it, and contemplated it until it became part of their being.  Four to six hours were set aside each day for this sacred reading.  If monks had free time it "should be used by the brothers to practice psalms." Lessons from Scripture were to be spoken from memory not read from a book.  On Benedict's list of "Instruments of Good Works" is "to enjoy holy readings."

This sacred reading, however, was a study in love, not intellect.  Not just an exercise of the mind, it was an exercise of contemplation so that "our voices and hearts harmonize." Each word of God would soak into their minds, their hearts, their very souls, so that the prayers would spring up from the depths of their being, not just from their memory.  "We realize that we will be heard for our pure and sorrowful hearts, not for the numbers of our spoken words." A heart was pure when it was empty of all but God's Word and our desire to remain in God's Word. 

First came the lectio, reading the Scripture until a phrase was found that inspired the person to stop.  Our natural tendency would be to read the phrase and think about what it means, what it has to do with our lives and then move on.  But that was not part of sacred reading. 

The next step was to memorize the phrase, repeat it over and over and over from memory without reading it, without thinking about it, just repeating it, until it seemed to be coming from the heart not the voice, until the power of the Word of God could take over. 

When the phrase had lost all meaning except that power, the person would fall silent, still not thinking, but letting the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speak about the meaning in the heart.  And finally the person would sink into contemplation, going beyond the voice, beyond the intellectual understanding, to sit in the presence of God in the divine Word. 

In one story of Benedict's life, a poor man came to the monastery begging for a little oil.  Although Benedict commanded that the oil be given, the cellarer refused -- because there was only a tiny bit of oil left.  If the cellarer gave any oil as alms there would be none for the monastery.  Angry at this distrust of God's providence, Benedict knelt down to pray.  As he prayed a bubbling sound came from inside the oil jar.  The monks watched in fascination as oil from God filled the vessel so completely that it overflowed, leaked out beneath the lid and finally pushed the cover off, cascading out on to the floor. 

In Benedictine prayer, our hearts are the vessel empty of thoughts and intellectual striving.  All that remains is the trust in God's providence to fill us.  Emptying ourselves this way brings God's abundant goodness bubbling up in our hearts, first with an inspiration or two, and finally overflowing our heart with contemplative love. 

 

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St. Patrick's Church at Moody Air Force Base