Well, okay. The precise day of the feast is July 11, and you're probably reading this several days prior. But there's no time like the present to consider the holy monk's lasting legacy since it's still going strong 1,500 years after it began.
Wherever they are (they're dispersed all over the world), and whichever of the many monasteries and congregations they belong to (there is no centralized governing institute), today's Benedictines are linked by the Rule of St. Benedict — the first formal rule in the West governing monastic life.
Through the centuries, the influence of St. Benedict's niche movement has been wide, deep and even history-changing. For many generations, Benedictine monasteries preserved learning and advanced Western civilization.
In scriptoriums, monks copied Scripture and sacred writings. In the fields, they developed crop rotation and ways to harness water and wind to saw wood and grind grain. No wonder Pope John Paul II in 1980 named St. Benedict co-patron of Europe (along with Sts. Cyril and Methodius).
St. Benedict balanced the scales of Christian spirituality by combining Ora et Labora — prayer and labor. In his revolutionary view, labor was dignified and worthy, not slavish or degrading. He blended prayer and work together so that tasks and jobs become prayers.
“We've always had an active component to the Benedictine tradition,” says Father Albert Marflak, the prior of St. Andrew Abbey in Cleveland, home to 39 Benedictine monks. He describes how St. Benedict left Rome and went as a missionary to Monte Cassino, where he destroyed the temple to Apollo.
The monastic compounds became centers for learning, prayer and spirituality. In his message about the 1,500th anniversary of the order in the Jubilee Year, the Holy Father recognized that Monte Cassino, which was pummeled during World War II, “would soon become the cradle for the growth of Western monasticism and a center of evangelization and Christian humanism.”
The content of work has, of course, changed over time. But, like the contemplative life, its nature remains the same. “Our work in the states has moved away from the farming aspect and more into education and pastoral ministry,” says Father Marflak. As for contemplation, it's “the call of our baptism. As Benedictines, we focus in a radical way on our baptismal commitment.”
Father Albert is quick to point out a couple of often-overlooked historical facts.
“The monastic tradition was a lay movement,” he explains. “Benedict was not an ordained deacon or priest.” The rule, he adds, was written to help lay people seeking God and wanting to live a Christlike life.
All the World's a Cave
Born in the Italian village of Nursia around 480, St. Benedict went to Rome to study. Appalled by the degeneracy he found there, he fled to Subiaco, where he lived in the seclusion of a cave for three years. Word of his holiness got around and a community of monks asked him to be their abbot. When they saw how strictly he followed his own rule, and realized he expected them to do the same, they tried to poison him. He blessed the cup containing the poison and the substance was rendered harmless. He returned to his cave, but continued to attract followers. He established 12 monasteries, then organized them into a single monastic community at Monte Cassino.
It was there that he wrote his famous rule, which prescribed common sense, moderate asceticism, prayer, study, work and community life under one superior. It stressed obedience, stability and zeal, and it centered the monastic life on the Divine Office. He was equally at home counseling rulers and popes as he was ministering to the poor and destitute. He died at Monte Cassino around 547.
The Scriptures then, as now, are the heartbeat of monastic life — and really ought to be the heartbeat of the Christian life for all, says Father Marflak.
And now, as then, the Benedictines are, in many ways, a force to be reckoned with. “We're very much thriving within our community and with the Benedictine monks throughout the country,” says Father Marflak. Asked for an example, he cites St. Andrew's preparatory school for boys. In the fall it will see its third consecutive annual increase in enrollment: Some 450 students will attend, up from 395 this school year just passed.
Another Benedictine institution making its mark in the modern world is Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. Daniel Carey, an alumnus who rose to oversee the school as its president, looks fondly at his 16 years of education from Benedictine monks and nuns. And he says that, if not for his appreciation of Benedictine spirituality, he might not be interested in being where he is today.
“We try to be very clear about who we are and what we stand for,” says Carey. Accordingly, an impressive mural in the student lounge depicts St. Benedict (along with his twin sister, St. Scholastica).
In fact, St. Benedict's footprints are everywhere on the campus. “Today we still very much try to educate the students about the rule of St. Benedict,” Carey says. “Our history, our tradition, our sense of values — these things are very integral to this place.” The response: 25 men and 16 women have gone from student life to religious life during the past 25 years.
“Moderation calls us to the middle as a place of higher education,” Carey says, referring to St. Benedict's rule. “It's one of the core values of St. Benedict.”
Father James Albers joined St. Benedict's Abbey on the grounds of the college in 1995 and is now the prior. “Our students take the sacraments very seriously,” he says, pointing out the reliably robust attendance he sees at daily confessions and Mass. The students’ unambiguously Catholic spirituality, he says, “is more than an intellectual thing — it's embedded in their hearts.”
Also on the grounds is Mount St. Scholastica Monastery. Except for the eight years she spent in Bethlehem, Sister Paula Howard has spent the rest of her 62 years as a Benedictine here as teacher, administrator and dean of Donnelly Community College, an inner-city diocesan school founded by one of the monastery's sisters.
“The whole spiritual ideal is balance—not totally austere, not lax,” says Sister Howard, reflecting on the Benedictine way. “It's a life given to prayer, contemplation, balance and hospitality.”
“The hallmark of [our] spirituality is balance and reverence for people and things, which exhibits itself in hospitality for the world and everything in it,” she adds. “We don't stay aloof from the world. We invite the world to come to us.”
In their own ways, even the cloistered subdivision(s) do as much. Since St. Benedict was very strong in insisting that hospitality is an essential part of monastic life, says Trappist Father Edward John Mullaney of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., the abbey's 11 guest rooms are booked every day of the year. Most are filled by people making silent—or at least quiet—retreats.
The Trappists are members of the Cistercian “subdivision(s)” of Benedictines. With 70 monks, St. Joseph Abbey is the largest Cistercian house in the United States. The Trappists lead a secluded life with no apostolic ministry.
“We're the contemplative side of the family,” explains Father Mullaney. “We like to say our ministry is prayer—we pray and work.
“Each abbey is self-supporting by the labor of their hands,” he adds. With farming monks turn to making cheeses, fruitcakes and, as at St. Joseph's, those famous Trappist jellies and jams.
Father Mullaney says the order is growing rapidly in Latin America, Africa and Asia—reflecting the growth trends of the Catholic Church at large. In developed western countries, you have to look a little harder to find such vibrancy.
“We have an important role in the Church, though it's very small,” says Father Mullaney. “We just show to the Church that God is worth it—worth giving up everything for.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds: “We do really model Christian community for the people. We have the time to live the full liturgical life. We're a link with the Church of the past and the Church of the present.”
Maybe Benedictine spirituality isn't such a “niche” aspect of the Catholic faith after all. And maybe its universal appeal is at the heart of its 1,500-year-old success story.
One thing's for sure: On his feast day and every day, St. Benedict is praying for his order—and for all those who may have a chance to draw closer to Christ through it.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.