St. Benedict, Pray For Us!

St. Benedict’s feast is July 11, which many believe was the day of his birth.

Herman Nigg, “St. Benedict of Nursia Writing the Benedictine Rule,” 1926
Herman Nigg, “St. Benedict of Nursia Writing the Benedictine Rule,” 1926 (photo: Public Domain)

No one has been more important for the shape of religious life in the Catholic Church than St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543). He laid the pattern for it in the West with the first major religious order, the Benedictines. One can also argue that all subsequent orders have, to a greater or lesser degree, been shaped in confrontation with the model of religious life St. Benedict established.

Benedict came into the world in Norcia (today’s Nursia), a little over 100 miles northeast of Rome. Most of what we know of his life is drawn from the “Dialogues” of St. Gregory the Great, who became pope shortly before Benedict’s death.

Benedict (and his sister, St. Scholastica) came from nobility. His father sent him to Rome for studies, during which he decided to commit his life to the Gospel. At first he went to Enfide in the hopes of living in what today we might call a “pious association” of others committed to living out the Gospel. That he still benefited from his nobility is evident in his taking with him his old nurse as a servant. Benedict performed his first miracle there, which spread his fame and caused him to withdraw further from society. He made his way to Subiaco where he encountered a hermit and lived as a hermit himself for three years.

Over the course of time, Benedict’s spiritual stature was recognized and he asked to lead the various monasteries that had grown up in the area but, when they met Benedict’s spiritual seriousness, many pulled back.  By 530, he left Subiaco and established other monasteries, the most important of which was Monte Cassino, south of Rome. He died there in 543.

Benedict’s feast used to be March 21, the day of his death but, because that date would always fall in Lent, where the days of Lent have their own proper liturgies, the 1970 Roman Calendar transferred his feast to July 11, which many believe was the day of his birth.

The “Rule of St. Benedict” was designed not so much as a constitution of a religious order as a guide for those who wanted to live a fuller Christian life. Nevertheless, it became the Rule of the community that bears his name. Its influence is such that many subsequent founders of religious orders either simply took over Benedict’s Rule or, if their charism was different, consciously modified it in light of that charism or their particular ministry.

Benedict’s motto was “ora et labora,” — prayer and work, the two defining characteristics of Benedictine spirituality. We should not underestimate its significance. Benedict’s vision had an enormous impact on the theology and spirituality of work. For much of the ancient world, physical labor was something held in disdain, the proper work of slaves. Free men were to devote themselves to “higher pursuits.” For the ancient Greeks, celebrated as authors of “democracy,” the free man engaged who in intellectual pursuits needed slaves to wash and bleach his togas. By putting his free monks to work, physical or intellectual, Benedict launched a revolution that affirmed the dignity of all labor. 

Some residue of that division still remains in our distinction between “white collar” and “blue collar” jobs. We often celebrated the latter as “heroes” during COVID-19, recognizing their jobs were “essential” — the telecommuting executive still needed food in the local grocery store or via Amazon delivery. Thank St. Benedict for appreciating the dignity of work, and share his insight into the dignity of workers.

Today’s artistic depiction of St. Benedict comes from the Holy Cross Abbey in Baden, near Vienna, Austria. It was painted around 1926 by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928), who depicted many religious scenes. The scene captures two of the most important iconographic motifs connected to St. Benedict: his black habit, the habit of the Benedictines, and his Rule, in whose composition he is engaged. The priority of God is accented in two ways: the Rule is beneath the Cross, which is the supreme “Rule” of Christians, and Benedict is not focused on his work but looks away, toward heaven, for inspiration. The light of the Holy Spirit is shown inspiring him.

Other paintings of Benedict typically illustrate miracles worked by him, including the efforts of his less-than-devout charges back in Subiaco who attempted to poison him. 

Benedict is co-patron of Europe. His influence and that of his order have in large measure made Western Christendom what it is. That and his focus on holiness in community were among the inspirations of Joseph Ratzinger to take the papal name Benedict XVI.