St Benedict, Father of Western Monasticism
St Benedict was born in Norcia, Italy, around 480 AD. Unimpressed by the quality of learning and life in Rome, he turned his back on such a life and decided to seek God alone. He found a lonely mountain 40 miles from Rome at Subiaco and lived in a cave to be alone, to pray and to surrender his life utterly to God. The cave is still there and the monastery which was later built round it. Although Benedict sought the life of a hermit, when others sought him out for his guidance and help, he responded Instead of the solitary search for God he taught them to seek God together in community. That community at Subiaco, however, did not appreciate the rigour of Benedict’s way and tried to poison him. The legend says that when the saint blessed the cup of poisoned wine, it shattered miraculously.
The Abbot of Monte Cassino
He left Subiaco and founded instead the great monastery of Monte Cassino, laying the foundation stone in the c. 530. Benedict may have spent some time as a hermit at Monte Cassino, too, but once again disciples flocked to him. At Monte Cassino Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks, which is the only surviving writing he left. Benedict died at Monte Cassino in 547.
The last of the barbarian invaders – the terrible Lombards – sacked Monte Cassino 34 years after Benedict’s death. They left it in ruins: but this was the seed that died in order to bear fruit a hundredfold. The monks themselves escaped and carried the treasured manuscript of the Rule to Rome. The Pope helped them to re-establish themselves in a monastery on the Caelian Hill. A few years later, in 597, a monk of this community, called Augustine, was sent under orders from the Pope to convert the wild and heathen inhabitants of England. Both Gregory and Augustine are regarded as secondary patrons of English Benedictines for this reason.
St Benedict's Rule
St Benedict did not invent monasticism. St Antony and the Egyptian monks, started it all in the 3rd century. St Basil and St Augustine wrote rules for monastic communities in the 4th century. Benedict himself relied on the writings of St John Cassian, and a document called 'The Rule of the Master' (which may have been written by a younger Benedict!). But the monks of the western Church all came to follow St Benedict's Rule, possibly because of its wisdom and flexibility.
Other monastic orders
There are other orders that also follow the Rule of St Benedict. These include the Cistercians, Trappists, and Camaldolese. Lay groups also use the Rule of St Benedict, notably the Manquehue Movement in Chile.