Short biography of St. Benedict
“There was a man of venerable life, who was blessed (Benedictus) in both grace and name.” With these words pope Saint Gregory the Great begins his account of Benedict in the 2nd book of his Dialogues, which in addition to the Rule is a document and source of information about Benedict’s life and work. Benedict was born around 480 in Nursia, Umbria, to a well-off family. With him, tradition mentions his twin sister, Saint Scholastica. Near his hometown, there were a couple of monks living in caves in the Castorian Valley, to which Gregory the Great testifies in the First Book of the Dialogues (22), so it is imaginable that Benedict came into contact with monks at an early age and familiarized himself with monastic life.
He was sent to study in Rome. In the city and in the whole Empire, it was a time of turbulent events. The Empire increasingly weakened; there was disorder, insecurity and corruption. Not all was negative, though. Living and studying in Rome, Benedict must have had the opportunity to see and learn about church life and forms of monastic life in Rome at that time. From the vice of the world and the world’s wisdom (as Gregory the Great says), Benedict escapes – not to the wilderness, though, but to Affile, a small town 50 km away from Rome – to live ascetic life. Not wanting the glory of the world offered to him after his first miracle, but only and entirely to be wearied with labour for God’s sake, Benedict leaves Affile and seeks solitude in the valley of Aniene, in Subiaco. With the help of monk Romanus he begins his monastic hermit’s life in a cave, in penance and asceticism. For three years, he struggles with demons, temptations, with himself, he prays and mortifies himself. He wants to live like that forever.
The Lord had other plans for Benedict. On the persistent pleas of the nearby community, who wanted him for their abbot on account of his holy and penitential life, he leaves the hermit’s life and begins the life of a coenobite and father of monks. This first attempt ends in failure. That same community that had unanimously wanted him for their superior, decided to poison him because of the discipline and order that Benedict strictly (23) kept and observed. With his blessing St. Benedict disarms this trap of Satan and returns back “to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself …” (Dialogues II, 3). But his holiness and virtuous life continued to attract many people who wanted to live under his leadership and serve almighty God.
He, then, builds twelve small monasteries in Subiaco in the Sublaquean Valley, each with its own superior, yet all dependent on him. In this we can recognize the influence of the Eastern monasticism that Benedict knew well. Over the years, a different ideal of the organization of the communal (coenobitic) life matures in St. Benedict. He leaves Subiaco and arrives in Montecassino in 529, where he builds a large monastery as a contained unit, for a numerically larger community. Benedict is convinced that God, the ultimate goal of our search, can be found in the heart of the community in its everyday life. It is precisely in the community, through the ultimate perseverance, that the Paschal mystery of Christ is realized in every monk. In 547, in the church of the Montecassino monastery, assisted by his disciples, with his hands lifted up to heaven, praying, Benedict gave up his spirit (Dialogues II, 37).