Chapter 29

CHAPTER XXIX: ST. BENEDICT, PART I (AD 480-529)

Let us now look again at the monks. Their way of life was at first
devised as a means of either practising repentance for sin, or
rising to such a height of holiness as was supposed to be beyond the
reach of persons busied in the affairs of this world. But in course
of time a change took place. As the life of monks grew more common,
it grew less strict; indeed, it would seem that whenever any way of
life which professes to be very strict becomes common, its
strictness will pretty surely be lessened, or given up altogether.
People at first turned monks because they felt that such means of
holy living as they had been used to did not make them so good as
they ought to be, and because they hoped to do better in this new
kind of life. But when the monkish life was no longer new, monks
neglected its rules, just as those before them had neglected the
rules which holy Scripture and the Church had laid down for all
Christians.

In the unhappy days which had now come on, the monasteries of the
West had in great measure escaped the evils of war and conquest
which laid waste everything around them. The barbarians, who
overwhelmed the empire, generally respected them; and now the life
of monks, instead of being chosen for its hardships, as it had been
at first, came to be regarded as the easiest and the safest life of
all. It was sought after as one which would free people from the
dangers to which they would be liable if they remained in the world,
and took the common share of the world's risks and troubles.

Another important matter was this--that monkery had taken its rise
in Egypt and in Syria, where the climate and the habits of the
people were very different from those of the western countries. And a
great part of the monkish rules were fitted only for the particular
circumstances and character of the eastern nations;--for instance,
they could do with less food than the people of the West, so that a
writer of the fifth century said, "A large appetite is gluttony in
the Greeks, but in the Gauls it is nature." Again, the Egyptians and
the Syrians, in their hot climate, did not need active employment in
the same way as the western nations do, in order to keep their minds
and their bodies healthful. They could spend their hours and their
days in calmly thinking of spiritual things, or of nothing at all,
in a way which the more active mind of Europeans cannot bear. And
again, many rules as to dress, which are suitable for one sort of
climate, are quite unfit for a different sort.

Now the earlier rules for monks had been drawn up either in the East
or after eastern patterns. And although, when they were brought into
the West, people for a time obeyed them as well as they could, it
was found that they would not obey them any longer when the first
heat of zeal for monkery had passed away. Hence it followed, that,
throughout the monasteries of the West, there was a general neglect
of the rules by which they professed to be governed; and it was high
time that there should be some reformation.

A reformer arose in the sixth century. This was Benedict, who was
born near Nursia, in Italy, in the year 480. At the age of twelve he
was sent to school at Rome, under the care of a nurse, as seems to
have been usual in those days. He worked hard at his studies, but
the bad behaviour of the other boys and young men at Rome so shocked
him, that, when he had been there two years, he resolved to bear it
no longer. He therefore suddenly ran away from the city, and, after
his nurse had gone a considerable distance with him, he left her,
and made his way into a rough and lonely country near Subiaco, where
he took up his abode in a cave. Here he was found out by a monk of a
neighbouring house, named Romanus, who used daily to save part of
his own allowance of food, and to carry it to his young friend. The
cave opened from the face of a lofty rock, and the way that Romanus
took of conveying the food to Benedict was by letting it down at the
end of a string from the top of the rock.

Benedict had lived in this manner for three years when he was
discovered by some shepherds, who at first took him for some wild
animal; but they soon found that he was something very different. He
taught them and others to whom they made his abode known, and his
character came to be so much respected in the neighbourhood that he
was chosen abbot of a monastery. He warned the monks that they would
probably not like him, but they were resolved to have him
nevertheless. Their habits, however, were so bad, that Benedict felt
himself obliged to check them rather sharply; and the monks then
attempted to get rid of him by mixing poison in his drink. But he
found out their wicked design, and the only reproof which he gave
them was by reminding them how he had warned them not to make him
their abbot. With this he left them to themselves, and went quietly
back to his cave.

His name now grew more and more famous. Great multitudes of people
flocked to see him, and even persons of high rank sent their sons to
be trained under him. He built twelve monasteries, each for an abbot
and twelve monks. But there was a spiteful monk, named Florentius,
who would not allow him any peace so long as they were near each
other; so Benedict thought it best to give way, and in 528 he left
Subiaco, with some companions, and, after some wanderings, arrived
at Mount Cassino. There he found that the country people still
worshipped some of the old heathen gods, and that there was a grove
which was held sacred to these gods. But he set boldly to work, and,
notwithstanding all that could be done to oppose him, he cut down
the grove, destroyed the idols, and built a little chapel, from
which in time grew up a great and famous monastery, which still
exists. And at Mount Cassino he drew up his Rule in the year 529; so
that the beginning of the monks of St. Benedict was in the very
same year in which heathen philosophy came to its end by the closing
of the schools of Athens (p 143).

PART II (AD 529-543)

Benedict had seen the mischief which arose from too great strictness
of rules. He saw how it led to open disobedience and carelessness in
some, and to hypocritical pretence in others; and therefore he meant
to guard against these faults by making his rule milder than those
of the East. It was to be such that Europeans might keep it without
danger to their health, and he allowed it to be varied according to
the circumstances of the different countries in which it might be
established.

Every Benedictine monastery was to be under an abbot, who was to be
chosen by the monks. The brethren were to obey the abbot in
everything, while the abbot was charged not to be haughty or
tyrannical in using his authority. Next to the abbot there might
either be a "provost," or (which Benedict liked better) there might
be a number of "elders" or "deans," who were to help and advise the
abbot in the government of his monasteries. Any one who wished to
join the order was to undergo trial for a year before admission.
Those who were admitted into it were required to give in a written
vow that they would continue in it, that they would amend their
lives, and that they would obey those who were set over them. Every
monk was obliged to give up all his property to the order; nobody
was allowed to have anything of his own, but all things were common
to the brethren. The monks might not receive any presents or
letters, even from their nearest relations, without the abbot's
knowledge and leave, and if a present were sent for one of them, the
abbot had the power to keep it from him, and to give it to any other
monk.

It was one important part of the rule that the monks should have
sufficient employment provided for them. They were to get up at two
o'clock in the morning; they were to attend eight services a day,
or, if they happened to be at a distance from their monastery, they
were to observe the hours of the services by prayer; and they were
to work seven hours. Portions of time were allowed for learning
psalms by heart, and for reading the Scriptures, lives of holy men,
and other edifying books. At meals the monks were not to talk, but
some book was to be read aloud to them. Their food was to be plain
and simple; no flesh was allowed, except to the sick. But all such
matters were to be settled by the abbot, according to the climate
and the season, to the age, the health, and the employment of the
monks. Their dress was to be coarse, but was to be varied according
to circumstances. They were to sleep by ten or twenty in a room,
each in a separate bed, and without taking off their clothes. A dean
was to have the care of each room, and a light was to be kept
burning in each. No talking was to be allowed after the last service
of the day.

The monks were never to go beyond the monastery without leave, and,
in order that there might be little occasion for their going out, it
was to contain within its walls the garden, the well, the mill, the
bakehouse, and other such necessary things. The abbot was to set
every monk his work; if it were found that any one was inclined to
pride himself on his skill in any art or trade, he was not to be
allowed to practise it, but was obliged to take up some other
employment.

Benedict died in 543, and by that time his order had made its way
into France, Spain, and Sicily. It soon drew into itself all the
monks of the West, and was divided into a number of branches, which
all looked up to Benedict as their founder; and, although it would
be a sad mistake to wish for any revival of monkery in our own days,
we ought, in justice, to see and to acknowledge that through God's
providence these monks became the means of great benefits to
mankind. Not only were their services important for the maintenance
of the Gospel where it was already planted, and for the spreading of it
among the heathen, but they cleared forests, brought waste lands
into tillage, and did much to civilize the rude nations among whom
they laboured. After a time, learning began to be cultivated among
them, and during the troubled ages which followed, it found a refuge
in the monasteries. The monks taught the young; they copied the
Scriptures and other ancient books (for printing was as yet
unknown); they wrote histories of their times, and other books of
their own. To them, indeed, it is that we are mainly indebted for
preserving the knowledge of the past through many centuries.