By Dom Bruno Hicks OSB (1878-1954),
Monk of Downside Abbey
BENEDICTINE Monasticism, whether analyzed as a system of ascetic life or viewed merely in the light of the influence it has exercised on the history of religious thought and action, is too vast a subject to be dealt with in a manner that should at once combine clearness with brevity.
The simple fact that it has now endured for more than fourteen hundred years makes any short sketch of its history necessarily inadequate. The great variety of labors undertaken at different periods, as need arose, by the Benedictine monks, precludes the possibility of describing any particular line of usefulness as characteristic of Benedictine work. Nor is this latter fact in any sense an accidental one.
It must be recognized at the very outset that Benedictines have no special work that would of necessity exclude other undertakings. In this peculiar feature the monks differ essentially from the members of other religious orders. These have come into existence at later periods in the Church's history to meet special needs. The religious who belong to them have, in large measure, taken up religious life as a means towards carrying out some definite end.
Benedictine work, on the other hand, has varied in every period of history, and the monks have labored at different times -- merely as circumstances or necessities demanded. Thus we find them at one time engaged in the revival of practical asceticism, at another they are devoting their energies to the preaching of the Gospel to the heathen. Later on, we shall find them striving for reform in the Church; or it may be that education, art, science, or agriculture are the objects to which their attention is directed.
St. Benedict lived the greater part of his life in the early sixth century. He had forsaken a promising career in the world to give himself up solely to God, and in the spirit of asceticism then existing in Italy he had retired as a hermit to a lonely cave. Whole-hearted as was his sacrifice of self, and fervent his desire of serving God the best way he could achieve, he soon discovered by experience that the monasticism then in vogue in Italy was unsuited in character to the country and the age.
The excessive austerity, so cardinal a maxim of Oriental Monasticism, was out of place in Western Europe. It was impossible of realization. Inability to live up to it produced, as was natural enough, discouragement and demoralization, and consequent laxity was but the inevitable sequel of an abiding sense of failure. Quick to perceive the root of the evil, St. Benedict applied the obvious remedy, and when he founded his monastery on the famous mountain of Cassino, he gave his followers a rule of life that was practical and possible for even the weakest among them.
Here then, at Monte Cassino in St. Benedict's time, we perceive a characteristic phase of Benedictine life, often to be repeated in later ages, The monks are living in their monastery, dividing their time between prayer, labor and reading. Community life is here in all its features. It is a family living in concord and holiness, each one contented with his share in the goods of the monastery and the particular occupation assigned to him.
There is no scope for idleness, no cause for murmuring.
Mutual respect and obedience are especially evident among the brethren, nor is the talented monk, engaged in literary or artistic work, given any preference before the simple rustic brother whose labor consists solely in digging of the soil. Precedence in the monastery depends merely on the length of time a monk has given himself to God.
The rule of life, severe to our modern notions, was reasonable, almost easy. Its rigor consisted chiefly in its close observance. St. Benedict, though of eminent sanctity and great width of mind, never suffered for a moment the ordinances of monastic life to be neglected or watered down. His ideas, for instance, regarding the observance of obedience were distinctly rigorous in character.
The monk should never know delay -- the phrase is significant -- in carrying out the precepts of the abbot or of the Rule, and the obligation in this matter extended even to commands in themselves apparently impossible.
Again, if we take St. Benedict's conception of poverty, we notice that he did not mean it oppress his monks. They were indeed to be supplied liberally with all necessities, but regarding the principle of possessing nothing of their own the, monks well knew that in this matter their holy Father's rule was absolute, and never could or would admit exception.
Strict observance of a liberal regime, fidelity to their vocation, a deep love of Christian worship and Christian work, were the characteristics of these early monks whom St. Benedict trained at Monte Cassino. These became, unconsciously, the pioneers of Western Monasticism. Attending only to the work assigned to them -- whether it was the cultivation of the soil, the studying of the Sacred Scriptures or the administration of mere domestic details -- they were soon to become the Apostles of Western Europe.
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