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World Chronology, Lesson 30. Life of St. Benedict (480-547 AD)

There are three tasks for this lesson:

  1. Study the Lesson.
  2. Complete the Memory Work.
  3. Complete the lesson Exam.

Lesson

Throughout this course in World Chronology, we have studied two separate histories that are mysteriously one.  We have studied the history of man and have seen an endless rising and falling of cities and kingdoms, controlled by wars, money and treachery.  It is a dark, bloody and cold history.  We have also studied the history of God’s people, which has been quite a different story.  It began as a single man, Abraham, wandering in a land that was promised to him by God, moved through a time of slavery, then into possession of Canaan until the birth of the Savior. Since Christ’s ascent into heaven, it has grown supernaturally to fill the Roman Empire–without any wars or money or treachery.  The history of the kingdom of God is one of peace and love, leaving us with the old Latin saying, Amor vincit omnia (Love conquers all.).  We sing these two histories in our regular prayers:

God to man entrusted Life as gift and aim,
Sin became our prison, Turning hope to shame.
Man against his brother Lifted hand and sword,
And the Father’s pleading Went unseen, unheard.

Then in time, our Maker, Chose to intervene,
Set his love in person On the human scene.
Jesus broke the cycle, Of repeated sin,
So that man’s devotion Newly might begin.

After Rome fell and the the dust settled, Christians throughout the Roman Empire rejoiced that the promise God made to Abraham long ago had been fulfilled–“That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear, In holiness and justice before him, all our days.” (Luke 1:74-75)  However, when the enemies of Christendom had been put down and the kingdom of God enjoyed peace and freedom, the virtues that the Christians had become famous for were no longer as important as they once were.  The courage of the martyrs was no longer required of Christians, for there was no longer fear of persecution.  The genuine faith that was necessary for one to pledge allegiance to Christ was no longer required when there were temporal benefits for doing so.  The heavenly wisdom of bishops and priests needed to conduct the affairs of the Church with the innocence of doves but the shrewdness of serpents was not as necessary when the Church was at peace and not financially needy.  Over time, many became concerned that the Church was being corrupted by the new ease of life it found.  Many Christians were concerned that the ways of Christ, the Apostles and the Martyrs of the early Church would be lost and the Church would be greatly weakened.  A movement within the Church developed as early as 340 AD, through which holy men and women sought to preserve the apostolic traditions.  This movement is called Monasticism.

Origins of Monasticism 

The word monastic comes from the Greek word mono which means “one” or “alone”.  The idea that a man could draw closer to God by stepping away from the distractions and temptations of the world was not a Christian invention.  The ancient prophets had always retired to pray, fast, study and meditate.  Moses, for example, left the people of Israel to ascend to the mountain–alone–to speak with God.  John the Baptist prepared for his ministry by leaving the cities of Israel to dwell in the mountains of Judea–alone–where he lived on locusts and wild honey, wearing only a piece of camel skin for clothing.  After Our Lord was baptized, he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness–alone–to do battle with the devil.  In fact, throughout the life of Jesus, we find him going off–alone–to pray.  It is this sense of being “alone” with God that forms the basic idea of monasticism and we all know how helpful it can be for us to spend time–alone–with God, whether we are reading the Scriptures, praying or just thinking about our lives.

The benefit of seeking God alone was made most clear by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and it is Christ’s own teaching that inspired the first men to seek monastic life.  Christ challenged all men who would follow Him to “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” and that requires that a man dedicate his entire life to the pursuit of that heavenly perfection.  Our Lord taught that three things would be necessary for a man to do this.  First, Christ challenged His followers that they would have to give up all desire for worldly wealth and to sacrifice all private possessions to lead a life of voluntary poverty.  Second, Christ challenged His followers to deny themselves all pleasures of the flesh, which meant that they could not marry or have sexual relations but instead lead a life of voluntary chastity. Third, Christ challenged His followers to sacrifice their desire for freedom and lead a life of total obedience, keeping Christ’s commands and imitating His example in everything.  These three challenges:  Poverty, Chastity and Obedience are now known as the “Evangelical Counsels” and form the basic standards for the Christian life.  It is important to note that they are not commands that MUST be followed in the highest degree, but are counsels or challenges for us to strive to live up to.  We should not be discouraged or think that a Christian who is unable to answer these challenges perfectly is not a true Christian.  Our Lord, knowing that some of His true followers would be spiritually weaker than others, and that all would grow towards perfection at different rates, established different states of life, in which all men and women might seek perfection.  While He challenged all men to follow Him without any distractions, He allowed for men and women to follow Him in the married state, where poverty, chastity and obedience are practiced to the greatest degree possible, while men and women are protected against the temptations and weaknesses of the flesh by the marriage relationship.  St. Paul explained this when he wrote:

“I would like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord.  But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.  I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of…adherence to the Lord without distraction.” (1 Cor. 7)

Note how St. Paul says this–not as a command for all to obey, but as his own advice to seek what is best.  Thus, many like St. Paul answered the call to perfection and devoted themselves as single men or women to serve the Lord “without distraction”.  Others, unable to do so, married and serve the Lord through marriage and family life.  The early Christians who chose to live in the unmarried state pursued the way of perfection privately, within their own homes and among their own families.  As time went on, however, especially after Constantine made Christianity legal and ended the persecution of Christians, the ability for a man or women to hold to the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience was made more difficult because there was less of a division between the world and the Church.  Therefore, as early as the 3rd century, Christians began moving away from home to pursue Christ’s call to perfection in deserted places.

Eastern Monasticism:  St. Anthony of Egypt

The most famous of the early Christian ascetics was St. Anthony of Egypt, who is the father of Eastern monasticism.  Anthony was born in a wealthy family and when he was 20 years old his parents died and he inherited all of their wealth.  Desiring to answer Christ’s call to poverty, chastity and obedience, St. Anthony gave all of his wealth away and devoted himself to the way of perfection–the monastic life.  Anthony lived in a tomb outside his home village, where he was visited and attacked by demons as he followed Christ.  Here, he was able to speak with other ascetics and learn from them, but when he was 35 years old he moved to a mountain in Egypt and never saw a man for 20 years.  Despite his desire for complete isolation to seek the Lord without distraction, other ascetics moved to the area and begged him to teach and lead them.  He accepted their request and led them as a community of ascetics for 5 years before leaving again for isolation for the rest of his life.  Despite his great sacrifices and simplicity of life, he lived over 100 years, performed amazing miracles and became famous throughout the world.   The Life of St. Anthony of Egypt was written by St. Athanasius around 357 AD.

Early European Monasticism:  St. Martin & John Cassian

After St. Athanasius wrote the life of St. Anthony of Egypt, Christians in Europe began to imitate the famous desert monk.  The two most famous followers of St. Anthony in Europe were St. Martin of Tours and John Cassian.

St. Martin was a holy boy who grew up in Italy and, when he was only 12 years old wished to begin the monastic life and answer Christ’s call to poverty, chastity and obedience.  He was required, however, to serve his country in the military at the age of 15 and did so virtuously.  While a soldier, Martin practiced the evangelical counsels and lived with nothing more than the clothes on his body and his sword.  However, one day, he came upon a poor man in the streets that was naked and hungry.  Martin, seeing the man, called for others to help him, but none listened.  At last, Martin took his sword and cut his own cloak into two pieces and gave the man half of his cloak.  That night, Christ appeared to Martin in a vision–wearing Martin’s robe!  Shortly thereafter, Martin was baptized and planned to retire from military life as soon as his duty was fulfilled.

Martin’s life was filled with miraculous deeds and saintly virtues.  He studied the way of St. Anthony and established a monastery at Liguge in western France (Gaul) after being named bishop in Tours.  St. Martin’s monastery grew to include over 2,000 monks by the time of his death and is still home to a great monastery today called “St. Martin’s Abbey”.  The Life of St. Martin of Tours was written by Sulpitius Severus in the 4th century AD.

John Cassian spent seven years in the deserts of Egypt among the disciples of St. Anthony before moving himself to southeastern France (near the Italian border) to another monastery at Lerins, which had been an uninhabited island but was built into a giant monastery by the time Cassian arrived in the early 400s.  He later led the founding of a monastery in Marseilles, another city in southern France.  John Cassian wrote two famous works, the Conferences and the Institutes. In the Conferences, Cassian shares his conferences or conversations with holy monks in the deserts of Egypt.  Here we read of monks possessing miraculous powers, maintaining great fasts and living with the simplest and most beautiful charity.  In the Institutes, John Cassian first lays down the rules of life for monks who wish to follow the way of St. Anthony, and then teaches monks how to overcome what were called the “eight principal faults”:  Gluttony,Fornication, Covetousness, Anger, Dejection, Sloth, Vainglory and Pride.   It is a complete manual on the Egyptian way of monastic living.

Western Monasticism:  St. Benedict

Up to this point in Christian history, we have seen the rise of monasticism following the Christianization of the Roman Empire, all of which has been based on the traditions and practices of the Egyptian (eastern) monks led by St. Anthony.  While the goal of monasticism was to seek individual perfection, the monks formed communities in different places and submitted to a leader in each monastery, known as an Abbot (for monks) or an Abbess (for nuns).  This is not a good situation, for whenever men depend on a number of good rulers, troubles arise when those good leaders need replacements.  The philosopher Aristotle taught that a wise lawmaker is better than wise judges because a wise lawmaker writes the laws in wisdom once and for all, whereas wise judges must be replaced and such men are rare.   In ancient Israel, God gave the law through Moses. God ruled Israel through a king.  God established the Church with a single head–St. Peter–who ruled in Christ’s place on earth.  Having individual monasteries with individual leaders and constantly changing rules would not be good for Christians and, by the 5th century, standards of monastic life were already slipping.  The strict, even miraculous, asceticism of the eastern monks would not be realistic for the monks of Europe.  The weather was different.  The culture was different.  The history was different.  There were more distractions and temptations to overcome.  A rule appropriate for all of the western monasteries had to be developed. The work of developing standards and rules for western monasticism would be left to St. Benedict of Nursia.   The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most important writings in human history, being the work that established the rule for western European monasteries and that created what we now consider to be the culture of the Medieval world.  First, let’s learn a little about the life of St. Benedict.

Benedict was born to a wealthy family and lived in Rome.  Amazingly, he was a twin and both he and his sister, Scholastica grew to be saints!   Benedict grew up and was well educated, but between the ages of 14 and 20 chose to end his studies, give up his inheritance and devote himself to Christ’s call to perfection.  He left Rome and moved to a place called Enfide where he could live away from the distractions of the city in the company of other holy men seeking the same.  Benedict’s privacy would soon be lost because at Enfide he performed his first miracle and became well-known.  He abandoned Enfide to hide from his fame in Subiaco, where he intended to live in poverty, working with his own hands to provide for his daily needs.  There, Benedict lived in a cave for three years but in time, Benedict was sought out by monks desiring to learn from him and he established a monastery where he ruled as Abbot.

In time, it became difficult for him to continue in Subiaco, so he and his monks moved to Monte Cassino.  There, St. Benedict formed his famous monastery and wrote his rule.  At Monte Cassino, the monks followed Benedict’s motto Ora et Labora (Pray and Work) and took up all sorts of work to provide for their own needs and for the needs of their neighbors–farming, education, mechanical arts, study, etc..  The Benedictine monks were permitted to do any work that provided for their needs and allowed them to maintain their schedule of prayer.  To the three vows taken by monks–poverty, chastity and obedience–Benedict added a fourth.  He believed that to build the kind of community life that was needed for monks to lead a balanced life of work and prayer a Vow of Stability was needed.  This vow of stability allowed men who chose to leave their families and homes behind to become members of a new family, built not on blood relationships but around spiritual relationships.  Just as the father in a household is responsible for the permanent physical care of his children, so the Abbot of the monastery was made responsible for the permanent spiritual care of his “children”.  Thus, the Benedictine monastery is known by its four principles:  Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and Stability.

St. Benedict began his rule by explaining that there are four different kinds of monks and this is very helpful for us to understand what made St. Benedict’s rule special in history:

“It is well known that there are four kinds of monks.  The first kind are the Cenobites: those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot.  The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits: those who…go out well armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. They are able now, with no help save from God, to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh and their own evil thoughts. The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6), by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead…They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.  The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues. These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak.  Passing these over, therefore, let us proceed, with God’s help, to lay down a rule for the strongest kind of monks, the Cenobites.”

Therefore, we learn quickly that St. Benedict believed that the BEST form of monastic life was life in a monastery community with established rules that were enforced by an Abbot. He speaks very strongly against the Sarabaites because they do not learn to live under any rule and are not disciplined by obedience.  He speaks most strongly against the Gyrovagues because they do not remain in one place and therefore learn nothing of community and order.  Thus, the Rule of St. Benedict provided the western world with a model for Christian living that would allow men and women in all places to pursue the call to Christian perfection regardless of their place or time.  The Rule of St. Benedict can be read online in English here.

Summary

After the Rule of St. Benedict was completed around 530 AD and it quickly spread through Europe thanks to the work of Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) to make sure it spread.  Pope St. Gregory established a Benedictine monastery in Rome and sent missionaries to the farthest boundaries of western Europe with Benedict’s rule.  Thus, the rule of St. Benedict, being meant for ordinary Catholics rather than priests and bishops alone, formed the basic rule and order for all of western Christendom from the 6th century through the 10th century.  St. Benedict is not only the father of western monasticism, but he is recognized by the Catholic Church as the patron saint of all Europe and the patron saint of students.  Today, St. Benedict stands in the presence of God making intercession for those who live according to his principles of life.

Memory Work

Directions: Read each date and event and recite it several times. By daily repetition, thoroughly memorize these events. Memorize them using your complete chart so that you can “see” the chart in your mind.

  • The Ancient World (4000 BC – 750 BC)
  • Ancient Egypt begins (3000 BC)
  • Life of Noah (2950 BC – 2000 BC)
  • Life of Abraham (2000 BC – 1780 BC)
  • Hebrew Exodus (1450 BC – 1410 BC)
  • Trojan War (1200 BC)
  • Life of King David (1000 BC – 960 BC)
  • The Temple of Solomon (circa 960 BC)
  • City of Rome Founded (753 BC)
  • Homer Writes the Illiad & Odyssey (750 BC)
  • The Classical World (750 BC – 500 AD)
  • Assyrian Captivity (722 BC)
  • The Prophet Daniel in Babylon (600 BC – 535 BC)
  • Babylonian Captivity (586 BC)
  • Esdras the Scribe (530-450 BC)
  • The Roman Republic (509-31 BC)
  • Classical Greece (480 – 323 BC)
  • Conquests of Alexander the Great (336 – 323 BC)
  • The Hellenistic World (323 – 146 BC)
  • The Punic Wars (264 – 146 BC)
  • The Life of Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC)
  • The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD)
  • The Life of Jesus Christ (5BC – 33 AD)
  • The Christian Church Founded (33 AD)
  • The Destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD)
  • The New Testament (50 – 100 AD)
  • Constantine & the Edict of Milan (313 AD)
  • Nicene Creed (324 AD)
  • Edict of Thessalonica (380 AD)
  • Roman Empire Splits (395 AD)
  • The Fall of Rome (476 AD)
  • Life of St. Benedict (480 – 547 AD)
  •  The Medieval World (500 AD – 1500 AD)
  •  The Modern World (1500 AD – present

Resources

  1. Life of St. Anthony of Egypt, by St. Athanasius
  2. Life of St. Martin of Tours, by Sulpitius Severus
  3. Conferences of John Cassian
  4. Institutes of John Cassian
  5. Life of St. Benedict by Pope St. Gregory the Great
  6. Rule of St. Benedict
  7. The Medal of St. Benedict

Exam

  • World Chronology, Lesson 30 Exam