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Anyone travelling the highway from Rome to Naples undoubtably will notice at about the 80-mile point a huge complex on a hill on the east side of the road.
If so, that traveler has caught a glimpse of one of the most important sites of the Medieval world, The Abby of Monte Cassino.
What we see today has largely been rebuilt after the devastating allied bombings during World War II. That destruction obliterated 1,400-plus years of history in a couple of days. Today’s saint was the founder of that abby.
St. Benedict was born in the central Italian mountain town around AD 480. He would become one of the most important shapers of European culture since the fall of Rome. His model for monastic life spread to centers of prayer and hospitality throughout the continent. Benedictine monasteries were refuge for travelers and the poor and spiritual and cultural centers.
St. Gregory the Great called St. Benedict “a bright light” in an age of darkness.
From the time he was a boy, Benedict dedicated much time to prayer. His wealthy parents send him to be educated in Rome, but he was struck by the ample examples of vice and other transgressions. To escape the environment that had disappointed him so, he left Rome to live as a hermit in central Italy.
For three years he lived in a cave at Subiaco, which eventually would become the heart of the Benedictine monastery Sacro Speco. Later (529 AD), he would move to Monte Cassino, among the ruins of an ancient pagan acropolis, and with some of his disciples build their first abbey.
Benedict put together clear guidelines for monastic life, his Rule, around AD 530. Written in a familiar style, Benedict instructs his monks to reach out with “the ear of the heart” to “never despair of the mercy of God.”
“Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.”
Benedict believed that “idleness is an enemy of the soul.” He required the brothers to devote themselves to manual work part of the time and at other times to “reading books containing the word of God.”
He did not see prayer and work as opposites, but rather, they had a symbiotic relationship. He taught that without prayer, it is not possible to encounter God.
Benedictine life sees monastic life as “a school of the service of the Lord,” and cannot be without concrete commitment. For him work was an extension of prayer. “The Lord,” St. Benedict reminds us, “expects us daily to respond with facts to the doctrines of his holy teachings.”
The Benedictine monastery was a self-sufficient community and included everything needed for daily life: water, mill, garden, bakery and so on. Monks lived with bare essentials. Bedding, for example, consisted of a mattress, woolen blanket, woolen underblanket and pillow. Brothers were encouraged to prod the sleepy ones to rise and do their chores (no excuses in this club!).
All brothers took turns waiting on the others so no one avoided kitchen work. At table there was complete silence and food should be passed without need to ask for anything. Although wine was considered unsuitable for monks, Benedict recognized that that was a hard habit to break and allowed each monk a pint a day.
Monte Cassino would be attacked and ravaged several times through its history but always arose from the ashes. Because of its strategic position it was a nerve center of communication. In the 11th century, a large number of spiritual and artistic works were produced there, including some of the most famous illuminated manuscripts of the high Middle Ages.
Because of its cultural importance, and being a hub of diffusion of spiritual and theological works, the abbey’s periodic reconstructions involved some of the most talented artists of the time, who came to Monte Cassino from all over Europe, to contribute with their art to its decoration.
Today, the Abby of Monte Cassino stands as a testament to its founder and symbol of cooperation, enlightenment and learning through the ages.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from St. Benedict, Abbot, Patron of Europe (2020). In Vatican News. Retrieved from https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/07/11/st–benedict–abbot–patron-of-europe.html and Ancos. History of the Abbey of Montecassino. In Life in Italy. Retrieved from https://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/lazio/abbey-montecassino/