Saint Benedict was born in Nursia (now Norcia, in central Italy) probably in the year 480. The Roman Empire had fallen in the West, “barbarians” ruled over Rome, the great Augustine of Hippo lived and died a generation before, and most of the Church’s theological activity and leadership seemed to be located in the Greek-speaking East. This was, for Europe, what felt like a ‘Dark Age.’
As a young man, Benedict gave up his studies in Rome for reasons unknown, and met a monk who convinced him to live as a hermit for a few years. Eventually Benedict emerged a more mature man and went on to found twelve monastic communities before moving to Monte Cassino in the mountains of Southern Italy. There, his most-remembered and treasured legacy was forged: The Rule of Saint Benedict.
Every community has its Rule of Life – an agreed code by which its members are to live and order themselves. Up to that point in history, there were many Rules by which a monastic community might order itself, but Benedict’s Rule, drawing upon previous sources, possessed a particular genius of balance that sat well not only with his monks, but many other monasteries as well, to the point where virtually every monastic community in Western Europe was “Benedictine.”
Benedictine Monasticism is known for its balance between ora et labora – prayer and labor. There were seven set times for prayer interspersed throughout each day (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers), plus one Night Office (Compline) at roughly midnight. The rest of the community’s schedule of work, rest, private contemplation, and eating was ordered very carefully, with schedule adjustments between summer and winter to account for the changing length of the daylight hours.
In the English Reformation and to this day, Benedictine spirituality, with its emphasis on simple worship and a balanced use of time, is encapsulated in the Prayer Book tradition. The various “offices” of prayer were condensed into two (Morning and Evening Prayer), though Sext (Midday Prayer) and Compline have made a come-back in recent times. Where the Benedictine Rule called for the weekly recitation of the Psalms, the Prayer Book calls for the monthly recitation. Where the Benedictine Rule called for a simple set of Scriptural Canticles and Lessons, the Prayer Book does the same.
In short, where most Protestant traditions lost the richness and wisdom of Benedictine spirituality in the course of the Reformation and the removal of the monasteries, the Anglican tradition pursued a sort of ‘monastization of the laity’ by placing the best possible sampling of monastic worship into the hands of all Christians. We may not have the time in our day for seven daily offices of prayer to interrupt our jobs, but we can observe two.
Thus, Saint Benedict’s approach to spirituality is of special significance to us in the Anglican tradition.
His commemoration was on the 21st of March in many places for a time, but is now generally observed on July 11th.