St. Benedict is regarded as the Father of Western Monasticism. It is his Rule – his expression of monasticism – that eventually permeated Europe. For many centuries Benedict's Rule has shaped the lives of myriads of monks and nuns all across Europe. Today, Benedict is one of the patron saints of Europe.
The details of Benedict's life are largely unknown. Our scanty knowledge of him comes from oral tradition and colorful accounts in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great. Additional insight can be gleaned from his Rule. Benedict was born in c. 480 in Norcia, situated in the Cybelene Mountains some 170 km east of Rome. As an intelligent young man with means, he embarked upon higher learning in Rome. He quickly became disillusioned with this endeavor and retreated to Enfide, a town 64 km east of Rome. There he lived with a group of ascetics, learning their way of life. After performing a miracle that brought him fame with its numerous distractions, Benedict was compelled to hide. He found shelter in a cave in Subiaco, where he lived as a hermit for three years. Despite his secrecy, he became known and was sought out for his wisdom and his leadership. Eventually, he founded a monastery at Subiaco. Later, he built another monastery at Monte Cassino. Here, he wrote his famous Rule, the distillation of his wisdom. In c. 547 he died and was buried at Monte Cassino. His tomb is still there today (along with that of his twin sister).
To appreciate Benedict fully we need to place him in his historical context. Italy was a war zone. In 410 Rome had been conquered by the Visigoths. By 476 the Western Roman Empire had collapsed. Nonetheless, battles for power continued on two fronts. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian was attempting to reclaim Italy. Barbarian tribes in and around Italy were fighting amongst themselves. This is the era into which Benedict was born. He grew up in a country that was aching from the casualties of war. In all likelihood his family and friends were mourning the deaths of relatives killed in action. He knew people who had been maimed in battle. The boy Benedict saw villages and farms that had been destroyed. In the midst of this turmoil, the young man found peace, hope, and meaning in Christianity. He was so taken by it that he surrendered his place of privilege to follow Jesus totally. And he did so with tremendous zeal. The Lord made Benedict into a radiant light that shone out brightly and attracted many many others, including men of Barbarian stock. His exemplary life made him a legend in his own day.
In 581, some 34 years after Benedict's death, the Lombards destroyed Monte Cassino. The monks fled to the Coelian Hill in Rome, taking Benedict's Rule with them. Benedict's spirit was to live on.