Today the Church honors St. Benedict whose Benedictine monasteries kept the Church alive through the Dark Ages. Benedict was born north of Rome in 480, a time when Roman civilization had crumbled before barbarian invasions. Growing up a happy boy, in his twenties Benedict became disgusted with the low life of his companions. That had him fleeing to a cave east of Rome at a desolate area known as Subiaco.
Securing a two-hundred year-old account of the life of St. Anthony who had fled corruption to find God in the Egyptian desert, Benedict took up Anthony’s practice of chanting the Psalms at fixed hours of the days. As had been the case with Anthony, Benedict drew other young men to join in his prayer life.
Benedict was in his late twenties when he got word that his uncle had left him many acres on the high slopes of Monte Casino south of Rome. Although there is no reliable documentation of the event, the founding of Monte Casino’s Abbey is put at 510 A.D. That is curious because that was the year that St. Finnian founded the great Irish monastery at Clonard in Co. Meath.
With there having been no communication between Ireland and Italy, Benedictine and Finnian were unaware of each other. Still, it can be interesting now to compare their contributions to the world.
We are indebted to Finnian for two achievements. First, he had gathered a great trove of copies of ancient literature and Bible texts which his monks saved for us by laboriously copying them over and over through the centuries. Secondly, his disciples from Clonard went out through Britain and northern Europe, restoring Catholicism to a pagan world.
St. Benedict’s contribution, though of a less spectacular sort, was more enduring. While the Irish monks had kept up St. Anthony of Egypt’s practices of severe penances aimed at bringing their bodies under subjection to their souls, Benedict put such practices aside. His rule of monastic life kept to the Roman conviction that healthy souls could only be maintained when they are accompanied by healthy bodies. St. Benedict’s rule for healthy monastic life is still followed with good effect today.