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St. Benedict


Benedict of Nursia lived from approximately 480 to 550 CE and is known as the Father of Western Monasticism. While Antony of Egypt paved the way for hermits or those who chose to live alone in the desert to seek the Holy One, Benedict gathered like-minded men around himself and wrote a rule of conduct for living in community. As a young man, Benedict tried the monasteries of his days, but found them lacking in structure, order and morality. He crafted a rule around 515 CE that became the foundation for all religious orders that were to follow. Benedict also wanted to live simply and live off the land, which makes him a great role model for those of us who are interested in sustainable growing and farming. The motto for Benedict and the men and women who were to follow in his footsteps, the Benedictines, is “ora et labore,” or “pray and work”. They go hand in hand. Many of the saints found this balance between this world and the next, e.g. Catherine of Siena, a 13th century Dominican nun and mystic viewed life as “contemplation in action”. Prayer and work offer balance to one’s life.




One of the other things than Benedict did was to mark time as sacred before the Lord. In his rule, he called for prayer around the clock, as had been done for centuries, but he gave it more form and structure. The Liturgy of the Hours, that magnificent prayer, composed of psalms and canticles and other Scripture readings, was the result. Marking time before the Lord was not new. Going back to the Aaronic priesthood in the Hebrew Scriptures, (Ex 29:38), priests were commanded to offer sacrifice twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening:

               Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day.

               One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening.

When the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they had no temple, and began to substitute the psalms once in the morning and once in the evening. During the second temple period, when the temple was rebuilt, prayer services began to be developed for local communities, and additional prayers were added in the third, sixth and ninth hours. Luke makes mention of them in the Acts of the Apostles (2:15 and 10:9), so certainly the early disciples were praying several times a day. In Benedict’s Rule, however (ch. 8-19), he adds more structure. So, in early morning, one prayed morning prayer or Lauds. At the first hour (roughly 6 a.m.) one prayed Prime; at the third hour (mid-morning), one prayed Terce; the sixth hour or mid-day, None. Sunset or evening prayer became Vespers; Night prayer or when one went to bed, Compline and for those who could rise in the middle of the night, Matins. All were composed of the Book of Psalms and other canticles and Scripture readings. Gradually, some readings from the fathers of the Church were added, petitions and always the Our Father. The Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, or the breviary, as it was also called, followed the cycles of the Church year, so there were Advent readings and Lenten readings and Easter readings, etc. The psalms were divided into a one-week cycle, but after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), that was extended to four weeks. More psalms were being utilized.

In the monasteries, where prayer was common, the Divine Office was usually sung. Since psalms are hymns that were broken up into verses by Benedict’s time, the monks alternated verses, singing back and forth to each other, and chant was born. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that:

1176 The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours demands not only harmonizing the voice with the praying heart, but also a deeper understanding of the liturgy and of the Bible, especially of the psalms.

and in paragraph 1178, it says:

IMG 1295-300pxThe Liturgy of the hours, which is like the extension of the Eucharistic celebration, does not exclude, but rather in a complementary way calls forth the various devotions of the people of God

In his Rule, Benedict addressed what kind of a man a monk should be, what kind of a man an abbot should be, the value of good works, of obedience, silence and humility. He gave instructions how the Divine office was to be prayed, how it was to be prayer in summer, and how reverence was to be maintained. Benedict spelled out behavior in the monastery, what to eat and drink, when to maintain silence, how the monastery was organized and how councils were to be held, even down to the tools of the monastery and how pilgrims were to be received.

Benedict also had a sister, Scholastica, who became not only the Abbess for the Benedictine nuns, but a saint in her own right as well.

Benedict’s Rule was read to the monks several times a year, and in the Rule it stipulates that Novices were to hear it three times in their first year, thereby making it a familiar text. It was Benedict’s answer not only to his call by God but also to Plato’s question:

It is no chance topic that engages us, for our subject is:

How shall a man order his life?

Benedict gives us a guide to put order to our days and to sanctify time as we move through the cycles and seasons of our years. Praise God!

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

Evelyn Underhill