Just like every snowflake that ever fell upon the face of the earth is formed by a different pattern of ice crystals, every soul, born into this world, that comes forth from the hand of God is unique. God, in His divine Providence, creates a place for each soul to sanctify its life and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Monasteries and convents are places invented by God to enable souls to love Him without limit. Each Religious Order has a common goal, but they remain very different from each other. The Dominicans, for example, are called to contemplate the beauty of God’s light. After having contemplated the things of God, they communicate these truths to their fellow man. The Franciscans, drawn by the joy and freedom of a child of God, willfully embrace the path of material poverty, mortification, and penance. They consider themselves to be the happy spouses of Lady Poverty. They carry the simple message of the Gospel to the poor of the Church. The Carmelites, with their beautiful life of prayer, dwell within the interior castle of their souls in the continual presence of God. Their community celebrates the entire canonical office and spends two hours daily in silent, mental prayer conversing with the Beloved Spouse of their soul. Their life of sacrifice and prayer enriches the entire Church. The Carthusians sacrifice the greater part of their life in silent solitude adoring their Creator spending their day alone with God. When one Carthusian monk was asked why he had a map of the world on the wall of his cell, he replied that he considered this to be his parish territory. He prayed continuously for the salvation of every soul on earth as if they belonged to his parish. During the 2,000 years of the Church’s existence, there have been many Religious Orders founded for the care of her children. Some of the first centers of free education, the first hospitals and orphanages known to mankind were initiated by the monastic Orders seeking to care for the least and the weakest of the members of Christ’s Church.
While chanting the mass, St. Mechtilde (a Benedictine mystic of the 13th century) received a revelation explaining the introit antiphon “In the center of the Church.” Our Lord said to her: “The center of the Church is the Order of St. Benedict. It supports the Church like a pillar upon which the entire house rests because it is in relation not only with the universal Church but also with the other religious Orders. It is united to its superiors, that is to say to the pope and bishops, by the respect and obedience that it renders to them; and it is united to the other Religious Orders by its teaching which gives a structure for the perfection of life, since all of the other Orders imitate the Order of St. Benedict in one point or another. Good and just souls find in this Order counsel and aid; sinners find compassion there and the means to correct themselves and confess their sins; the souls in purgatory find in this Order the assistance of holy prayers. Finally, they offer hospitality to pilgrims, maintain the lives of the poor, relieve the infirm, nourish those that are hungry and thirsty, console the afflicted, and pray for the deliverance of the souls of the faithfully departed.”
With its 15 centuries of existence and, according to Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, with 57,000 known Benedictine saints, the Order of St. Benedict has a very special place in the Church precisely because it has no specialty at all. The special charism of the Benedictine life is simply to become a good Catholic by praying and working in a family atmosphere and maintaining a perfect union with our Creator. The simplicity of this life produced great fruit for the Church embracing all the aspects of the Catholic life. St. Benedict counts more than 20 of his sons as popes, a vast number of bishops, five doctors of the Church and many missionaries that carried the faith to more than 20 major countries such as England and Germany. It would be impossible to count the number of hidden saints, known to God alone, having spent their lives in the secret of the cloisters.
St. Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks during the barbaric invasions when Roman society was rapidly disintegrating in both a political and moral way. Society was at that time in great need of the stability of a spiritual life. St Benedict discovers the need of a stable, interior life by the very life that he lived. When he was a young student in Rome, he clearly recognized the decadence of society. He realized that if he continued as a student in Rome his soul would be in danger of damnation and so he chose to flee to God by living a secluded life of prayer and mortification. During these three years of solitude, he learned a great deal about God and himself. He was at one point strongly tempted by lust to leave the religious life. He recognized the disorder in his passions and by uniting mortification to prayer, he rolled for a long time in a patch of briars, nettles, and thorns. He later acknowledged that this mortification delivered him from future attacks stemming from his own wounded nature. His sanctity was finally discovered by others and a neighboring monastery invited him to be their superior. While trying to reform their decadent ways, the same monks that invited him to the monastery attempted to poison him. He escaped death by a miracle and once again fled to God abandoning this monastery. He discovered what even religious are capable of when their spiritual duties are neglected. He then establishes 12 flourishing monasteries, closely united to each other and living in peace with God and man. A jealous priest named Florentius attempted to kill him on several occasions. Each attempt was foiled by God’s intervention, which caused even greater jealously on the part of Florentius. This poor priest decided to attack the virtue of the young monks in the monastery in order to destroy St. Benedict. He sent a group of decadent women to dance naked in the monastery to entice the novices to the sin of lust. St. Benedict decided to protect his sons by leaving the monastery, hoping, by his absence, to appease the jealousy of Florentius.
When we consider all of these examples of his life, it seems that St. Benedict flees from his problems. In all reality he flees to God. His great wisdom is to understand wounded human nature and the means of healing it by turning to God. The constant drive of his life is to seek God and the things that please God by healing the wounds of a corrupt nature. He found these wounds in the Roman society as a young student. He found them again in his own soul while in the grotto battling against his concupiscence. He observed them in the souls of the religious that tried to poison him as well as in the soul of the priest that tried to kill him and to destroy the souls of his novices. His constant victory is to humbly and perseveringly confide his soul to God. He understands the wound of sin and he turns away from sin to God. Having learned this art himself, he is capable of teaching others to do the same. His Rule is like a road map leading the human soul away from the misery of sin into the joyful presence of God who loves us without reserve. He gives the courage to his sons to recognize their sins and by God’s grace to change their lives.
St. Aelred of Rievaulx compares St. Benedict to Moses, the lawgiver of the Old Testament. Moses led the chosen people out of the slavery of Egypt, where Pharaoh obliged them to make bricks out of mud and straw, into the promised land. In the desert, Moses offered sacrifice to God and built the Arc of the Covenant. He gave them the ten commandments that God wrote on tables of stone in order for them to follow a sure path into the heavenly Kingdom. St. Benedict leads the wounded soul out of the bondage of sin and the slavery of its concupiscence. He invites the monk to offer the sacrifice of his life to God and become His temple instead of making worthless bricks of the mud of the passing pleasures of this life. He gives his sons a Rule of life that will free them from sin and lead them to the heavenly Kingdom of Our Lord.
A historical example of this type of conversion can be found in the great French Abbey of Cluny. Some modern critics accused the abbey of purchasing slaves in order to exploit them for personal gain. In fact, they did buy slaves, but not for their personal benefit. They taught the slaves their Faith and gave them also a formation in farming and an honest trade. Once the slave was sufficiently instructed, the Abbey of Cluny granted freedom to their former slaves as well as a tract of land in order to earn their livelihood. They frequently formed confraternities and became oblates of the monastery. In this way they would participate in the material and spiritual benefits of the monastery. During the different barbaric invasions that threatened the existence of all civilized society, these oblates would seek refuge behind the monastery’s walls and would help defend the monastery as well as their own possessions.
The way that the monks would evangelize a country was different than the modern means of the more recent Orders. The modern Orders would send traveling apostles around the world to preach the Faith. They were always on the move seeking souls. The Benedictine way of bringing the Faith to a country was to simply live in the same place, inviting the inhabitants to come to them. By the example of their life, they taught the newly-converted souls not only how to cultivate the land, but especially how to practice the necessary Catholic virtues. St. Benedict introduced the vow of stability into the monastic life. This meant that the monk made a vow to remain in his monastery under his abbot until death. This gave great longevity to Christian life and the practice of virtue wherever the monastery would be established. He also asks of his monks to make the vow of obedience and the vow of conversion of morals, which is essentially a vow to practice Christian virtue. Through this wisdom he gives the monks and the oblates of the surrounding villages a long-term means of turning away from sin and towards God.
St. Benedict ends his Prologue of the Rule with a type of vision of what he expects his Order to be and the fruit that will develop within the walls of his monastery and in the villages around the monasteries.
“Our hearts and our bodies must, therefore, be ready to do battle under the biddings of holy obedience; and let us ask the Lord that He supply by the help of His grace what is impossible to us by nature. And if, flying from the pains of hell, we desire to reach life everlasting, then, while there is yet time, and we are still in the flesh, and are able during the present life to fulfill all these things, we must make haste to do now what will profit us forever.
“We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictates anything that turns out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be co-heirs with Him of His kingdom” (Prologue of the Rule).