Two books were always displayed
at the medieval bishops' synods and meetings of the Reicherat
of the Holy Roman Empire: the Bible and the Rule of St Benedict.
Promoted actively by Emperor Charlemagne (742—814), the Rule was
accepted throughout Europe as a guide for Christian conduct, and still
today committed Christians around the world use it as a guide to godly
life. The Rule, comprising seventy-three chapters, was originally
conceived as a code to govern the everyday lives of monks. Regulating
monastic life in astonishing detail, it even admonishes monastery
cellarers to serve their fellow monks "the proper amount of food and
drink" without "treating them with condescension or keeping them
waiting". The humanity which is apparent in every part of the Rule and
its quiet, almost democratic, tone guaranteed its success. In fact, it
became the model Rule of conduct for monks and monasteries in other
Orders too — and, today, the Rule is still observed in a number of
recently established Benedictine monasteries in the United States. In
Europe, the significance of the Rule and its fruit are far reaching. St
Benedict's basic principle of "ora et labora"
(prayer and work) represents a deliberate rejection of the otherworldly
piety practised by the early ascetics of the deserts. The Rule, in
contrast, requires the individual monk to pay more than lip-service to
God by serving Him with his hands. Thus many Benedictine monasteries
became the leading centres of culture in Europe, in which
the art of manuscript illumination and the chronicling of
history, the writing of poetry and music, the practice of agriculture
and animal husbandry flourished. The best schools and the most modern
hospitals of the early and high Middle Ages were run by sophisticated
and highly educated monks who wore the habit of St Benedict.
What do we know about St Benedict himself, the "father
of monks and educator of the West"? He was born in the Italian town of
Nursia in с. 480, and later lived as a recluse in a forest east
of Rome. Around 529, St Benedict founded Europe's first monastery at
Monte Cassino near Naples, which became the fountain of European
monasti-cism and, presumably, the place where the saint died in 547.
Today, scholars question the veracity of the various details of his life
which have come down to us; some even doubt whether there was a St
Benedict at all. Yet, it is certain that the Rule, which bears the name
of St Benedict, has powerfully formed European civilisation and culture.