Benedict St. Benedict of Nursia was the father of Christian monasticism in Europe. The founder of the Benedictine order of monks, he created the rules of monasticism and founded the famous Monte Cassino abbey (80 miles northwest of Rome) as a spiritual center of his order in A.D. 529. Inspired by early Christians who sought religious purity in the desert, St. Benedict wrote how one could live in complete poverty, chastity and obedience without necessarily going to the desert. He also emphasized the importance of work and was also the "godfather of libraries." It was through his initiative that literary works of antiquity and Christian texts survived through the Middle Ages.
Nearly everything we know about St. Benedict is based on Pope Gregory's Dialogues , written in 594. It is not known when Benedict was born (probably around 480) but Rome was still occupied by Romans when he arrived there. Gregory wrote that the eternal city was filled with "students falling headlong into vice" and Benedict "gave up home and inheritance, and resolved to embrace the religious life."
Before he became the abbot of a monastery St. Benedict lived in a cave for three years near the ruins of Nero's villas at Subiaco and attracted a group of disciples with his "zealous preaching." He was credited with performing miracles, healing the sick and fixing broken objects. After a brief stint at a monastery he returned to his cave as other monks didn't fancy Benedict's discipline methods and emphasis on work. After he emerged the second time Benedict went on to found12 monasteries, one of which, Monte Cassino, was the center of monastic movements in Europe until it was leveled in World War II.
St. Benedict, Work and Monastic Life
Benedict wrote Rule (or Regala ), a sort of how-to guide on being a monk which is arguably the second most influential book in Christianity after the Bible and one of the most important documents in Western civilization. "My words are meant for you," he wrote at the beginning, "whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ."
Monte Cassino abbey Rule didn’t deal so much with religious matters as living a simple, ordinary life. It gave details on what monks could eat and drink and how they ascetics organize their lives. One reason that Benedict’s laws have endured is that he was a superb organizer and Rule offers useful information on how to set up a monastery and maintain it in a complex, hostile world.
Benedict discouraged monks from eating (he was a strong proponent of fasting) but said that drinking wine was okay. "Though we read that wine is not all suitable for monks," he wrote, "in our day it is not permissible to persuade the monks of this truth."
St. Benedict established a new kind of monastery based on work—rather than asceticism and good deeds—in which monks farmed and copied manuscript in addition to praying. The idea of religious people doing work was a new concept. Early Christians monks were acetic holy men who lived like hermits in caves or good men who performed charitable acts. Work was something that was associated with slaves and illiterate peasants.
Benedict embraced the ascetic life, detailing how monks should wake up early and pray regularly until midnight, but balanced this regime with work, raising food in the fields and building defenses against intruders. This idea of work became the cornerstone of monasticism from that point forward, was instrumental in the development of agriculture and trades in Europe and inspired the Protestant work ethic, which is so important in American and European culture.
Monasteries founded under St. Benedict’s rule were instrumental in keeping Christianity and Western culture alive and moving forward in the Middle Ages. After Benedict died, Monte Cassino was raided by Lombards in 568. The monks escaped to Rome and brought with them the only manuscript of Benedict’s Rule . The Benedictines were take in by Pope Gregory, who later sent them to England to convert King Ethlebert of Kent and establish England's first Christian church at Canterbury. In the 11th century, Monte Cassino was at height. Three of it monks became popes (there have been 34 Benedictine popes in all) and its farms and vineyards extended for miles.
St. Francis of Assisi St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was one of the greatest figures of Christianity and founder of the Franciscan order of monks. He lived an ascetic life of poverty, was famous for his love of all creatures and preached compassion and love for the poor, dispossessed and outcasts.
Canonized in 1228, only two years after his death, St. Francis kissed lepers, gave away all his possessions and preached poverty was holy. He once said, "Your God is of your flesh. He lives in your nearest neighbor, in every man." He and the Franciscans had a lot a to do with making Christianity palatable for the mainstream. His name was attached to many churches and the city of San Francisco.
St. Francis is honored in his hometown of Assisi with the superb Byzantine basilica of San Francesco, the home of a famous series of frescoes by Giotto that depict 28 different episodes of St. Francis’s life. St. Francis was not handsome. He had a long face, eyebrows that went clear across his forehead and large ears. But his eyes were sparkling and he had a sweet voice and gentle manner, if paintings and descriptions of him are to be believed.
St. Francis's Early Life
St. Francis of Assisi. was born Francesco di Bernardone in Assisi, Italy in 1182. His father was a wealthy merchant, who made a fortune trading cloth between France and Italy. His mother was a deeply religious woman. Both may have been French.
Francis had a fairly ordinary childhood. He was trained as a clothier and received little education. As a young man he was known as a fun-loving dandy, who wooed women with troubadour songs, and often dressed in finer clothes that his master's clients. When he was in his late teens he was a prisoner of war and endured a serious illness.
Francis’s life changed while praying during a trip to San Damaiano, a small hermitage near Assini, where he was blinded by a bright light and addressed by a voice from a crucifix that said, "Francis, do you not see how my house is falling into ruin? Go and repair it for me!" Francis took the words literally and stole some cloth and a horse and sold them to help for reconstruction of the church. When his father his found out about the stolen cloth he was enraged and Francis ran away and sought refuge in a cave.
St. Francis as a Crazy, Ascetic Holy Man
When Francis returned to Assini, he was no longer a dandy rogue but an acetic monk who had made a vow of chastity and wore a sackcloth tunic held in place with a three-knot chord. His former friends called him a madman and God's fool. Townspeople threw stones at him and his father beat and chained him, only to be set free by his deeply religious mother.
Francis's father caught up with him again and dragged off to the local bishop and renounced him. Francis responded by renouncing his father. "Our father who art in heaven...I am the son of God not of man." He took off all of his clothes, stuffed the money he owed his father in the pockets and presented them to his father and reportedly stood naked in the middle of the central piazza in Assisi until a bishop took the cloak off his back to cover him. Francis then took refuge in a poor church. He begged for food and earned his keep by working as a handyman at the church. Most of the people in his town mocked him but a few admired his piety and sincerity and became his followers.
St. Francis renounced his family and friends and set out on his journey to Gubbio that was to define his way of life and his concept of religion. He was guided by the verse from Luke 9:3: "Take nothing for you journey, no staff, no bag, nor bread, nor money."
Not long after beginning his journey, he was attacked by bandits but he had nothing to give them but his poverty. Disgusting, the bandits threw him in a snowy ditch, from which he merged singing. Penniless, sick and often exhausted, he continued his journey and survived on handouts from people who encountered him. When St. Francis finally entered the town of Gubio, he was told that a wolf had been attacking and eating people. He was able to get the wolf to bow at his feet and wag his tail. After St. Francis left people were able to feed the wolf with their hands.
St. Francis's Contributions to Christianity
St. Francis was called “little brother Francis.” He was never ordained as a priest or took a monastic vow but rather sought an individual relationship with God. Francis preached naked as a demonstration of humility, wrote poetry and devoted his life to helping the oppressed. Some regard Francis as the first communist. Lenin once said if there were ten St. Francis’s there would have been no need for a revolution.
St. Francis was active at a time when the Catholic church was accused of being too consumed with riches and status and had grown out of touch with ordinary people. He and the Franciscans had a lot a to do with making Christianity appealing to the poor masses. The Church was not happy with Francis's message and undermined his cult by offering his successors wealth and power.
St. Francis is credited with creating the first re-enactment of the Nativity Scene. In 1223, he placed a manger scene in a church in Greccio near Terni in the Lazio region of Italy. On Christmas Eve in 1224 he is said to have set up a stable in a corner of a village church near Assisi with real people and animals. It wasn't until the 15th century however that the construction of life-size figures representing the birth of Jesus became popular.
St. Francis and the Franciscans
Francis's habit Not surprisingly St. Francis’s actions won him some notoriety. Soon he began to attract a large number of followers, including “begging brothers” who dressed in gray robes and went barefoot and without money as St. Francis did. Within a few years he had roughly 5,000 brothers following him (by comparisons the Dominicans which began at roughly the same time attracted only 50 followers in about the same time). St. Francis formally founded the Franciscans with these followers in 1209. When an 18-year-old girl named Claire left here home to be with the Franciscans, St. Francis formed a new order women called the Franciscan Nuns or the Poor Clares.
St. Francis’s expected a lot from his followers. They were not allowed to read and they were expected to be ascetic as their leader. They aimed to live without possessions and beg for food. It was only after some time that they even rented a house for they did not want to think ahead even to the next day. But St. Francis was not without compassion. One of his followers once woke up in the middle of the night crying of hunger. Instead of scolding him. St. Francis woke up the others and prepared a feast that lasted the rest of the night.
St. Francis once dreamed he was fighting under the flag of the risen Christ and interpreting that as a sign to assemble a spiritual army. In twos and threes the Franciscans went out into the world to spread the word of Christian asceticism and to help the poor. They went to France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and England. Along the way they preached repentance, begged for food and offered their help to anyone who asked. Every year the friars met during the feast of the Pentecost and organized their activities and addressed problems.
St. Francis made other journeys. He went to Rome, where visited the Pope and sought his approval of his religious community. On a journey East he preached to the sultan and was asked to prove his faith. He reportedly walked through a blazing fire and took some of the sultans’ men with him to make the point, according to the story one of the sultan’s men fled before entering the fire.
St. Francis, Animals, Stigmata and Death
stigmata of St. Francis St. Francis had a great love of animals and believed one of his missions was to restore the Garden of Eden. He viewed animals as God’s creatures and treated them with the same love he showed human beings. According to the St. Francis legend animals sought out his company: pheasants followed him like dogs; sparrows landed on his arms; and wild rabbits ran to him for protection. There is a famous story how he preached to little birds, telling them to thankful to God, their creator. His relationship with nature was equally fused with miracles. Followers said flowers bloomed at his request and clouds lifted him over mountains and described how Francis refused to knock off icicles that clung to him in the winter.
In 1224, two years before his death, St. Francis went on a 40-day fast. While he was praying his Bible fell open to the story of Jesus’s passion. St. Francis had a vision in which he saw a flaming angel with six wings carrying a crucified man near Mount Alverno in the Apennines. After going into an state of ecstacy stigmata appeared in the form of wounds on his hands and feet and side. On September 17, 1224, the Franciscan, Brother Leo, reported a ray of light was cast on St. Francis and after that he bore stigmata marks on his hands and feet. Two popes—Gregory IX and Alexander IV— confirmed the reports. Today, some see the stigmata as a culmination of a career devoted to faith, and a bond with the crucified Christ.
St. Francis died on October 3, 1226 in Assisi. Witnesses say light emanated from his body and bells rang spontaneously at the moment of his death. Many people came to see the his body and check out if stigmata marks were for real. His body now lies in a famous church in Assisi. Within 20 years after his death the Franciscan order had grown so large 9,000 religious houses had been built.
Dominic Saint Dominic de Guzman was a Spanish priest who founded the monastic order of the Dominicans. Born in 1170 in Fanjeaux, France, he was regarded by many in his time as a lunatic. He slept on the roadside even during the winter, and burst into song when he was taunted by crowds. Saint Dominic became well known when he won a theology debate by reportedly making his bible leap out of a fire. In a church in Dominic's hometown you can see the rafter his Bible struck when it hit the ceiling.
Dominic moved to Languedoc, France in 1206 with a small band of followers to preach and live in poverty. The group was formally recognized by the Lateran Council in 1215, originally founded as means of combating heresy.Dominic established a base in Toulouse and recruited new canons from universities in the north before his death in 1221. A major force in the Inquisition, the Dominicans were often were called in to interrogate suspected heretics and administer torture.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Symbols of Catholicism by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011