Answering Our Dilemma: Saint Benedict of Nursia

Not much is known about Benedict’s early life. However, the most popular place to start with Benedict is with his motivation for life. Benedict was lived in Nursia, a Roman province.[1] He came from an extremely affluent family.[2] He fled from his birthplace, though, for a simpler, devoted life; he fled Roman vanity.[3] He traveled into the desert, intending to live a hermitic lifestyle—alone and separated from society. After many years, people began to stumble upon his cave-home and admired his lifestyle, thus attracting a cult following, which he did not intend to do.[4] Gregory the Great, his biographer, recounted many of his good deeds.[5] It is difficult to discern what accounts are true and if they are what details are hagiographic in nature. However, what one can know is that Benedict cared deeply for those in his community and their physical and spiritual well-being. This motivation came out of his deep desire for holiness in his own life and the lives of others.

Benedict did not intend to start a monastic movement.[6] However, he had one of the most profound impacts on monasticism as society knew it.[7] Medieval historian Norman F. Cantor defines monasticism as “a form of religious asceticism, which, in turn, involves the discipling, limitation, and abrogation of the material and physical aspects of human life to assure a saving relationship with a deity conceived of as a purely spiritual being.”[8] The main purpose of monasticism was to deny oneself of physical reality and things in order to obtain a higher spiritual life, ensuring salvation (compare to John the Baptist in Luke 3:3-18). For it to be effective, people had to withdraw from society, which centered on materialism.[9] This withdrawal tended towards a hermitic monasticism, which valued isolation and private spiritual practices. However, due to the reality that there are physical needs to be met, cenobitic monasticism arose to care for each other’s physical—and spiritual—needs.[10] Benedict found himself in this tension of physical and spiritual need. He desired an isolated life so that he could grow in holiness, but as he attracted others to himself, he began to realize the dangers of this form of monasticism and the need for community—he transitioned from a hermetic lifestyle to a cenobitic lifestyle.[11] Keeping in line with the point of monasticism, his communities would be focused solely on ensuring salvation.[12] Benedict sought to make these communities diverse because he wanted people from all walks of life to live a holy life.[13] He implemented regularity and discipline in the lives of the abbots and monks.[14] By keeping the monk on a consistent schedule, occasions for sin would be minimized because there would be little time for it. If it did arise, it could be dealt with swiftly.

Benedict, through his Rule, shaped what holiness in monasticism looked like. The basic function of his Rule was to outline his gleanings from his life and work in monasticism.[15] His Rule is categorized around three primary works: “the work of God,” “spiritual reading,” and “manual labor.”[16] The thoroughness of his Rule, balanced with relative freedom, enabled other monastic movements to adopt it as their own. Additionally, his Rule did not abandon its historic roots.[17] He continually drew on the traditions of monks who went before him, recognizing their valuable input into his monastic rule since they have tried many ways and have thorough arguments. However, he seemed to recognize its limitations.[18] This Rule was merely a tool out of many the monks could use on their journey to Jesus.[19] Yet, as Benedictine monasticism became more developed, it remained separated from the world. While the monks implemented helpful correctives, they still remained as their own self-isolated communities, depending on themselves for holiness; the only time the monks and the world had contact was to resolve controversies.[20] However, ambitious monks would receive permission from their abbots to go out into society and they would reengage with those around them.[21] This reengagement proved helpful to society because as turmoil came and they existed in a continual state of uncertainty, Benedictine monks provided stable and calm leadership.[22]

The main concern for Benedictine monasticism was holiness—how would they ensure their lives reflected Jesus so they could minister to others around them and ensure their salvation? These monks knew the answer did not lie in assimilating to society, but the answer also did not lie in isolationism. Though on face value the rules and regulations seem to be burdensome and the leadership structure a top-down approach, Benedictine organized his communities in such a way that they could regulate holiness in an unholy world. Though they may have withdrawn from society a little too much, ignoring the Great Commission mandate (Matthew 28:16-20), they reflected a much more Israeli approach by being a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6).


  1. Gregory the Great, “Gregory I (Dialogos): Second Dialogue (Life of St. Benedict),” Internet History Sourcebooks, Prologue, last modified January 20, 2021, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/g1-benedict1.asp.
  2. Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Saint Benedict: An Invitation to the Christian Life, trans. Georg Holzherr and Mark Thamert, vol. 256, Cistercian Studies Series (Athens, OH: Cistercian Publications, 2016), 23.
  3. Gregory the Great, “The Dialogues of Saint Gregory,” Chapter 1; Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, trans. Carolinne White, Penguin Classics (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2008), 23.
  4. Gregory the Great, “The Dialogues of Saint Gregory,” Chapter 1.
  5. Gregory the Great, “The Dialogues of Saint Gregory,” Chapters 2-35, 37, 38.
  6. Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History, the Life and Death of a Civilization (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 149.
  7. Carl A. Volz, The Medieval Church: From the Dawn of the Middle Ages to the Eve of the Reformation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), 16.
  8. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 146.
  9. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 146.
  10. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 148.
  11. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 149.
  12. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 150.
  13. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 151.
  14. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 150.
  15. Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Saint Benedict, 256:26.
  16. Volz, The Medieval Church, 16; Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, 7–8. Chapters 1-7, 8-20, and 21-73 respectively.
  17. Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Saint Benedict, 256:39.
  18. Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, 104.
  19. Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, 104.
  20. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 150.
  21. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 14; Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St Benedict, 98.
  22. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, 146.

This post was originally part of an academic paper submitted to Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy in Ancient & Medieval Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.