The monks of Glenstal Abbey are Benedictines and take their name from their original founder, St Benedict. Benedict was born in the year 480, in the province of Nursia, Italy. The Roman Empire had come to an end only four years before, in 476, and thus the young Benedict grew up in a country where the decay of the old Roman civilisation was in evidence everywhere. His parents were Christian and sent him to study law in Rome when he was about sixteen years of age. However, the atmosphere of the great city shocked and depressed him. He decided to leave Rome and for a short time joined a small group of like-minded young men at a place called Enfide. His companions called themselves monks, but they followed no rule, each apparently ordering his life as he wished. Not satisfied with this situation, Benedict, though still under twenty, resolved to lead the more strict life of a hermit. According to the testimony of his first biographer, Pope St Gregory the Great, Benedict found a narrow cave at a place called Subiaco, where he spent three years in solitude and prayer.
After this period of preparation, Benedict gathered a number of disciples around him and organised them into a community. Already, at this stage, he was determined to reform the accepted way of monastic life in Italy. Above all, he was anxious to introduce regular observance and some form of community life. However, this first experiment met with such opposition that some of the monks tried to poison him. Undaunted, Benedict returned to his cave at Subiaco, and after some years succeeded in attracting to the place a number of young men who were prepared to follow his lead. He built twelve cells or small monasteries in the valley of the Anio, and drew up a Rule or way of life for the monks. Subiaco is thus the cradle of Benedictine monasticism.
Again trouble broke out, this time from a neighbouring priest, so that Benedict, along with some of his monks, was forced to move to a new and very beautiful site overlooking the plains of Campagna. This place was called Monte Cassino. Here Benedict built a monastery in 529, and also wrote his famous Rule for monks. He remained in Monte Cassino until his death in 547. Monte Cassino can be considered the second cradle of Benedictine monasticism. Though the monastery has been destroyed no less than three times – the last time was in 1944 during World War Two – it has always risen from the ashes.
Up to St Benedict’s time there was no such thing as Western monasticism. Whatever monasteries existed were adaptations, or imitations, of the way of life followed by the monks of the East. St. Benedict can be said to have saved the monastic institution from decline by introducing a number of essential elements. First of all he insisted on his monks taking a vow of stability. This meant in practice that they should reside and persevere in the monastery they had joined. He did not approve of those monks who were continually travelling from monastery to monastery. Secondly, he insisted that his monks – at least those who could read – would spend some time, each day, in what he called ‘Lectio divina’ (Holy Reading). Many of Benedict’s fellow monks were ignorant of the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. Benedict set out a certain time each day for study and reflective reading.
Thirdly, Benedict believed that monks, especially younger ones, needed guidance and discipline. His Rule is not a severe one, but rather inspired by discretion and prudent moderation. He wished to arrange everything in the monastery so that the strong might have something to strive for, while the weak ones would not be driven away. The Rule is a wonderful harmony of wisdom, good sense and firmness. Modelling his monastery on a Roman villa, Benedict intended that each monastery be independent. It seems unlikely that he intended founding a religious Order as such, but rather a group of separate and autonomous houses. Thus each monastery has its own traditions, customs and identity. No two Benedictine monasteries are alike in every detail. What gives them a unity is the Rule. Indeed, the real influence of St Benedict down the centuries was not so much due to the monasteries he founded, as to the Rule he wrote for monks. The Rule spread thoughout all Europe, and so widespread was Benedictine monasticism during the Middle Ages, that the years 600 to 1200 are often called “The Benedictine Centuries”.