Our sole source for the life of St. Benedict (c. 480 – c.550) is the second book of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great. This is not a biography in the modern sense, but rather, in accordance with the style of his day, a presentation of the life of St. Benedict as a model of spiritual growth in the ascent towards God.
St. Benedict was born in the province of Nursia, north east of Rome. His time period was one marked by crisis in culture with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasions of new peoples. His parents sent him to Rome for studies, but on becoming disillusioned by the licentiousness of the society around him, he left Rome to seek refuge first by living with a group of ascetics, then as a hermit for three years at Subiaco near Rome. The cave he dwelt in has been the heart of a Benedictine Monastery, the ‘Sacro Speco’ (Holy Cave), since the early Middle Ages. It was during this time period that St. Benedict matured as a monk, overcoming the three fundamental temptations of the human person – the temptations of pride, sensuality, and anger.
He was eventually joined by a group of disciples with whom he established 12 monasteries, of 12 monks each. Following a local controversy he decided to leave Subiaco and, taking a few disciples with him, he went to Monte Cassino, about 80 miles south of Rome.
Here on this mountain, he established the monastery which was to become the most famous of all Benedictine monasteries. It was here also that St. Benedict wrote his rule for monks, now known as the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is highly regarded because of its balance and moderation. Indeed, this is the reason why it survived in monasteries and came to be the dominant one used above all others during the early Middle Ages. It prescribes a balanced life of prayer and work, the day being centred upon the celebration of the liturgy.