"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

St. Benedict of Nursia: The Monk And Patron Of Europe

Today, we are all concerned how to re-open. In the Ateneo, we have been preparing for online delivery of courses for the opening in August. The Philippine president has said that until there is a vaccine, face to face classes are out of the question.

Today’s mad scramble to get everyone educated wasn’t the way society lived in the time of Benedict. Then, in Europe, there was a sharp divide between the small circle of literate and the illiterate. “Literate” means able to read letters. The literate were limited mostly to monks, lawyers, savants and Jews. There was no systematic way of educating children until the advent and proliferation of the Benedictine monasteries.

Benedict of Nursia was born c. 2 Mar 480 and died in his sixty's on 21 Mar 547. He had a fraternal sister, St. Scholastica who like him founded monasteries. Benedict is regarded as the Founder of Western monasticism but more accurately the many monasteries that called themselves Benedictine pre-dated Benedict. His contribution was to build a confederation of autonomous monasteries bound together by a common rule. This Rule of St. Benedict shows the influence of John Cassian and the Rule of the Master. His rule was marked by balance, moderation and reasonableness.

Benedictine monasteries organized the day by dividing it into three eight hour periods. The first eight was for rest, meals and other life necessities and the remaining sixteen was divided into two equal periods—one for prayer (Ora) and (et) the other for work (Labora).

The Ora period began early with the monks rising at around 3 AM for the first hours of prayer—Matins (Matutina, Latin for dawn) and the Office of Readings. Then, followed an hour of silent prayer ending at the break of dawn for Lauds and the conventual Mass. Not all monks were ordained priests. In pre-Vatican II days, when concelebration was uncommon, the ordained celebrated Mass in side chapels just before the conventual Mass. After the Mass, was the first meal of the day breakfast and then it was each one to his work. There would be short breaks for common prayer—mid-day, noon and mid-afternoon. Lunch was after noon time prayer and the monks would take a mid-day break. After rest they returned to work until the bell tolled for Vespers followed by the communal meal and Compline or night prayer—the last common prayer of the day. Monks went to bed early following the cycle of the day. By around 8 PM they were all in their cells. Sacred Silence would follow.

Ed Mclachlan
In a Benedictine monastery, the daily routine was pretty regular and set, sort of the same way we schedule classes. Now in the Labora routine, there were different jobs in the monastery from the manual labor of planting, raising fowl and cattle, milking cows, tending the orchard, harvesting, carpentry, metalsmithing, tailoring, doing the laundry and other household work. Those artistically talented worked in the Scriptorium adjacent to the library where they copied books by hand. Much energy was poured in copying the Bible and the Book of Hours containing the prayers said at set times of the day. These books were illuminated, that is, decorated with gilded letters, plant tendrils, flowers and animals, real or fabled.

Another form of Labora was teaching. Since the monks would read the Psalms from books or large handwritten Psalteries, monks learned to read. Some even specialized as pharmacists and physicians who had to read the classical and medieval medical texts. All told the monastery was a self-contained world of work, craft, art and learning, all with an aura of prayer.

Organized schools started slowly. First students were monks living together in community. As monasteries multiplied it gained support from benefactors, who in time would ask the monks to educate their male children. The more gifted among the peasants and surfs could rise in education as the monks took in as members the whole spectrum of society.

With thousands of Benedictine monasteries spread across Europe, this network became a neuro-network of knowledge, art and culture. What can be our take-away as we recall St. Benedict’s legacy? In this time when many have to socially distance, it is good to remember, that monks joined monasteries to get away from the busyness and distraction of daily life. When one entered a monastery to be a monk, it was a form or self-quarantine, lasting for the rest of one’s life.

What made that life liveable and even fulfilling was the organization and discipline of the monastery where everyone knew his role and what was expected. The monastery established an invariable routine, so everyone knew what was expected. And finally, monks joined a monastery not for one’s sake but for others. Monks were convinced that the round of daily prayer they were doing was not done for themselves but for the Church and the World. They were praying for the Church and the World. The World that they had turned their backs to was now the object of prayer—asking God to save and protect the World from which the monks came.

We can learn from the monks to keep our sanity in a world turned upside down. A daily routine can be comforting, perhaps beginning with a morning prayer, our breakfast routine, online Mass and so forth. Such a routine is especially helpful for students who return to school for the time being not face to face but online. Traditional, face to face, classes imposed a routine not only on students but on the whole family as well. Mother was up early to make sure children prepared for school, by bathing, dressing up, having breakfast. She made sure that they had their "baon" (packed lunch) and all their needs for school. Then off they went, while she and father go out for work.

In school, the class bell signaled the movement of the day, just like the Benedictine monasteries. This is gone in our quarantined online world. It is easy to fall into sameness. The temptation to stay in bed, working in bed with a computer will be deadly for our sanity. Monks knew this so in their self-imposed quarantine they jumped out of bed at the sound of the bell calling all to the chapel. And the bell for them was no ordinary clanging sound but its tintinnabulation was the faint voice of God calling them forth.

And then there was the monks’ inner compass that oriented them not to think of their lives as lived for themselves alone but for others. Every moment of prayer was prayer for others, for believers, for the Church, for the World. And work was not for oneself, it was for the community. Setting one’s sight outside of the self, brings joy and inner expansion. The dreams we had of graduating from school so that we can contribute to our challenging world should not be lost but nurtured more consciously in these times of testing. So while physically restrained our spirits soar and are set free. They rise heaven-wards as the chants of the monks rise to heaven and sanctify our World.

by Fr. René B. Javellana, SJ