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Saint Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict of Nursia

July 11, 480 - March 21, 547


When it comes to the virtue of temperance, there are few people throughout history that more clearly embody this than Saint Benedict of Nursia. The author of the Rule of St. Benedict and the “Father of Western Monasticism”, Saint Benedict was a monk who lived 1,500 years ago and yet still influences millions of people every day through his words and instruction on wisdom, moderation and humility. 


So who was Saint Benedict of Nursia?


Born in A.D. 480 to a wealthy Roman nobleman, Benedict spent his early years living in comfort with his parents and his twin sister, Scholastica. In his early teens, Benedict was sent to Rome to formally begin his studies. Disgusted by the immoral standards of Romans, Benedict left his studies in 500 and sought a life of solitude. He lived for three years in a cave on the side of a mountain outside of Subiaco, Italy. 


During this time, he spent his days in prayer and reflection, subsisting on bread and water provided to him by a kind monk. Romanus was the abbot of a monastery up the mountain from Benedict and would lower a loaf of bread down to him every day. It wasn't long before people began to hear about the hermit living in a cave and came to him for guidance. Eventually, Benedict agreed to move to a nearby monastery to be their religious and monastic leader. Unfortunately, the monks were not prepared to live Benedict’s strict life of self-denial and some of the monks set out to poison him. 


Presented with a drink of wine, Benedict prayed over the wine and the Lord shattered the glass to reveal the monks duplicity. Benedict eventually returned to his cave, resolving not to lead an abbey again. 


Over time, however, more men seeking the holiness that Benedict represented came to him and Benedict ended up forming 12 monasteries in the region. 


Around the year 530, Benedict founded the great Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino. It was here that Benedict wrote his Rule, referred to now as the Rule of Saint Benedict. 


Composed of 73 chapters, the Rule is more of a playbook for life and a guide for those in monastic life. That said, approximately 50 percent of the Rule teaches how to practice obedience and humility, 25 percent is about service to God through work and 25 percent is practical instruction for managing a community of monks. To say that the Rule applies to all is abundantly accurate. 


“Let our loins then be girt with faith and the observance of good works, and let us, gospel-led, pursue His paths, that we may be worthy to see Him Who has called us unto His own kingdom.”


Benedict was a firm believer in living out our faith and striving for holiness through prayer and good work. He lived his life with a simple mantra: Ora et Labora. Translated, this means pray and work, and this is exactly what the Rule implores those who love God to do. 


Benedict did not live his life for glory however. A man of intense humility, the entire Rule is written so as to place the glory of all at the feet and mantle of God. 


“Whence, brethren, if we wish to attain the highest point of humility and if we wish quickly to reach that heavenly exaltation which is attained through humility in this present life, we must by what we do to attain it set up that ladder which appeared in Jacob’s dream and by which angels were shown to be both descending and ascending; for without doubt we are not to understand that descending and ascending but as descending by exaltation and ascending by humility.

For that ladder set up is our life in this world which, when the heart has been humbled by the Lord, is set up to heaven. And we say that the sides of this ladder are our body and soul, into which sides God-given vocation has inserted sundry rungs of humility and discipline by which we may ascend.”


I particularly love this image of even the angels “ascending by humility.” Certainly, we can place ourselves in awe of and looking toward the angels for example. 


So what does this have to do with giving? 


Benedict’s Rule is not a guide for the heroes reigning on high. It gives all of us a structure and a playbook for effectively seeking God. Matthew tells us in chapter 6, “When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” 


Anh and Greg have been married 30 years, live in Austin, TX and are newly retired at the age of 50. While being extremely generous with their time and treasure over the years, Ahn and Greg have never been ones to seek glory or even thank yous for their gifts. Living simply, practicing moderation and balance, and looking for ways to give generously have been primary motivators for them throughout their lives. 


“When I am looking at a big purchase,” said Greg “we will literally look at some items and go, ‘You know, we could buy a house in Haiti for that much.’ And we'll actually say that and stop ourselves from buying something. We'll look at things and say, ‘somebody could eat for five years with that.’ So having a mindset and awareness of giving does change us.”


This is exactly what Saint Benedict is imploring all of us to do. Live our lives with temperance, intentionality and obedience to God. 


Jon and Evelyn Bean of Compass Catholic Ministries have some great insights and advice for creating a plan for giving. 


First, make a list of your passions and decide where you want to focus your impact. Second, identify your innate gifts and abilities that God has blessed you with. Third, match your passions with your gifts. How does this plan affect your attitude toward giving?


“Once you have a working plan,” said Jon, “generosity is easy, fulfilling and meaningful. When you focus on a meaningful plan, your generosity has clarity. Your attitude toward giving will improve because of the enjoyment you receive from being able to work your plan.” 


So can we live a life of moderation and balance without escaping to a cave and living as hermits? Yes we can...but it takes work. 


In our modern age, temperance requires a mindset that is not embraced by the majority of Americans. Having a clear understanding of NEEDS vs WANTS and investing our financial resources accordingly sounds scary to many people, but in reality, it brings freedom to our lives in so many ways. 


Benedict’s Rule is a synthesis of how to practically live the Gospels. Benedict set an example and drew thousands in not by preaching and exhorting, but by living, and living simply. Today there are over 400 Benedictine monasteries with more than 20,000 members living joyful and fulfilled lives. Fully embraced, Ora et labora is a mantra that we can all live that will bring blessing to our lives in incredible ways.  


“To this end I now address a word of exhortation to thee, whosoever thou art, who, renouncing thine own will and taking up the bright and all-conquering weapons of obedience, dost enter upon the service of thy true king, Christ the Lord.”


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