Saint Benedict—Who was he?
Saint Benedict was born at Norcia around 480 AD. That historical time frame, a mere four years before the Western Roman Empire formally fell by the deposition of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was quite difficult. The only authentic life of Saint Benedict that we have is that which is contained in the second book of the Pope Saint Gregory’s Dialogues, probably written between 593-594 AD.
Early Life — Norcia
After attending primary schools in Norcia, Benedict went to Rome to broaden his knowledge of literature and law. However, it seems that he rapidly became disillusioned and repulsed by the dissolute lifestyles practiced by many of his student peers and by Rome’s difficult political situation. He therefore appears to have made the decision to retire to Affile with a group of priests, taking his old nurse with him as a servant.
At Affile, Saint Benedict worked his first miracle, restoring to perfect condition an earthenware wheat sifter which his man-servant had accidentally broken. The notoriety which this miracle brought drove Benedict to withdraw further from social life. He took shelter in a cave in the ruins of Nero’s village, near Subiaco, where he began to live as a hermit. Immersed in loneliness, his only contact with the outside world was with a monk named Romanus, whose monastery was nearby. He gave Saint Benedict a monk’s habit and provided for his spiritual and material needs. Three solitary years followed. Some shepherds befriended Benedict. They began to follow his teachings and the pastoral and apostolic principles of the Benedictine Order began to take shape.
Founding Monasteries — Subiaco
After resisting a strong temptation against chastity, Benedict had in mind to simply follow the example of the ancient Fathers of Christian Monasticism and continue to live the life of a hermit. However, it was at this adjunct of his life that the community of Vicovaro, hearing of his sanctity and perceived wisdom, requested of him that he become their Abbot. It was a move that proved to be an unmitigated disaster. After a failed attempt by one of his community to poison him, Benedict left them to return to his solitude Yet the experience taught him some valuable lessons and it was not long before he had gained a large group of determined and committed followers. It was at this point that he founded twelve monasteries and assigned twelve monks to each of them. In addition, he founded a thirteenth monastery for novices and those needing education. Benedict’s fame spread so rapidly, even to Rome, where two powerful and influential men, Equizius and the nobleman Tertullus, impressed with his sanctity, entrusted him with their two sons, Maurus and Placidus. They were to become the first two great stars of the Benedictine family.
During his life, Saint Benedict was reputed to have performed many miracles. He found water on a desolate mountaintop to quench the thirst of his monks. He retrieved a bill hook’s iron from the bottom of a lake and rejoined its handle. He prevented a monk from leading a dissolute life through intervention. And famously, he made Maurus walk on water to save the young Placidus from drowning.
Unfortunately, a priest called Florentius, who was envious of Benedict’s popularity, forced the Saint to depart in spite of the reluctance of his own disciples. After leaving Subiaco, Benedict moved in the direction of Cassino. In the period between 525 and 529 AD he founded there the Abbey of Montecassino. It would become the most famous abbey in continental Europe. Under Benedict’s direction, the old acropolis-sanctuary towering above the declining Roman municipium of Casinum was turned into a monastery that was much bigger than any of those he had built at Subiaco. On the remains of the altar of Apollo he built a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, while the temple of Apollo itself was turned into an oratory for the monks which he dedicated to our very own Saint Martin of Tours.
Monastic Life Takes Root — Montecassino
At Montecassino Saint Benedict displayed prodigious activity. He supervised the building of the monastery, he established his monastic community and he continued to perform many miracles. It is recorded that he brought back from death a youngster, miraculously supplied the monastery with flour and oil in a great time of need and displayed the gift of prophecy. In autumn of 542 AD, while the Goth King Totila was passing through Cassino en route to Naples to attack it, he decided to test Saint Benedict because he had already heard of his gifts and charisms. As a consequence, Totila sent his squire dressed as himself to greet the monk; but Saint Benedict saw through the rouse. When he finally met Totila, he warned him with a dire prediction: “You have hurt many and you continue to do so, now stop behaving badly! You will enter Rome, you will cross the vast sea, you will reign for nine years; however in the tenth year, you will die.” And that is exactly what happened. And later, Saint Benedict showed the same unearthly gift as he cried bitterly when confronted with the vision of the first destruction of his monastery. Notwithstanding, he received from God the grace to save all of his monks.
Another task Saint Benedict devoted himself to, was evangelizing the local population who still practiced the pagan worship of their ancestors. He had notable success in rescuing many from their former ways and bringing them to the light of Christ. Shortly before he died, Saint Benedict witnessed the soul of his sister, Saint Scholastica, rising to heaven in the form of a dove. This vision happened a few days after their last talk together at the foot of Montecassino. And in another vision, Benedict saw the soul of Bishop Germanus of Capua taken up to heaven by angels in a fiery globe. These visions for Pope Saint Gregory the Great, confirmed Benedict’s sanctity and the close union that, he believed, existed between Benedict and God, a union so intense that the Saint was given the share of an even more magnificent vision, the whole of creation gathered in a sunbeam.
In the end, a life so noble was justifiably followed by a much-glorified death. According to tradition, Saint Benedict died on March 21, 547 AD. He foresaw his coming death, informing his close, and faraway disciples, that the end was near. Six days before his death, he had the grave which he was to share with his deceased sister Saint Scholastica, opened. Then, completely exhausted by his labours, he asked to be taken into his oratory where, after taking his last Holy Communion, he died, supported by his monks.
The Rule of Saint Benedict
The Holy Rule that he created is itself the best witness to Benedict's life and character, showing us a man who was wise, kind, steeped in scripture and concise in expression. In fact, there is something very 'English' really, about Benedict, with his calmness, his gift for organization and his occasional touches of humour. Perhaps that is why Benedictine monasticism, for both men and women, became such a pronounced feature of English Church life before the Reformation and continued to influence it in the centuries after.
Compared with earlier monastic writers, especially the author of the Rule of the Master, from whom he borrowed and adapted copiously, Benedict is much more moderate in the demands he makes on his disciples and followers. The way of life he prescribes allows the monk (or nun) enough food, drink and sleep without letting any luxury, self-indulgence or, above all, private ownership, creep in. Prayer, work and reading make up the content of the monastic day, just as abbot and community make up the context, so to say, in which monastic life is lived.
Again, another sign of his genius, was that Benedict was well aware that his Rule would need to be adapted to different times and circumstances. Already in the text there is a wide discretionary power given to the superior. In the matter of clothing, for example, Benedict recognises that more will be needed in colder regions and less in warmer and he leaves it to the abbot to decide what will be appropriate. He is also flexible about the arrangement of psalms in the Divine Office 'provided the full complement of 150 is said every week.' It is this adaptability and sanity that has made the Rule so enduring.
Indeed it has led to Benedictine communities adapting to embrace missionary work, teaching and running schools and seminaries, working with the poor and homeless and building hospitals and care homes for the elderly. More recently it has seen the founding of Intentional Communities where many of the members are to be found on mission in many different places, such as the House of Initia Nova. All embracing and living out the Rule and the spirit of Benedict in a way that he could not have perhaps envisaged, but which nevertheless are authentically Benedictine. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that following Benedict in any of these new ways is somehow not as demanding or challenging than what was lived before. His intention was always that 'the strong should have something for which to strive and the weak nothing from which to shrink' as we all seek to make our way to God in community, and this is true of all authentic Benedictines, however they have sought to adapt and change. The fundamental spirit and aim of monastic life is still very much present.
Another great advantage of Benedict’s Rule, and which aided its wholesale adoption by monasteries throughout the western world, is that it is quite short and can be read through in an hour. Along with practical details about the organization of the monastery, there is much spiritual teaching of a plain, Christo-centric kind. The monk is a disciple, always alert to the word of God: he must therefore be humble and attentive, ready to greet Christ in the stranger or serve him in the old, the young, the sick — indeed anyone he may meet. Purity of heart and humility, as the monastic tradition understands them, prepares us for a closer union with God. Indeed the whole point of monastic life is to prepare us for that union and lead us to it. That is why Benedict speaks of searching for God in the school of the Lord’s service.
Today the Rule of St Benedict is followed by thousands of people as monks, nuns and oblates (people who try to live according to the Rule insofar as their circumstances allow, not in monasteries or distinct communities but "in the world") and there is growing interest in what St Benedict has to teach those who would not describe themselves as particularly religious but who, nonetheless, desire to live in a more human and humane way. Little by little the Rule seems to make saints of some very unpromising material. In our older brethren we often see what grace, generously co-operated with, can achieve.
And so - The Benedictine House of Initia Nova
What is the House of Initia Nova?
The House of Initia Nova is a community devoted to prayer and hospitality as an extension of our baptismal vows. The life we live is not owned by any one denomination or church, but rather arises out of an intentional response to our experience of God’s love that has called us to community. We live our lives according to the “Good News” as lived and preached by Jesus Christ.
Where is Genesis Abbey located?
Genesis Abbey, the mother-house of the House of Initia Nova, is located on the north-west side of Houston in Bondville, Vermont, in the United States of America.
How is the House of Initia Nova different?
The Abbey is not a parish or congregation in the institutional sense. We are a community who wants to experience and explore an intentional way of life that is different than most. The Abbey is the motherhouse to a community that is spread across the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Each one of its members is a resource to their church and local community and expresses Benedictine spirituality through their varied ministries. While on mission from the Mother-house each member remains spiritually cloistered, never apart, never alone from each other.
Prayer for the church and the world
It is our honour every day to pray for the Anglican/Episcopal Church and the Church Universal at the House of Initia Nova. When a priest is available the Eucharist is celebrated every day; when not the Eucharist is received from the Reserved Sacrament. We invite people to let us know of their prayer needs and we happily include them in the “Prayers for the Church and the World.”
Benedictine Vowed Life within the House of Initia Nova
Each Christian has taken (or had taken for them) the vows of Baptism. Baptismal vows are the fundamental foundation for all Christian life, prayer and work. Living out these vows leads many people to important lay work to the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized. Also, living out these vows has led some people to recognize that God calls them to a unique vocation, to work in His vineyard in ordained ministry. And indeed others are called to a more personal ministry, to become a Religious exploring and living out their Baptismal vows within the context of religious or monastic community. Such Religious desire to find a richer and deeper prayer life, they seek healing and reconciliation for themselves, and for those whom God has called them to love and minister to. And, thanks be to God, some find themselves desiring to share their life and spiritual journey within the context of our community, The House of Initia Nova, with the Benedictine Rule, Vows and the Customary as its tools and guide posts.
Their response to God’s call is a reflection and reaffirmation of their baptismal vows brought to a new level of reality in Christ. Vows or promises come with certain expectations, and a level of commitment.
Regardless of the period, they are meant to be lived out with full integrity, not holding back, but offering all in love.
Anglicans, Episcopalians and members of churches in communion with Canterbury are welcome to pursue their calling as Vowed members, which leads them to Professing themselves to the Motherhouse for a period of time. All vowed members enter into a process of formation which, in itself, requires a certain amount of discipline and commitment.
Two elements make a Benedictine community unique from other religious communities and experiences: The Rule of St. Benedict and its prayer life. These two elements create a framework for the life of a Benedictine monastic. The vows of Benedictine life are: Obedience, Conversion of life, and Stability. They are both personal and communal: offering opportunities and challenges that will bring each individual closer to God. They are read, prayed over, discerned, and responded to by each Religious individually.
OBEDIENCE: A Benedictine monastic makes a vow of Obedience to the Superior who holds the place of Christ in the community. Unhesitating Obedience is the first step of humility, which has a prominent place in Benedict’s Rule. Love, which at its heart is holy listening, prompts us to Obedience and Obedience engenders confidence. Obedience out of love for God and His representative, is the core out of which chaos is brought to order. Obedience shows love of God and love of others and makes personal spiritual growth within a stable community possible.
CONVERSION OF LIFE: The vow of Conversion of Life gives each member a tool that will enable them to initiate the process of healing and reconciliation, and bind the wounds that exist between themselves, the world, and God. A Benedictine is to love the Lord God with their whole heart, soul and strength, and love their neighbour as themselves. Conversion of Life means “Renouncing yourself in order to follow Christ,” (Matt 16:24), and acting in a way that is different from the world’s way, placing the love of Christ before all else. Conversion of Life is placing hope in God alone. It is all encompassing and pervasive. Conversion of Life begins as we develop our understanding and practice of humility and seek to change and grow into the person God truly wants us to be.
STABILITY: Stability is a commitment to a way of life and community. Stability is not only a concept but a place where together we encounter God and each other. We commit ourselves to each other, in life and in the shared search for God. We must keep ever before us that God alone is our refuge, whose own stability never falters, whose fellowship is constant, and whose promises are forever faithful. It is God’s dwelling within us that grounds us in spite of ourselves. It is in the practice of Stability that the ordinary is made extraordinary.
There is no greater work than that of prayer for a Benedictine. Vowed Religious of St. Benedict promise to live a life steeped in this divine work. Vowed Religious of the House of Initia Nova are expected to pray the Divine Offices (Vigils / Matins, Noonday, Vespers and Compline) daily. The use of the Divine Office unites each Religious to their Community and links them with the thousands of Vowed Religious around the world.
Prayer is an offering of praise, petition, and thanksgiving. St. Benedict tells us that prayer opens the doors of heaven and places us in the throne room of God. Prayer offers the soul the opportunity to once again meet and touch its Creator in a mystical way. Prayer is a selfless act, as we seek in it the will of God, through Christ Jesus. In it we can find contentment, peace, tears, joy, and union with God. Through prayer we seek wholeness, healing and a desire only to prefer Christ before all else.
Each aspiring Benedictine monastic will enter into a formation program that will require daily prayer as a foundation, meditation time, and study. As a Postulant the member will read the Rule, and study the monastic tradition of prayer, and religious life. The Novitiate is a two-year program of study of the Rule and a wide range of other topics, including meditation, prayer, Benedictine spirituality, the Creeds, the Scriptures, the Baptismal Covenant, and others. Progress requires commitment. Each Religious is supported and guided by a Formation Master, who among other things will help the Religious integrate his or her personal and professional life into the fabric of a new spiritual intentionality.
Discernment takes time. If you feel that you may be called to this Vowed way of life, please get in touch with Father Victor (known as Brother Cuthbert in community). He is presently serving the community as the Formation Master of those exploring Vowed Life. May be you could also speak with your local priest and seek their guidance. Or you could contact the Abbot, Father Michael-John, regarding your interest.
Another Path - Conversi
What is a Conversi?
Conversi are Christian individuals or families who have chosen to associate themselves with a Benedictine Community in order to enrich their Christian way of life. Conversi incorporate the principles of St. Benedict, whose spiritual wisdom is derived from the Gospels, into their lives. Conversi seek God by searching for the perfection that he has set before us in Christ Jesus. By integrating their prayer and work, Conversi open themselves to and reveal Christ’s presence among us.
St. Paul tells us that each member of the body of Christ, the Church, has a special function and place in Christ's kingdom. Not all men and women are called to live in a monastery or to take Solemn Vows. Conversi are single and married, men and women, who live in their own homes, and in those homes seek the richness of their calling in the world. The Conversi seeks to bring the world to God by being witnesses of Christ by word and example.
What is Required of a Conversi?
The Novice Conversi commit themselves to two Prayer Offices each day, more is always encouraged. The Novice Conversi enters into a Formal Formation period of one year, which will require approximately 10 hours a week. The 10 hours includes prayer time, formation reading (3-4 books a year) and reflective writing. Each Conversi is required to support the Community financially on a monthly basis.
At the end of the formal training period the Novice Conversi submits a request to the Abbot to take vows. During the ceremony where vows are made of Obedience, Conversion of Life and Stability, the Conversi is titled, named and permitted to wear a habit befitting a Conversi.
Religious Life – The Black Pearl
While Religious Life was around before the 4th century, it grew under the watchful eye of St. Benedict in the 6th century. At the fall of the Roman Empire, Benedictine Religious life became a focal point of organization, education, hospitality and prayer.
At the same time political and personal interests were beginning to reshape Europe and England. In Europe the Reformation brought about changes to theology and practice. In England King Henry VIIII dissolved the monasteries in hopes of separating himself from Rome and affording him the right to marry once again. While disappearing from the English background for hundreds of years, sparks blew hot by way of the Holy Spirit as a way of renewing the church.
Benedictine Religious life was restored following the dissolution of Religious life at the turn of the 20th century by Archbishop Temple of Canterbury.
Tens of thousands of men and women have been and are stilled being called to intentional living born out of the baptismal waters. No longer understood as some fringe group at the edges of Christianity, Religious life takes its place at the centre of Christian living providing an example of one holy vocation among many, known for prayer, vows/promises, hospitality, discipline and intentional living.
The Waters of Intentionality
It has been the tradition among Christian communities from the early days of Christian living to mark their intentionality with the pouring, sprinkling or submersion of water, hallmarking their willingness to move from death to life through the regenerative waters of baptism. All Christians are called by God to a consecrated life which may take many forms and ministries. Religious life is just one form of intentionality. It is not better or more holy than another, but suggests through its living a life that is marked by prayer, discipline and sacrifice.
Making your Intention known
Discernment takes time. If you feel that you have been called to life as a Conversi, again speak with Father Victor (Brother Cuthbert in community), or speak perhaps with the Abbot Michael-John, regarding your interest.
The Holy Spirit continues to renew the Church through its many invitations of service. It may be that the Holy Spirit is calling you to the vocation of consecrated / intentional life.
‘Statio’ - The Community preparing for the celebration of the Divine Office
The Abbey Chapel Altar
Our Abbot, Father Michael-John
Fr. Victor receiving his name in Community - Now known as Brother Cuthbert