The founding father of Bendictine monasticism is St Benedict, born in Norcia (often anglicized to Nursia), a town in Umbria about 170km north-east of Rome. The year was 480AD and the Roman was in the last stages of its terminal decline. He was born of a noble family with a base in Rome. Distressed by the moral decay of Rome, he left his studies there about the age of 20 and fled to the hills around Subiaco (64km east of Rome). There he lived a life of solitude and contemplation. He was visited by a local monk, Romanus, who clothed Benedict in the monk's habit and brought him food. Contrary to what we might expect, this solitude matured Benedict and gave him a profound knowledge of and sympathy for human nature. His fame spread and the monks of a local monastery decided to elect him their abbot.
St Benedict's sympathy, however, was married to a robust and healthy discipline which these monks were clearly not expecting. Their need of reform is evidenced by their twice trying to poison Benedict, both times the man of God being saved by simple but striking events: the shattering of his poisoned cup as he blessed it, and the removal of poisoned bread by a raven before Benedict could eat it. Feeling nothing could be gained by trying to lead those who refused to be led, he returned to his cave at Subiaco but his vocation had been tipped in favour of community (or cenobitic) monasticism, and he founded twelve monasteries around Subiaco.
The statue of St Benedict in the monks' refectory courtyard
Probably about the year 529AD, Benedict was drawn to area not far south of Rome, atop a mountain dominating the Rome – Naples road that lay below. Monte Cassino was to be his final home and site of the premier monastery personally founded by him. He died about the year 543AD. Most of the section of the Dialogues of St Gregory which deals with St Benedict is focused on his time at Monte Cassino. Here he wrote the Rule which stands as a monument to his monastic wisdom. Drawing the best from other monastic rules, and using the insights of his personal experience and reflection, he composed a Rule that is remarkable even 1500 years later for its balance, moderation and adaptability. In no great time St Benedict's Rule became the monastic norm in the Catholic Church. His spiritual sons and daughters still follow that same Rule, adapted to local circumstances just as he desired. This is why Benedictine monasteries can be so different yet so similar to each other. The Benedictine expression of monasticism lives on not so much in a religious order in the modern sense, but rather in the many different communities that follow his Rule. Douai Abbey is one of them.