Who Is Saint Benedict and what was his involvement with the chant?
In Europe, numerous forms of the Liturgy of the Hours developed. In the sixth century, Saint Benedict wrote his Rule—a handbook for monks and nuns on how to live together in community. In the Rule, Benedict prescribed a regular rhythm of life revolving around chanted prayer offices.
Benedict’s Rule, and his pattern of singing the chant offices spread throughout the West, leading to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries—and along with them, the widespread use of chant in worship. Though Benedict borrowed from earlier monastic practices, it was his form that would become the basis of all Western monastic prayer.
Few details are known about Benedict’s life. He was born in Nursia (Italy) in about ad 480. He studied in Rome, where, confronted with the immorality and corruption of society, he decided to withdraw from the world and seek a life of dedication to God. For a time he lived as a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, but soon a community of men grew up around him. After a time, he moved with a small group of followers to Monte Cassino, where he remained until his death, sometime after 546. It was during his time at Monte Cassino that Benedict wrote the Rule for his followers.
Benedict’s Rule stressed the ideals of the monastic life as it had evolved in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, but tempered these with sensible and practical instructions designed to assist ordinary people in their pursuit of God. Two generations after Benedict’s death, Pope Gregory I described the Rule as “remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language.” Benedict’s knowledge and acceptance of human weaknesses led him to address such practical issues as food, drink, sleep, and work, as well as the spiritual virtues that should come to mark the life of each monk. In his organization of the corporate life of the monastery, he envisioned the community as a family in which the abbot served his fellow monks as a loving father, and they, in turn, learned to serve and care for one another.
The Rule set up a framework in which each individual could develop a daily relationship with God. Benedict planned a well-balanced schedule that divided the monastic day in this manner:
- the chanting of the psalms (Opus Dei in Latin, meaning “the work of God”)
- manual work
- the study of Scripture and holy books.
Benedict left no question as to the hierarchy of these activities, stating simply, “Nothing is to be preferred to the work of God.” This is evident in that he devoted twelve full chapters of the Rule (out of a total of seventy-three) to the chanting of the psalms.
Excerpted from The Song of Prayer: A Practical Guide to Learning Gregorian Chant
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