Benedict was born at Nursia in Umbria about the year 480, a time of public peril and social ruin. The Roman empire was crumbling to pieces, shaken by the successive inroads of barbarians, and a prey to every species of violence and corruption. Young Benedict was sent to Rome to be educated, but the disorder and vices of the capital drove him into solitude.

He took refuge in a dark inaccessible grotto near Subiaco where he found seclusion and shelter. A neighboring monk supplied him with food let down by a rope, with a small bell attached, which gave notice of the approach of the food. Once the devil broke the rope, but his malice was foiled by the pious ingenuity of the monk. Other and graver dangers assailed him. The evil one took the shape of a beautiful woman, with whose image the youthful recluse had been familiar in Rome, and so worked upon his senses that he was on the point of abandoning his solitude in search of the beauty which haunted him. But summoning all his fortitude he stripped himself of the vestment of skins, which was his only covering, rushed among the thorns and briars which grew around his retreat, and rolled himself among them till he had extinguished the impure flame which devoured him. No impulses of sensual passion ever revisited him. But trials of a different kind assailed him. After spending about three years in retirement, a neighboring convent of monks insisted upon choosing him as their head. He warned them of the severity of the rule he would be bound to exercise, but they would not be dissuaded from their purpose. He had hardly commenced his office, however, when they broke out into fierce resentment against him, and attempted to poison him. The cup containing the poison was no sooner taken into the hands of Benedict than it burst asunder; and, calmly reproving them for their ingratitude, he left them and withdrew once more into his solitude.

By this time, however, the fame of Benedict had spread, and it was impossible for him to remain inactive. Multitudes gathered around him, and no fewer than twelve select cloisters were planted in the lonely valley of the Anio and on the adjacent heights. But with increasing fame came also jealousy of his position and duties. A renewed attempt was made by an envious priest to administer poison to the saint; and, miraculous interpositions having again come to his rescue, this same priest, by name Florentius, had recourse to the diabolical device of sending women to try to seduce the monks. Benedict determined to depart from a neighborhood so full of danger, notwithstanding the long period of thirty years during which he had labored to consecrate it and spread abroad the blessings of an ascetic Christianity. He journeyed southwards, and at length settled at Monte Cassino, an isolated and picturesque hill. There at this time an ancient temple of Apollo still stood, to which the ignorant peasants brought their offerings. Benedict, in his holy enthusiasm, proceeded to demolish the temple and to erect in its place two oratories, one to St John the Baptist and the other to St Martin whose ascetic fame had traveled to Italy from the south of Gaul. Around these sacred spots gradually rose the famous monastery which was destined to carry the name of its founder through the Christian world, and to give its laws "to almost the whole of Western monasticism."

Benedict survived fourteen years after he had began this great work. His sanctity and influence grew with his years, in illustration of which it is told how a barbarian king, who made himself master of Rome and Italy, sought BenedictÕs presence, and, prostrating himself at his feet, accepted a rebuke for his cruelties, and departed a humbler and better man. His last days were associated with the love and devotion of his sister Scholastica, who too had forsaken the world and given herself to a religious life with an enthusiasm and genius for government hardly less than his own. A few days after Benedict saw in a vision the soul of his sister entering heaven, his own summons came. He died standing, after partaking of holy communion, and was buried by the side of his sister.

Adapted from "Saint Benedict," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1878.