The Benedictine way of life has its roots in the fourth-century Egyptian desert, where many men and women fled the world to seek God in a radical life of poverty, silence and prayer. A monk of the late fourth-century, Saint John Cassian, wrote down the essential teachings of the ‘Desert Fathers’ in two highly influential books, The Institutes and The Conferences. These books were commissioned by Pope Damasus for the purpose of founding monastic life in the Europe of the time.
Three generations after Cassian, Saint Benedict of Nursia, disillusioned by dissolute student life in Rome, withdrew from the world to the cave of Subiaco fifty miles north of the city. There, disciples began to attach themselves to him. Under the influence of Cassian’s teachings, he wrote his Rule for Monks, and it is this sixth-century text that still founds the basis of our spirituality.
The Institutes concern themselves with the reform of our behavior and our thoughts, without which there can be no genuine spiritual growth. The Desert Fathers’ insights on the working of the mind were first systematized by Cassian’s teacher, Evagrius of Pontus. He taught that any thought that tempts us toward sin falls into one of eight broader categories: lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, sadness, spiritual lethargy (acedia), vainglory and pride. This teaching eventually became the basis for the ‘Seven Capital Sins’ of later, secular spirituality.
Cassian is largely concerned with this ‘practical’ spirituality. Saint Benedict set up a ‘school of the Lord’s service’, in which one learns to order one’s life in harmony with gospel precepts through the disciplines of silence and listening, obedience and humility, especially in loving service of guests and the weaker brothers in community.
But for those who wish to go on to greater heights of doctrine, Saint Benedict recommends The Conferences. These contain teachings on personal prayer, especially what Cassian calls ‘fiery prayer’, on the spiritual meaning of the scriptures and liturgical seasons.
Reading is of central importance in monastic life and formation. Monks are well-known for having preserved many ancient works of literature, and not only by Christian authors. Most of our surviving manuscripts of ancient classical works were hand-copied and thus preserved by monastic scribes. We invite you to browse the various links in this section to see our recommendations for your own reading and prayer.