Saints for our Times: Benedict of Aniane led restoration of Western monasticism
By Mary Lou Gibson
His birth name was Witiza and he was born into a noble Visigoth family in about 750. As a young man he was a courtier to King Pepin III and then Charlemagne. Later, as a soldier he took part in a campaign in Lombardy where he was nearly drowned in the Tesino near Paris while trying to save his brother. Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that after this incident, Witiza made a vow to quit the world entirely.
He left the army and went to the abbey of Saint-Seine where he was admitted as a monk and took the name of his patron, Benedict, the saint who 200 years earlier produced the rule for monastic life. After about three years, he returned to Languedoc and lived as a hermit on family property on the banks of the river Aniane. He was soon joined by others. His disciples worked in the fields, did other manual labor as well as copying books.
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that as the community grew, they moved to where a monastery could be built. In time, this monastery had more than 300 monks and it became the place where Benedict of Aniane guided monastic reform throughout France. As his influence grew, he was appointed to supervise all the monasteries in the region and to apply the Rule of St. Benedict to all of them.
David Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that over many years the monasteries in the empire had suffered from lay ownership and Viking attacks. It was also a time in the Holy Roman Empire when ecclesiastical affairs were very much the business of emperors. So it was a natural progression that Benedict of Aniane was enlisted by the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious to apply the Rule of St. Benedict to all the monasteries in his domain.
Benedict’s zeal for monastic reform was fueled by the many abuses and the variety of observances that had crept into monasteries over the previous two centuries. By imposing the Rule of St. Benedict on all the monks throughout the Empire, Benedict of Aniane wanted to remove motives for jealousy and to encourage charity. Burns notes that he placed more emphasis on scholarship and spiritual reading and lay people were banished from monastic enclosures.
His reform legislation was enacted in 816 at the Council of Aachen. Richard McBrien writes in the “Lives of the Saints” that it stressed poverty, chastity and obedience, and the importance of daily Mass, keeping of the liturgical hours and the standardization of intake of food and drink. Benedict emphasized teaching, writing and artistic work over manual labor for his monks who were also clerics. Like his patron and namesake, Benedict of Aniane had turned away from a very austere life to a more moderate community monasticism, according to Farmer. His reforms definitively established the Benedictines as a religious order.
Benedict of Aniane also compiled a book of homilies to be used by monks. His most important work was the “Concord of Rules” in which he assimilated the rules of St. Benedict with those of other patriarchs of monastic observance to show their similarity.
John Delaney writes in the “Dictionary of Saints” that Benedict of Aniane is considered the restorer of Western monasticism and is often called the “second Benedict.” His overall aim, according to Burns, was to enable monks to pass “from faith to sight” –– for understanding to blossom into contemplation of God. These reforms marked the greatest turning point in Western monasticism since its foundation.
Benedict suffered various illnesses in his final years and died in his monastery in 821. His feast day is Feb. 11. It is not on the General Roman Calendar but is a major celebration in Benedictine communities.