"As soon as wicked thoughts spring into your heart, dash them against Christ."1
Christian monasticism as such is generally considered to have been born in the East - indeed, when I think of monasticism at all, my mind generally pictures such figures as St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Pachomius. And although the Christian East, both Catholic and Orthodox, has well preserved the monastic spiritual life, it would be a mistake to think that the West was somehow devoid of it and full of only preaching friars instead.
Ironically, of all the great monks in the Catholic Church, it was not an Eastern monk that is arguably most well-known of them all, but a Western one, the famed St. Benedict of Nursia. Credited as the founder of western monasticism, St. Benedict, in the full flower of his youth chose to leave Rome where he was studying, and travel east towards the mountains near Subiaco in order to spend his time alone with God. From what I can tell, his journey away from the tumult of society wasn't entirely successful - news spread of his life of asceticism and prayer, and people began to throng about him.
Much like St. Anthony before him, St. Benedict attempted to go deeper into the mountains than before, disappearing like a shadow amongst the caves and crags of the region. For over three years, St. Benedict lived almost totally alone, before he founded a community of monks. From this community, the famous Rule of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Order was born.
St. Benedict's influence is incalculable, both in the ancient world and in our present day - practically all of the world of monastic spirituality has been affected by his life and Rule. Through St. Benedict, we become acquainted with not only of the greatest monks in all of Western Christendom, but also those who influenced him (St. John Cassian stands out especially with his Institutes). But where should one begin with St. Benedict's approach to the Christian life?
Aside from the beautifully written biography of St. Benedict written by Pope St. Gregory the Great, obviously, the key text is the Rule of St. Benedict. A short work that outlines all the aspects of the monastic life, its focus is exceedingly practical, almost dry at first in comparison to the more mystical works of the Church. Instead of the theology of eagles, as it were, it is the theology of sparrows, designed to cover the basics rudiments of monastic life in a community - ora et labora.
But it is in its simplicity and practicality that its contents gives the sparrow wings. Truly, the depth and richness of St. Benedict's Rule cannot be underestimated, though it may lack the flourishing crescendo-like words of others. Bossuet, considered by some to be one of the most eloquent preachers the Catholic Church has ever known, calls the Rule "an epitome of Christianity, a learned and mysterious abridgment of all the doctrines of the Gospel, all the Institutions of the Fathers, and all the counsels of perfection."2 Indeed, "peace and strength are the essential characteristics of [the Benedictine Order's] Rule."3
Without a doubt, western monasticism owes more to St. Benedict of Nursia than to any other figure. His saintly light shines across time, not only influencing the glorious order he founded, but the many other great religious orders that followed in his wake.
1 - St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict, IV
2 - qtd. in Michael McMahon, Saints: The Art, the History, the Inspiration, pg. 231
3 - qtd. in The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the Great, xxvii