In the summer of 1987 I had three months free, and decided to make a hitch-hiking pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I had visited Benedictine monasteries in England and decided to stay in monasteries and convents all along the route. It was a glorious summer and I had an excellent adventure. One of the best parts of the trip was visiting Benedictine houses all across France and Italy. I stayed at famous places like Mont St Michel, Solemses and Fleury where the relics of St Benedict are preserved. I visited Subiaco and Monte Cassino where St Benedict lived and worked. I also stopped at more out of the way monasteries. They were high in the Alps, on an island at Venice and in the centre of Rome.
At each monastery I was given a warm welcome in the true Benedictine tradition of hospitality. As I stayed with the monks I got first hand experience of their way of life. It is a simple, balanced and dignified life style. Many people regard monks as extremists, but I learned to see things in a different way. Here was a group of men who decided to live together to pursue a life of prayer, study and work. They weren’t the ones who were insane. Instead their quiet sanity made the usual race for money and power seem crazy.
A few years ago my friend Rod Dreher wrote an important book, The Benedict Option which highlights the life of St Benedict and his relevance today. St Benedict is the father of Western monasticism, but he is also named as the patron of Europe. Benedict is patron of Europe because the monasteries that kept his simple rule helped to preserve the ancient learning and culture of Greek and Rome after the Roman Empire crumbled. Benedict’s disciples founded monasteries that became centres of culture and learning throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries became centres of learning, health care, justice and the arts. Benedict’s rule also established a primitive form of democracy in an age of tyranny. The rule also established the foundation for modern human rights because in the community each person was treated with respect and honour. Benedict’s monasteries valued learning, good manners, discipline and self respect. The monks taught that these ordinary virtues were part of the call to holiness. Benedict reminds us that all of these virtues—including holiness– are vital for a civilisation of decency, order and peaceful prosperity.