Monte Cassino, Italy
Monte Cassino is considered by many to be the birthplace of monastacism in Western Europe. It was here in the 6th century that Benedict of Nursia founded the Benedictine Order, created the Benedictine Rule and established the first great monastery in Italy. Since its founding, the Abbey of Monte Cassino has grown into an immense affair, a masterpiece of architecture in a stunning mountain setting. After fifteen centuries it remains one of the chief centers of the Benedictines, and is especially revered by members of that Order, both because of its antiquity and historical importance and also due to the fact that Benedict of Nursia himself is entombed at the site. The abbey is a popular destination for Benedictines as well as monks of other orders, though it gets its fair share of secular visitors as well.
The idea of Christian monastacism first appeared in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD, when men like Anthony set off to live lives of solitude deep in the Egyptian wilderness. But it would be another three centuries before Benedict of Nurcia institutionalized the idea and created Christianity’s first major international religious order. Benedict, brother of Scholastica, was born into what was left of the Roman aristocracy at the end of the 5th century. However, during his teenage years and early twenties he embraced religious studies with an eye towards a career with the Church.
At some point in his twenties, he decided to move to the countryside outside of Rome. According to tradition, this was simply to get away from the city, and not necessarily to embrace the life of a religious recluse. However, a chance meeting with one Romanus, the abbot of a small nearby monastery, convinced Benedict to give it a try, and he decided to live as a hermit in a cave. After three years, the abbot of the monastery passed away, and Benedict was invited to take over in his stead. However, he did not get along well with the other monks, and was soon driven out.
After his years as a recluse and his brief experience as abbot, Benedict decided to start his own monastic order. By that time he had become quite famous and had attracted his own following. Under his leadership they built thirteen monasteries in the area, twelve small ones and a thirteenth for himself and a few followers at Monte Cassino. He also went about establishing the Benedictine Rule, a code to guide the growing order so as to give it purpose and to protect it against the petty bickerings he had seen at Romanus’ abbey. By the time of his death in the mid-6th century, Benedictine monasteries were springing up all over Europe.
The Abbey of Monte Cassino has always been looked up to as the mother abbey of the Benedictine Order. Unfortunately, Benedict picked a very popular and strategic spot for it, and the abbey has witnessed many conquests and battles over the years. It was sacked by the Lombards not too long after Benedict’s death, rebuilt in the 8th century, badly damaged by an earthquake in the 14th century, rebuilt again, and then sacked once more by Napolean and the French n 1799. The abbey was almost completely destroyed during a five-month siege during World War II, but rebuilt in the decades thereafter. It is now once again an active Benedictine Monastery and the order’s most important shrine.
The Abbey of Monte Cassino is visually spectacular. Perched high on the slope of the hill known as Monte Cassino, the immense fortress-like complex is ensconced in thick, lush forests which shroud its lower walls. Because of the periodic destructions the abbey has endured, very little remains of the original building. Most of the massive complex dates from its reconstruction in the years after World War II. The visual highlight of the abbey, from an external perspective, is the towering dome of the basilica.
Despite the abbey’s size, it is barely enough to contain the vast labyrinth of chapels, libraries and residential areas, not to mention the expansive basilica. A quartet of peaceful cloisters, squeezed almost impossibly into the available space, provides easy access from one part of the abbey to another. The abbey’s basilica, constructed in 17th century, is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. The relics of Benedict and his sister Scholastica are interred beneath the main altar. The abbey is also home to an extensive museum which contains more than a dozen galleries filled with artifacts and artwork, including pieces from the abbey treasury.
Although the Abbey of Monte Cassino is isolated on a mountain top, it is only eighty miles southeast of Rome and a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. The abbey is open daily from 8:30am-5:00pm (closed for lunch 12:30pm-3:30pm; late hours in the summer). As of this writing, there was no information available concerning admission costs to the abbey or the museum. Web: www.officine.it/montecassino (official website)
Of the other monasteries that Benedict founded in the area, the next most popular are the Abbey of St. Benedict and the Abbey of St. Scholastica in the nearby town of Subiaco, though these buildings are not the originals and actually date from much later.