The Abbaye de Fleury is one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in France, and one of the most important. It is reputed to contain the relics of Saint Benoit (Saint Benedict) of Nursia, the founder of the rule of Saint Benedict – a book of 73 chapters detailing the spiritual and administrative rules for the management of a monastery – that was the basis for the flowering of medieval Western monasticism.
In the sixth century, Benedict established the rule for his monastery of Monte Cassino about 100 miles southeast of Rome. A few miles away was the convent that sheltered his beloved sister Scholastica, who some believe was his twin. She certainly was his twin in spirit as they were both fervently religious. There is a wonderful story that during a visit with her shortly before she died, Benedict said that he had to leave to return to Monte Cassino. Scholastica pleaded that they continue their discussions but Benedict refused. She began praying and a storm arose that prevented her brother from leaving. When he protested, she replied “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.” He could not fight the storm and remained.
When Scholastica died, Benedict had her body placed in a grave “… covered with a horizontal slab so that the grave could be opened for the body of Benedict.” Benedict died in 543 AD. and they remained together peacefully for a few years.
Shortly after, however, the Lombards invaded northern Italy and the monastery was occupied by the Lombard king Zoto, who evicted the monks. Monte Cassino fell in disuse and ruin. About 130 years later, Mommolus, the second Abbot of Fleury sent some of his monks on a long thousand mile journey to the deserted Monte Cassino abbey to find and claim the remains of Benedict and Scholastica, which they removed to France. As the Benedictine rule spread throughout the monastic world, the relics at Fleury became very well known and attracted pilgrims from all over Christian Europe.
In 718, Popes Gregory II and Zachary restored Monte Cassino and demanded the return of the bodies, but the monks of Fleury refused. The bones of Scholastica were subsequently given to Le Mans and later destroyed in a fire in September 1134. The bones of Benedict remain at Fleury to this day.
The core of the Benedictine rule were the services associated with the eight canonical hours – Matins at midnight, Lauds at 3am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at noon, None at 3pm, Vespers at 6pm, and Compline at 9pm. The life was ruled by the motto Ora et labora meaning “pray and work.”
This strict philosophy of prayer and work achieved wonders in a Europe decimated by the ravages of the tenth century. Vikings, Magyars and Arabs invaded and pillaged. War, famine, poverty, and lawlessness had left the fertile and cultivated land of France empty and in ruins.
Led by the monastic communities, with papal approval and encouragement, the monks shouldered the huge task of reconstructing France. They rebuilt their own monasteries, the roads, and the bridges. Villages and towns grew up around them to take advantage of the improved infrastructure. Trade resumed, if only at a small local or regional level. Protection was given to travelers and to traders. Arable land was cleared and put to cultivation.
The secular world saw this enormous effort put forth and the people must have felt that God was speaking to them through these monks and these nuns. Witnessing these great works renewed man’s faith in God and his intermediaries and there developed a massive revival of Christianity throughout Europe. Churches were built across the land in every city, town and village. The monk Raoul Glaber from Saint Benigne in Dijon stated, “So it was as though the very world had shaken herself and cast off her old age, and were clothing herself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.”
The black-robed Benedictines eventually became the most numerous and most powerful monastic organization in Europe. The Cluniac order accumulated an estimated 1450 dependencies and had to be reformed in their turn by the Cistercians and other orders. But they continue to thrive, and their black robes are still present among us. Today the Abbaye de Fleury maintains a flourishing community of forty monks, carrying on the legacy of their beloved Saint Benoit.