Very little is known about the life of Benedict of Nursia, who lived approximately 480–547, and most of what is known comes from a biography written by Gregory the Great. Gregory made the Rule of St. Benedict widely known, and Benedict is today considered the father of Western monasticism.
With the passage of time, the persecution that was common in the early years of Christianity gave rise to tolerance and then official recognition by the Roman Emperor. This led to a great increase of people who joined churches and claimed to be Christians—whether or not they had truly come to saving faith in Christ or even understood what it was all about. The influx of so many unconverted Romans into the church was accompanied by a general lowering of standards for behavior. Many Christians were saddened by this and sought to live alone or form smaller, separate communities where they could live out what they felt to be their genuine faith. This move to separate was the beginning of monasticism—a withdrawal from society in an attempt to practice Christianity untainted by the world with its temptations and contaminations.
Benedict studied law and rhetoric in Rome, but, as he observed the immorality in the city among people who claimed to be Christians, he decided to withdraw from society and live by himself. On two occasions, Benedict became the head (abbot) of a monastery, but both times it ended badly, with his being forced to leave. Benedict went on to establish a monastery in Monte Cassino in central Italy around AD 520 and served there the rest of his life.
It was here that he developed his rule for governing the lives of monks, which became the standard for European monasteries and is still followed in large part today. The rule emphasizes submission to the abbot as the spiritual authority, worship and prayer, service, and work. Benedictine monks always stress the importance of work: to St. Benedict, work or physical labor was necessary for the well-being of a man and essential for a Christian. Benedictine monks are often called “black monks” because they wear black habits.