Perhaps no Christian since the days of the Apostles has had more of in impact on the development and future of the Church and western culture as a whole as St. Benedict of Nursia. As the author of the Rule of St. Benedict and the founder of modern religious life, his family tree would include such monumental figures as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Teresa of Calcutta. His monastic system would eventually give birth to modern schools, hospitals, orphanages, wineries, and universities. Benedictine monks helped develop modern agriculture, metallurgy, and genetics. Their numerous inventions range from Parmesan cheese to the mechanical clock. The monasteries of late antiquity and the early middle ages preserved and advanced upon the literary, scientific, and cultural achievements of the ancient world to the benefit of generations to come.
As impressive as these achievements are, however, St. Benedict certainly did not live and teach the life that he did in order to facilitate any of them. St. Benedict's primary mission, like all saints, was to serve as the salt and light of the world. Over 100 years before Benedict's birth in 480 AD the situation Christians found themselves in within the bounds of the Roman Empire was quite different from the one their ancestors had faced. With crucifixion or beheading no longer a real possibility, the new threat to the Christian was complacency. Gone were the days of the heroic martyrs and in their place was a world were Christianity was not only not persecuted, but favored. It was in this setting that early ascetics like St. Anthony of the Desert decided to voluntarily live a life of extreme poverty and prayer, the martyrs of the new society. It was into this tradition that St. Benedict of Nursia stepped. He realized that this extreme and solitary life of a holy hermit was certainly not the best option for a novice looking to grow in holiness and could easily lead a person down the wrong path. His solution was to develop and teach a rule of life that set guidelines for groups of Christians living together in community and voluntarily adopting lives of poverty, chastity, obedience, and prayer. These new monasteries quickly became centers of prayer, education, and vitality for their surrounding communities and immeasurably improved the quality of life and holiness of those in their vicinity. The tradition that Benedict began continues to this day in the Order of St. Benedict, but has also given birth to all modern western religious orders such as the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans.
With this back story in mind it is absurd to posit, as some people have, that Benedict's Rule promotes a full retreat from the world and the establishment of separate and isolated Catholic communities. In fact quite the opposite is true. By bringing men or women together to live in intentional communities of faith, to themselves grow in holiness, Benedict from the beginning saw the evangelization of his culture as his primary mission. It wasn't so much a desire to form a pure and undefiled remnant of the Church that motivated Benedict as it was to form the best possible means of engaging and inspiring the Church around him. Benedictine monasteries were set apart from their communities, but they were also established in the midst of wider communities to teach and preach to those around them.
As we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict today we remember that he did not call on followers of Jesus to abandon the world, but to engage it, to gently help it grow (Benedictines have been working on this for 1500 years!), to be salt and light for the world.
The Rule of St. Benedict (if you're interested in taking a look)