In the history of Christian monasticism in the West, by far the most important figure is St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-548 AD) whose “Rule for Monasteries” summed up and re-interpreted, for his own day, the teachings of the earlier monastic tradition. A mere 12,000 words, it is not only (in part) a spiritual treatise, but also a handbook of practical instruction on the day-to-day organization of a monastic community.
One of the principal reasons for the Rule’s extraordinary influence in subsequent centuries has been the emphasis it placed on “discretion”, a built-in flexibility or freedom to adapt its provisions to changing circumstances and personalities. In fact, since the time of St. Benedict, the Rule has never been followed in a strictly literal sense. Even in the Early Middle Ages, the daily routine and governance of monasteries were based on various books of customs and constitutions. Although ultimately drawing their inspiration from Benedict’s legislation, these varied widely from place to place (and over time) and such plurality of observance and interpretation has been a striking feature of Benedictine history.
Nevertheless, most would agree that the essence of Benedictinism is a Christian community formed by prayer (both communal and individual), sacred reading (lectio divina) and work. At different times in history it has happened that one or other of these elements has been particularly stressed. Thus, in the Early Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries were valued chiefly as centres of intercessory prayer, on which it was felt the well-being of society depended. This is not to deny, however, that medieval monks were involved in other activities as well – for example, they helped the spreading of the Christian gospel in Central Europe during the eighth century, and contributed to the literary, artistic and general intellectual development of Western civilization.
After the Protestant Reformation in the 18th century, Benedictine life disappeared in most of Northern Europe, while elsewhere it was heavily influenced by the newer spiritual currents associated with the Counter Reformation Church. During this period more and more monasteries grouped into congregations – some quite centralized in character, others not at all. Some congregations such as the Maurists in France, were especially noted for their scholarship, while others became increasingly involved in running schools and (in the German-speaking lands) staffing parishes. Their large land-holdings remained intact, however, until the almost total suppression of the monasteries, which came as a an aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic war.
The 19th century saw both a slow revival of monastic life withinEurope, and the beginnings of a great Benedictine expansion outside the continent. Thus Spanish (Abbot Salvado) and English (Archbishop Polding) both established monasteries inAustraliain the 1840′s.
St. Benedict’s Monastery at Arcadia belongs to the Sylvestrine Congregation. This originated as a monastic reform movement in eastern-central Italy in the early 13th century. St. Sylvester Guzzolini (1177-1267) a canon of the cathedral at Osimo, decided in late middle age to withdraw from society and to adopt an eremitical life of prayer and asceticism. He was soon joined by a number of disciples and founded a series of small communities based on the Rule of St. Benedict.
These developed into the “Order of St. Benedict of Montefano’ (later the Sylvestrine Congregation) which was approved by Pope Innocent IV in 1248, and which took its name from a mountain-top monastery just outside the town of Fabriano. St. Sylvester and his followers tried to avoid the feudal entanglements and decadence of the older Benedictine houses, and to live a monastic life notable for its simplicity and poverty.
For most of its history, the Sylvestrine Congregation was confined to Central Italy. In the first half of the 19th century, however, a number of Sylvestrines went as missionaries to Sri Lanka, where a monastery was eventually established. There are now three Priories in Italy(Montefano, Bassano, Giulianova), plus one each in Sri Lanka, United States, India, the Philippines and Australia. It was from Sri Lanka, in 1949, that an Italian Sylvestrine (Fr. Peter Farina) arrived inSydney, where he was entrusted with the new parish of Smithfield on the city’s south-western outskirts. This parish was served by the monks until 2003.
The monastery at Arcadia was founded in 1961, and the first wing of the present building constructed in the following year. Since then, two further wings and a monastery chapel and library have been added. The present community (2004) comprises eleven monks.
Arcadia is a member of the Benedictine Union of Australia and New Zealand. Other members are the Benedictine Nuns (Jamberoo NSW and Tanby Qld), Tyburn Nuns (Riverstone NSW and Bombay NZ), Good Samaritan Sisters, Benedictine Sisters (Kalumburu WA), New Norcia WA, Anglican Benedictines (Camperdown and Wangaratta Vic.) and Cistercians (Tarrawarra, Vic. and Kopua NZ).
The community is also a member of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes.
For information on Benedictine monasteries worldwide see the Atlas OSB.