11 July, Monday, Feast of St Benedict, Patron of Europe
Prov. 2:1-9. Maxims on the peaceful virtues that make for a simple, noble and godly life
Mt 19:27-29. The reward promised by Jesus to those who have left everything and followed him.
Life of St Benedict
Benedict , the founder of western monasticism, was born at Nursia, c. 480 and died at Monte Cassino in the year 543. The earliest life of Benedict, in St Gregory’s “Dialogues”, is more character sketch than biography, consisting of a number of miraculous incidents which illustrate the life of the saint, but offer no chronological account of his life. St Gregory’s sources were the saint’s own disciples, Constantinus, who succeeded him as Abbot of Monte Cassino, and Honoratus, who was Abbot of Subiaco when St Gregory was writing.
He was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, a small town near Spoleto, and a tradition reported by St Bede makes Benedict a twin with his sister Scholastica. His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he attended both junior and higher studies. Then “giving over his books, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, wanting only to serve God, he sought some place where he might achieve his holy purpose; and in this sort he left Rome, taught by learned ignorance and possessing unlearned wisdom” (Dial. St Greg., II, Migne, P.L. LXVI).
There is some doubt as to Benedict’s age at the time of his monastic vocation, but St Gregory’s narrative makes it impossible to suppose him younger than nineteen or twenty. He was old enough to be in the midst of his literary studies, to understand the real meaning and worth of the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have personally deeply felt the love of a woman (Ibid. II, 2). He was capable of comparing all these things with the life taught in the Gospels, and chose the latter. Clearly he was not a child if, as St Gregory puts it, “he was in the world and free to enjoy the advantages the world offers, but drew back after already setting forth in the world”. If we take the date 480 for his birth, we may date his quitting home at about A.D. 500.
Benedict does not seem to have left Rome for the explicit purpose of becoming a hermit, but only to find some quiet place away from the life of the great city; moreover, he took his old nurse with him as a servant and they settled down to live in Enfide, near a church dedicated to St Peter, in some association with “a company of virtuous men” who were in sympathy with his Gospel ideal. Enfide, which the tradition of Subiaco identifies with the modern Affile, near Subiaco and about forty miles from Rome. It stands on the crest of a ridge which rises rapidly from the valley to the higher range of mountains, and seen from the lower ground has the appearance of a fortress. As St Gregory’s account indicates, Enfide was a place of greater importance than the present town. There Benedict worked his first miracle by restoring to perfect condition an earthenware wheat-sifter (capisterium) which his old servant had accidentally broken. The fame which this miracle brought upon him drove him to escape still farther from social life, and so he fled and sought the more retired district of Subiaco. His life purpose also modified, for now he determined to be poor and to live by his own work.
The side of the ravine, above Subiaco, became steeper, until he reached a cave above which the mountain rises almost perpendicularly; while on the right hand side, in St Benedict’s day, lay a deep lake five hundred feet below. On his way from Enfide, Benedict met a monk, Romanus, whose monastery was on the mountain above the cliff overhanging the cave. Romanus had discussed with Benedict the purpose of a life of prayer, and had given him the monk’s habit. By his advice Benedict became a hermit and for three years lived in this cave above the lake. St Gregory tells little of these years, but now speaks of Benedict as a man of God. The monk Romanus served the saint in every way he could, apparently visited him frequently, and on fixed days brought him food.
During these three years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character, and at the same time he secured the respect of a monastery in the neighbourhood, so that the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot. When he consented to this the experiment failed; the monks differed from his views and some of them tried to poison him, so that he returned to his cave. By this time his miracles became frequent, and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance. For them he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with a few, whom he thought would “be better instructed by his own presence”. He remained, however, the father or abbot of all. With the establishment of these monasteries began the schools for children; and amongst the first to be brought were Maurus and Placid.
The remainder of St Benedict’s life was spent in realizing the ideal of monasticism which he has left us described in his Rule. By his own experience and his knowledge of the history of monasticism he had learnt that the regeneration of the individual is not normally reached by the path of solitude, nor by that of austerity, but by the path of man’s social instinct, with its necessary conditions of obedience and work; and that neither the body nor the mind can safely be overstrained in the effort to avoid evil. Thus, at Subiaco we find no solitaries, no great austerities, but men living together in organized communities for the purpose of leading good lives, doing such work as came to hand – gardening and the other household work, raising the twelve cloisters, clearing the ground, teaching children, preaching to the country people, reading and studying at least four hours a day, receiving strangers, accepting and training new-comers, attending the regular hours of prayer, reciting and chanting the Psalter.
The life at Subiaco and the character of St Benedict attracted many to the new monasteries, and their increasing numbers and growing influence came the inevitable jealousy and persecution, and eventually Benedict left Subiaco and went to Monte Cassino, where he built his largest monastery. After his experience at Subiaco, instead of building several houses each with a small community, he kept all his monks in one monastery and provided for its government by appointing a prior and deans (Rule, 65, 21). We find no trace in his Rule, which was probably written at Monte Cassino, of the view which guided him when he built the twelve small monasteries at Subiaco.
The life he had led at Subiaco was renewed at Monte Cassino, but the change in the situation brought corresponding changes in the work undertaken by the monks. Subiaco was a retired valley away in the mountains; Cassino was on one of the great highways to the south of Italy, which brought the monastery into frequent communication with the outside world. It soon became a centre of influence in a district with a large population. Men of all classes were frequent visitors, and he numbered nobles, abbots and bishops among his friends. There were nuns in the neighbourhood whom the monks went to preach to and to teach. There was a village nearby in which St Benedict preached and made many converts (Dial. St Greg., 19). The monastery became the protector of the poor, their trustee (ibid., 31), their refuge in sickness, in accidents and in want.
Thus during the life of the saint we find what has remained a characteristic feature of Benedictine houses, the members take up any work which is adapted to their peculiar circumstances, any work which may be dictated by their needs. Thus we find the Benedictines teaching in poor schools and in the universities, practising the arts and following agriculture, undertaking the care of souls, or devoting themselves wholly to study. No work is foreign to the Benedictine, provided only it is compatible with living in community and with the performance of the Divine Office.
Totila’s visit to Monte Cassino in 543 is the only certain date we have in the saint’s life. It must have occurred when Benedict was very old, possibly in the year of the saint’s death. Just before his death we hear for the first time of his sister Scholastica,who had been dedicated from her infancy to Our Lord, and used to come once a year to visit her brother. They met for the last time three days before Scholastica’s death, on a day when the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The sister begged her brother to stay the night, but could not persuade him to agree until “receiving this denial of her brother, she made her prayers to Almighty God, and when she lifted her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thunder, and rain, that neither Benedict, nor his monks could put their head out of door” (ibid., 33). Three days later, he saw the soul of his sister, departing from her body, in the likeness of a dove ” (ibid., 34).
St Benedict has given his own portrait in his ideal picture of an abbot (Rule, 64): “It behoves the abbot to be ever doing some good for his brethren rather than to be presiding over them. He must, therefore, be learned in the law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth things new and old; he must be chaste, sober, and merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy.”
First Reading: Proverbs 2:1-9.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid.
The good obtain favor from the Lord, but those who devise evil he condemns.
No one finds security by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will never be moved.
A good wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones.
The thoughts of the righteous are just; the advice of the wicked is treacherous.
The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush, but the speech of the upright delivers them.
The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.
One is commended for good sense, but a perverse mind is despised.
Better to be despised and have a servant, than to be self-important and lack food.
Gospel: Matthew 19:27-29.
Peter said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
Alternate: Readings of the Day
Exod 1:1ff. A new Pharaoh oppresses and enslaves the Israelites and threatens them with extinction.
Matt 10:34ff. In his missionary discourse, Jesus foresees division within families about the gospel.
Peace and Conflict
Beginning today, the readings from Exodus lead up to the theophany on Mount Sinai (chap. 19), followed by the covenant guidelines (chaps. 20-23), and its solemn ratification (chap. 24). Isaiah represents a supreme expression of the protests that Israel’s prophets raised against injustice. Today’s Gospel text is the conclusion one of Jesus’ major sermons, the missionary discourse, for those he sends to continue his work in the world. We are reminded, implicitly by Exodus and Isaiah, explicitly in the gospel, that following the will of God can be hard, even disruptive of peace between people. Jesus sums it up very dramatically, “My mission is to spread, not peace, but division.” The Greek text of Matthew reads even more grimly, “not peace but the sword”; Luke blunted this expression by changing “sword” to “division” (Luke 12:51).
The Scriptures state the inevitability of suffering and division. We may remember Simeon’s “blessing” and words to Mary as she held the infant Jesus in her arms: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34). The sword of division is raised for nationalistic motives in the Book of Exodus , by family disputes according to Jesus’ words.
The opening chapter of Exodus records how a new king who “did not know Joseph” came to power in Egypt. Archaeologists and historians have revealed the enormous political and social upheaval that underly this sentence. A native Egyptian dynasty had finally driven out the old and hated Asiatic (Hyksos) dynasty from Egypt, and in the backlash of fear and hatred towards all Asiatics, the Israelites were reduced to slave labour. God’s people were oppressed because of racial bias and nationalistic envy.
In the gospel the problems come from the family circle. Again it is not peace at any price, but peace with a sincere resolve to follow Jesus. If the sword strikes within family relationships, it is not being wielded for personal ambition but for the sake of conscience. However, the sword never brings a clear moral solution, especially amid social, racial or family disputes. We are summoned to be sincere and strong, to be willing to suffer and bear the cross, to be humble and lowly, to be men and women of trust in Jesus.
First Reading: Exodus 1:8-14, 22
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Gospel: Matthew 10:34-11:1
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up he cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”