11Jul 11 July, 2013. Thursday, 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.

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.”

Benedict: Searching for God

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 did not leave Rome just to be a hermit, but 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 association with “a company of virtuous men” who were in sympathy with his Gospel ideal. Soon he moved to nearby Subiaco, about forty miles from Rome. It stands on the crest of a ridge which rises from the Aniene valley to the higher mountain ranges, and seen from below has the appearance of a fortress. Above his cave the mountain rises almost perpendicularly; while five hundred feet below lay a deep lake. There he met a monk, Romanus, at whose advice Benedict became a hermit and for three years lived in this cave above the lake. From this point on, St Gregory speaks of Benedict as a man of God. The monk Romanus served the saint in every way he could, visiting him frequently, and on fixed days bringing him food.

During three years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and spirit, and gained 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 when some of them tried to poison him he returned to his cave. By this time his miracles were widely known, and many people 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 in community, while remaining 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 refining 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.

Eventually Benedict left Subiaco and went to Monte Cassino, where he built his largest monastery of all. 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 early on. Subiaco was a retired valley 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. People of all classes were frequent visitors, and he numbered nobles, abbots and bishops among his friends. There were nuns in the neighbourhood to whom the monks went out to preach to and to teach. The monastery became the protector of the poor, their trusted refuge in sickness, in accidents and in want.

St Benedict has written his ideal picture of an abbot, in his Rule, no. 64: “It behoves the abbot to be ever doing good for his brethren rather than to be presiding over them. He must be learned in the law of God and know how 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.”