11Jul 11th July. Friday. Saint Benedict, Patron of Europe.

Benedict of Nursia

Benedict (480-543) from Nursia in Umbria, Italy lived for some years as a hermit in a mountainside cave at Subiaco (64 km east of Rome), before being inspired to gather companions to live a monastic life in community. He later moved to Monte Cassino in the mountains near Naples. The “Rule of Saint Benedict” is admired for its spirit of balance and moderation and reasonableness and became the most influential monastic rule in Western Christendom. Through the second half of the first millenium it was mainly through the monasteries that the culture of Greece and Rome was preserved in the west, and given a Christian flavour. For this reason, Benedict is honoured by the Catholic church as the patron of Europe.

First Reading: Proverbs 2:1-10.

(The value of wisdom, devotion and fear of the Lord, so exemplified in Saint Benedict.)

My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures –
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and fairness and every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.

Gospel: Matthew 19:27-29.

(Whoever leaves things behind for the sake of Jesus, will be rewarded a hundredfold.)

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, 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.

The Father of Western Monasticism

We might say a special prayer today for pope Benedict, on his patron’s day. Benedict , the founder of western monasticism, was born at Nursia in central Italy, c. 480 and died at Monte Cassino in the year 543. The earliest life of Benedict, in St Gregory’s “Dialogues”, reads more as hagiography than biography, with many miraculous incidents to illustrate the saint’s holiness, but no chronological account of his life. St Gregory’s sources were Benedict’s own disciples, Constantinus, his successor as Abbot of Monte Cassino, and Honoratus, Abbot of Subiaco.

Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, a small town near Spoleto, and a tradition reports that Benedict and his sister Scholastica were twins. His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he attended both junior and higher studies. Then “forsaking his books and his father’s house, wanting only to serve God, he sought a place for this holy purpose; and so 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 Gregory’s narrative suggests at least nineteen or twenty. He was old enough for his literary studies, to understand the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have personally 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 no child if, as Gregory puts it, “he was free to enjoy the advantages the world offers, but drew back after already setting forth in the world”. If we take the 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 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. 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 of this miracle 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.

On the steep side of the ravine above Subiaco 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, he met a monk, Romanus, whose monastery was above the cliff overhanging Benedict’s cave. Romanus discussed with Benedict the purpose of a life of prayer, and gave 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 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 gained the respect of a monastery in the neighbourhood, whose community came and begged him to become its abbot. After he consented to this the experiment failed miserably; the monks so differed from his views that some of them tried to poison him. After 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 ask 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 himself lived with a few, whom he thought would “benefit from his own presence”. He remained, however, the father or abbot of all.

The remainder of St Benedict’s life was spent in composing the ideal of monasticism 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 total solitude, nor by 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 household work, building 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 with increasing numbers and 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.

If 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.

Just before his death we hear 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.”