Western civilization is “waiting for another Benedict,”
according to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. But why single out St. Benedict of
Nursia (480-547) as a model for treating the ills of modern society?
As the father of monasticism in the West, St. Benedict is
the spiritual patriarch of European culture and all cultures stemming from it. St.
Benedict’s identity challenges the contemporary erosion of fatherhood and even
masculinity itself. For 15 centuries, his fruitful celibacy has proclaimed that
paternity is not confined to semen donation.
On October 24, 1964, Pope Paul VI issued his apostolic letter
Pacis Nuntius (“Messenger of Peace”) to
celebrate the re-consecration of Monte Cassino after its destruction in World
War II. He used the occasion to name St. Benedict, the abbey’s founder, as
heavenly patron of all Europe. Since then, Saints Cyril and Methodius,
Adalbert, Birgitta of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and Edith Stein have been designated
co-patrons of the continent. Yet St. Benedict, eldest of the group, retains his
pre-eminence in Europe and beyond.
Besides praising St. Benedict’s commitment to peacea word
commonly inscribed over the doors of monasteries following his RulePope Paul
also hailed him as “architect of unity, teacher of culture and civilization,
herald of the Christian religion, and founder of monastic life in the West.”
Benedict’s virtues helped bring a new dawn as ancient Europe was falling into
darkness. With Ora et Labora (“Pray
and Work”) as their motto, the holy abbot and his sons spread Christian
civilization by the cross, the book, and the plow. They dispelled shadows so
that under the light of Christ, goodness might prevail.
Despite St. Benedict’s enduring renown, all that is known of
his life comes from the Dialogues of Pope
St. Gregory the Great (540-604). Although St. Gregory was only a child when St.
Benedict died, he cites testimony from four knowledgeable witnesses and devotes
a quarter of his book to the holy abbot’s doings. Nevertheless, the text is
hagiography and not biography. St. Gregory arranges his slender store of data
for maximum didactic effect on issues important to him. He points out scriptural
parallels, likening the saint to Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, and St. Peter. Bowed
down by heavier responsibilities in worse circumstances than St. Benedict’s,
St. Gregory may have envied the quiet of the saint’s monasterynot to mention
his steady wisdom.
St. Benedict’s story needs to be placed in historical
context. Some elements,
especially the social ones, have obvious contemporary relevance. The Western
Empire, divided from the Eastern in 395, had formally ended with the deposition
of its last emperor in 476, just before Benedict was born. Rome had not fallen
because of rampant immorality or luxurious excess. The Late Empire, nominally
Christian since the fourth century, was a stern and serious place, not prone to
orgies. The Patristic Church was strict on sexual matters, preached restraint
of the appetites, and had even managed to end gladiator contests. But contra Gibbon, the triumph of
Christianity did not sap imperial vigor by encouraging rejection of the world,
the flesh, and the devil.
Celibacymonastic or privatedid not siphon too many people
to maintain the birth rate. Prosperous Romans had never been partial to large
families, preferring a few “expensive” children to the barbarians’ many “cheap”
ones. Slaves and the lowest classes reproduced poorly. Population losses from
epidemics and war from the late second to the early fourth centuries were not
replaced. Demographic decline accelerated, reducing productivity and the
capacity for defense. Imperial armies recruited barbarians to fill the ranks, partly
inspiring mass migrations of their fellow tribesmen.
The Western Empire had never been as rich, populous, or
urbanized as the East. Huge landed estates dominated the countryside, worked by
slaves or, increasingly, by serf-like colonni
who had traded freedom for security. Meanwhile, citizens of modest wealth were
being crushed by financial obligations in dying cities swarming with destitute
people. The Late Empire was a tightly regulated, highly stratified society marked
by astonishing disparities in wealth. Humiliores
(the humble) and honestiores (the
elite) were unequal in the eyes of the law. Poverty and philanthropy were
never-ending problems for the Church, which attempted to meet them with
exhortations and organized charity.
In 330, Constantine had shifted the axis of empire eastward
by founding Constantinople as his New Rome. Later, Ravenna had replaced Rome as
the Western capital in 402. Yet Rome had recovered from its sacks by the
Visigoths (410) and the Vandals (455) because it was the See of Peter, home to
the priceless relics of martyrs. Generous gifts from members of the still-functioning
Roman Senate restored damage and built lavish new churches. A classical
educationessential for a civil careerremained available in the Eternal City.
Rome survived the initial transition to barbarian rule
better than many places in the West. After 493, it became part of the
Ostrogothic kingdom ruled by Theodoric the Great, who had spent his youth in
Constantinople and wanted his people Romanized. He called himself King of Goths
and Italians, with a polite nod to the supreme authority of the Eastern emperor.
After 30 good years, his reign ended badly, setting in motion the horrors of
the Gothic War (535-554). This attempted re-conquest by Constantinople utterly
ravaged Italy, leaving it helpless when invaded by the savage Lombards in 560.
After war, plague, and famine were done, more than half the population had
Elsewhere in the West, other conquerors were attempting to
form their own kingdoms. The newcomers were not the genetically distinct
“fresh, young peoples” once extolled by nationalistic historians. Their tribal
labels (Goths, Vandals, Franks, Huns, Alans, Alemanni, etc.) covered
multi-ethnic groupings. When they settled down, they did not eliminate
vanquished Romans because they needed to exploit them for “hospitality” in the
form of lands or revenues.
Barbarians were not necessarily opposed to Romanization or
Christianity. The pagan Franks of Gaul accepted Catholicism in 496. The Ostrogoths,
Visigoths, and Vandals had arrived already Christian, but Arian rather than orthodox.
Mutual relations varied from tolerance to hostility to persecution. Religious
and cultural assimilation would be issues for centuries to come.
This is the world into which Benedict was born in the year
480. The future saint, “blessed by grace and blessed by name,” came from a
noble provincial family in Nursia, northeast of Rome. Sober-minded from
childhood and old beyond his years, he was shocked by the worldliness of Rome
and abandoned his studies there rather than fall into a life of vice.
Benedict moved to a nearby town accompanied by his doting
nurse. He lived among a group of pious men until a miracle worked on his
nurse’s behalf attracted unwelcome notoriety. He fled alone to wilder country
at Subiaco, 40 miles south of Rome. A friendly monk invested Benedict with the
habit and kept him fed while he spent the next three years as a hermit in
narrow cave. People gradually started coming to him for spiritual advice. During
this time, any residual pride or priggery was burned out of Benedict when he
rolled naked in briars to quell a violent temptation to lust. His serenity was
never troubled again.
A nearby monastery begged Benedict to be their abbot, and he
reluctantly agreed. But once installed, his strict governance stirred so much
resentment among the lax monks that they attempted to kill him with poisoned
wine. The cup shattered when he blessed it, providing the future saint with one
of his iconographic symbols. Benedict forgave his enemies and returned to
There Benedict founded 12 monasteries of 12 monks each under
superiors he appointed while he lived apart with a few companions. The fame of
his holiness and miracles stirred a local parish priest to such keen jealousy
that he sent Benedict a poisoned loaf of bread. But realizing that the gift was
lethal, the saint directed a raven to carry it away into the wilderness. The
friendly raven became another of Benedict’s symbols.
Frustrated in his malice, the evil priest tried to corrupt
the monks by sending seven naked girls to dance around the monastery. To
protect his brethrenand his enemyfrom further temptation, Benedict resolved
to leave Subiaco with some close associates. The priest’s sudden accidental
death did not change his plans.
So around 529, Benedict settled on the high plateau of Monte
Cassino, southeast of Rome. He destroyed a temple, altar, and sacred grove
dedicated to Apollo that were still used by pagans in the area. He replaced
them with chapels of St. Martin and John the Baptist. Benedict never again left
his new monastic home. Here the holy abbotnever ordained a priestperfected
his Rule and embodied its precepts of
obedience, honesty, generosity, and hospitality. As St. Gregory puts it, “the
holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived.” He instructed and
counseled, fed the hungry, relieved the oppressed, planted a new foundation,
and even curbed the cruelty of the Gothic King Totila with well-aimed rebukes.
As a miracle worker, Benedict banished demons, raised the
dead, gave peace to restless souls, cured leprosy, multiplied food, and made
prophecies. Among his visions was a view of the whole world within a single
beam of dazzling light. Exasperated by seeing so much goodness and supernatural
power, the Devil once screamed at him: “Maledict, not Benedict! Stop blessing
and start cursing!” He was, of course, ignored.
Only once was Benedict overmatched. His twin sister
Scholastica, herself a nun, begged him to prolong their annual visit on the
monastery’s grounds, but Benedict refused. By praying and weeping, Scholastica
raised a violent storm that kept her brother with her until dawn. Her love
trumped his adherence to regulations. When she died three days later, Benedict
saw her soul ascending to heaven as a dove and ordered her buried at Monte
Cassino in a grave he would eventually share.
Benedict died of a fever on March 21, 547. He passed away while
his monks were holding him upright for a final prayer. Two generations later,
Pope Gregory’s Dialogues preserved
the fame of his holiness for posterity, presenting him as a model for a life
lived in search of perfection.
Regardless of their accuracy, St. Gregory the Great’s
stories about St. Benedict are filtered through the Pope’s own sensibilities.
But the Rule of St. Benedict gives direct access to the sainted abbot himself.
The monastic ideal was more than two centuries old by Benedict’s time. Singly
or in groups, men and women pursued the consecrated life from Syria to Ireland,
following a wide variety of rules. Benedict was a brilliant synthesizer, not an
inventor. Besides the Bible and the Church Fathers, he borrowed from earlier
rules devised by Saints John Cassian, Pachomius, Basil, Augustine, and
Caesarius. He adapted his overall system from an earlier one known as the Rule of the Master, a clumsy document
that specified such minutiae as proper nose-blowing. Benedict modestly calls
his plan for communal religious life “a school of the Lord’s service” in which monks
can begin to make progress in virtue. By obediently climbing the ladder of
humility, one approaches God.
In its wisdom, sobriety, and moderation, the Rule of St.
Benedict is a posthumous child of
Roman civilization. In a turbulent world growing ever darker, it offers an
island of peace. In a society wracked by extremes of fortune, it commends
austerity. As historian Eleanor Shipley Duckett summarizes, “Benedict wrought
the marriage of faith and intellect, of things contemplative and things
practical in one sacrament of daily life within the cloister.”
Yet Benedict’s directives have lost none of their relevance.
Benedictine monastic life is designed to be orderly and harmonious, but open to
adaptation. The abbot must be a solicitous father who listens to his monks as
well as a final authority who commands them. There will be no class
distinctions among monks or guests. Hospitality is offered freely. Personal
responsibility complements willing obedience. Manual labor is as honorable as mental.
The liturgy is a work of God
performed for God. Nothing is to be
preferred to the love of Christ.
Although St. Benedict required spiritual reading in his
monasterya practice that would develop into lectio divinahe was silent about book-copying or other kinds of
cultural preservation. That program was the idea of his slightly younger
contemporary Cassiodorus (485-580), a wealthy Roman who had served the
Ostrogothic state. After retiring to his family estate in southern Italy, he founded
a monastery of Benedictine style and organized its monks to “fight the Devil
with pen and ink.” This idea spread until other Benedictine houses became beacons
of book-learning and the other arts of civilization during the Dark Ages.
Although its innate merits and St. Gregory the Great’s
admiration had sealed its prestige, the Rule of St. Benedict did not
immediately become the dominant form of Western monasticism. That status was achieved
by St. Benedict of Aniane (d. 821) who codified variant rules for maximum
strictness and won Charlemagne’s patronage.
Subsequent reformers pursued ascetic rigor in different
ways. Founded in 902, the Burgundian Abbey of Cluny and its 1,000 subordinate
daughter houses emphasized sumptuous liturgies and purification of the Church. Meanwhile,
St. Romualdus (d. 1027) adapted the Rule for a community of hermits at
Camaldoli in Italy. The Cistercians, established in 1098, rediscovered
primitive simplicity and manual labor. The French Trappists tightened
Cistercian practices in 1662.
The failed Cluniac experiment aside, the sons and daughters
of St. Benedict have never been a single unified entity. The surviving orders
are independent branches comprising congregations of separate communities, both
contemplative and active, with Anglican counterparts. Each strives to follow
St. Benedict’s principle: “May the holy Cross be my light.”
Whether Pope Benedict XVI is actually the alter-Benedictus that Alasdair MacIntyre
bids us await, he acknowledges the Father of Monks as his inspiration. The Pope
is keenly aware of Western civilization’s peril as it flounders in moral
relativism and cultural decadence. In an audience on April 9, 2008, he noted
that survival is impossible without “an ethical and spiritual renewal which
draws on the Christian roots of the Continent.” In this “the great monk is
still a true master.”
Even St. Benedict’s beloved Monte Cassino provides a
sign of hope. Destroyed by the Lombards (584), burned by the Saracens (883),
flattened by an earthquake (1349), sacked by Napoleon (1799), suppressed by
united Italy (1866), bombed by the Allies (1944), it stands restored once more.
The abbey still continues St. Benedict’s mission “that in all things God might