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The original vision and attraction of Saint Benedict

Benedict’s dream of communities of holy men became the motive force for a Christendom to replace the corrupt and desiccated old Rome.

Detail from "Life of St Benedict, Scene 7. Benedict Instructs the Peasants" (1505-08) by Il Sodoma [WikiArt.org]

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on July 11, 2019, the memorial of St. Benedict, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.

St. Benedict is honored today in the revised Roman calendar, while his feast is kept on March 21 (the date of his death) in the earlier calendar and among Benedictines, who also keep this date as a minor observance for the transfer of his relics. The principal reason for the change in the general calendar seems to have been to avoid the problem of the feast’s eclipse due to its frequent occurrence during Lent.

Not much is known about the early life of Benedict, except that he was probably born around 480 in the town of Norcia, Italy. Coming from a well-to-do family, he was sent to Rome as a youth to further his education. The moral cesspool that was Rome at that time caused him to flee the city and to seek spiritual refuge in the outskirts, settling (for a time at least) in Subiaco. Surely, his model was that of St. Antony of Egypt, the father of monasticism in the East. It is interesting that, looking for a life of solitude as a hermit, Benedict began to be discovered by others – and sought out by them – due to his reputation for holiness of life. The first seekers were men who wanted to share his way of life, for whom he became the abbot. With the passage of time, whole groups of people decided to live in the shadow of such holy men. Eventually, Benedict found his way to Monte Cassino.

He is credited with being the founder of Western monasticism, a movement which was responsible for the preservation of the best of Roman culture and which thus formed the backbone of Europe. It is highly ironic that the man who fled a city would found a movement that created hundreds of cities. As in many circumstances, a movement can outstrip the founder – both for good and for ill. Luther’s would-be “reformation” actually became a revolution. Benedict’s dream of communities of holy men became the motive force for a Christendom to replace the corrupt and desiccated old Rome. Cardinal Newman wrote two important works on St. Benedict and his mission; very succinctly, he sums up the situation with these words: “The lonely Benedictine rose from his knees, and found himself a city.”

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the need to have recourse to “the Benedict option.” Let’s consider in what the original “Benedict option” consisted.

First of all, our saint produced a rule of life, in all likelihood, culling material from various monastic rules. As the era of red martyrdom waned, a new kind of witness was seized upon: the white martyrdom of consecrated virginity. Benedict’s Rule was known for its all-encompassing nature, but also characterized by great prudence and moderation. The first words of that Rule are programmatic: “Ausculta, fili” (“Listen, son”), as a loving father desires to instruct a willing son. Active listening is the key to personal development – a listening that is intent on obedience. Indeed, the English word “obedience” comes from the Latin “oboedire,” which means, precisely, to listen intently. The Rule’s capacity to form truly holy men (and women) explains why it is still a vibrant source of formation sixteen centuries later. Yet other religious orders have their origins in that Rule – communities like the Cistercians, Trappists, and Camaldolese.

From church history classes in grammar school, we learned the motto of the Benedictine Order: “Ora et labora” (“Pray and work”). While both aspects were key to a healthy living out of the monastic vocation, Benedict did make clear the priority: “Nihil operi Dei praeponatur” (“Let nothing be preferred to the work of God”), that is, the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. It is reasonable to conclude that the effectiveness of the various works undertaken by the monks was directly dependent on and resultant from their fidelity to prayer.

And works did they undertake! They were evangelists but also unwitting founders of metropolises. Whenever you come upon the name of an English city ending in “minster,” you should know that it is a corruption of the Latin “monasterium.” Westminster, Leominster and Yorkminster come to mind immediately. Yes, all these places were established by the monks. The beautiful and charming city of Munich in Bavaria likewise has monastic roots. In truth, Benedictine monasteries dotted the landscape of all of Western Europe, from England and Ireland to Spain, France and Italy, bringing with them everything from advanced methods of farming to preservation of ancient manuscripts, establishment of schools – yes, monastery schools, which became models for cathedral schools, out of which grew universities. They began libraries and, most importantly, they fostered a devotion to and cultivation of beautiful liturgy. It was not an accident that when Henry VIII wanted to destroy the Catholic Church in England, his first target was the monasteries, those institutions which were not only the foundation stones of the Church there but also the very lifeblood of the Church.

With any significant achievement there also comes the risk of complacency and even corruption. We have a Latin proverb to cover that phenomenon (as we do for nearly every human situation): Corruptio optimi pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst). So, it must be said that, in not a few places, worldly values snuffed out the primary vocation of monastics. However, there was also within the monastic ethos the seed for correction. Thus, we find the emergence of the Cluniac Reform, with none other than the towering figure of St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a prime mover. I think it fair to say that an institution ought not to be judged by its failures but by its capacity to rebound from those failures with a genuine commitment to reform.

Let me bring to my side a rather unlikely supporter for that vision – Booker T. Washington, in his General Introduction to Tuskegee and Its People notes: “Institutions, like individuals, are properly judged by their ideals, their methods, and their achievements in the production of men and women who are to do the world’s work” (emphasis added). One proof of the sturdy fabric of the Benedictine movement is the number of saints it has produced; after all, sanctity is the goal of the Christian life, is it not? Interestingly, seventeen popes were Benedictines, seven of whom are canonized saints.

Did Benedict ever envision such developments from his escape from Rome to Subiaco? Hardly. I think Cardinal Newman gives us a good interpretive key for the “Benedict Option.” Preaching in 1831, he asserted: “It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few. Doubtless, much may be undone by the many, but nothing is done except by those who are specially trained for action.”1 A year later, from the pulpit of the University Church of Oxford, he would declare: “A few highly-endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come.”2 Newman could well have been describing himself even, but it surely applies to St. Benedict! The point to be taken, however, is that great things happen from one inspired and inspiring human being.

Benedict eschewed the lasciviousness of Rome, hied himself out to a cave and lived a life of holiness. Men were attracted to him; they, in turn, attracted laity with open hearts and open minds, sowing the seeds of a Christendom, which would blossom into the glorious Middle Ages – an era of unprecedented beauty, bequeathing to us stupendous works of literature, art, music, architecture and philosophy. Not without reason has that period been dubbed “The Age of Faith.” The success formula is rather simple: It started with one’s man determination to be holy – a goal to which we should all aspire, a goal within the reach of us all. And the restoration of the Christendom begun by Benedict can follow as surely as day follows night. Remember, however, it began with one man, who took seriously the call to holiness.

That each of us – in our own sphere of influence – would contribute to the revival of a truly Christian culture, we ask: St. Benedict, pray for us.

Endnotes:

1P.S. I 288 (24.4.1831).

2U.S. 97 (22.1.1832).


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 118 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

5 Comments

  1. Spirit of st. Benedict needs to be moved in the church today. Priest need to speak more about Benedict and Benedictineism from the pulpit and we men and women need to start forming communities similar to Benedictism. Building our own businesses and working in their own communities. This can be done in the city, suburb or rual areas. It would be a great movement that will restore the church and the world. A recent book was written the “Benedict Option” which states taking the rule of Benedict spreading it throughout the Christian Community and in the world. We Catholics need to form businesses from those businesses their families can work,the men and the women the children the elderly can all have some kind of job in them and then go back to your community surrounded by or near a monastery that they believe in, it would be a great movement. A similar organization that does it is the Bruderhof . Yes we need Saint Benedict but we need to implement and take action and go further lukewarmness will not resolve anything. and although we have Benedictine oblates they are not doing enough. God bless

  2. St Benedict is much-needed today as Catholics we need to rebuild our hole community and church and we need to use the Benedictine spirit a recent book The Benedict option seem to have captured that spirit Catholics need to implement that an actual basis realistic living building businesses and communities and living within those businesses and communities and working that is the true Spirit of Catholicism for the last hundred years being in America that’s not Catholicism so yes Saint Benedict is very important but if we look at it historically what he did it was always surrounded around building working community the whole room is based on community so let’s Catholics let us start rebuilding the church that way which will solve all of our problems eliminate all the LGBT people and everything else those communities will live and rebuild and they’ll be hope

  3. Fr. Stravinskas puts Saint Benedict in his rightful place in Church history. So few realize the impact of one capable man, on history as in your own family.

    Realize that the “Benedict Option” book is such a fraud. Rod Dreher went to the Orthodox Church because he didn’t find holiness in the Roman rite. Dreher is trying to organize a “movement” while St. Benedict was all about personal holiness, as the above points out.

    • I heard Rob dreher speak on the book at a meeting with the bruderhof at the Union League in New York. I am fine with the book there was nothing wrong, although I understand that some things in his life are questionable but that’s not for me to judge.however what I do know is that if Catholics don’t start doing something radical to change our way of life we can forget about. Devotions are nice the Mass is nice but we need a way of life that is what counts. Benedict was interested in community and way of life he left the Hermitage to join a community and to establish communal way of living and to rebuild the society we are not rebuilding Society at all as the Catholic Church we work and we paying to the same government that is allowing abortions.and murder and Injustice we need to build a society where we don’t contribute at all for those in justices we make choices to refuse to pay if the Injustice not good as the Catholic Worker does. I am a Benedictine oblate of a Benedictine Monastery for 40 years however we need to make the move the continue so the sermon is fine on Sunday that we need to take that sermon and move forward.

    • I cannot judge Rod Dreher however his book was very well written and can being followed by Catholics to build a community in a society you’re not doing that right now Benedict was not interested in personal Holiness at the expense of communal living community was the key to changing souls and society and rebuilding the church if the solitary life was the highest ideal he would have stayed a Hermit but he didn’t so when the Catholic Church begin the building communities and businesses that don’t contribute to the government that is secular humanistic under organized naturalism then maybe we will begin to have love change the world

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