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.
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on July 11, 2019, the memorial of St. Benedict, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City, and posted that same day at CWR.)
1P.S. I 288 (24.4.1831).
2U.S. 97 (22.1.1832).
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