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The blessings and example of St. Benedict

The father of monasticism in the West is a model for treating the ills of modern society.

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

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 peace—a word commonly inscribed over the doors of monasteries following his Rule—Pope 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 monastery—not 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.

Celibacy—monastic or private—did 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 education—essential for a civil career—remained 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 perished.

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 Subiaco.

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 brethren—and his enemy—from 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 abbot—never ordained a priest—perfected 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 monastery—a practice that would develop into lectio divina—he 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.”

Keenly aware of Western civilization’s peril as it flounders in moral relativism and cultural decadence, Benedict XVI acknowledged the Father of Monks as his inspiration. 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 be glorified.”

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on August 18, 2011.)

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About Sandra Miesel 28 Articles
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien's Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).

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