St. Benedict, Died About 550 March 21
By Father Martindale
LET me say at once that I hope that anyone who wants to understand this Christian Patriarch will read Dom Justin McCann, O.S.B.'s St. Benedict (Sheed Sc. Ward, 1937) which ought to be in every Catholic library.
I might stop here. If I could be sure that everyone who reads these sketchy articles would read that charming yet learned book, I should rest content. Meanwhile, not all will, for lack of time or because they dislike books.
Benedict was born at an appalling motnent. Europe seemed to be relapsing into barbarism. Not a ruler, it is said, but was atheist, pagan, or heretic. War; schism; pillage; vice—vice even among the Christians. Benedict, put to school at Rome, resolved to escape. He went, with
his old nurse, when he was about 20, up into the Sabine Hills. But this was not enough. A miracle made him notorious— his nurse broke a sieve and he, portentously, put it right again. In a wild and lonely and lofty place, Subiaco (i.e. Sublacum, because it was by an artificial lake made by the Emperor Claudius by damming up the river Anio, he met a monk, Romanus, from a monastery higher up still.
Romanus showed Benedict a cave; clothed him in a sheepskin cloak, promised him a regular though meagre supply of food, and left him to solitude and God.
Here he remained for three years. St. Gregory tells the charming story of how, to save the time that would have been spent in clambering down a very steep cliff, Romanus had the bread-supply let down by a rope to which was attached a small hell. When Benedict heard it tinkling, he knew the bread had come. But one day the devil threw a stone and broke the bell . . . Apparently the monastery possessed, or could spare, no more bells; but other methods were devised . .
Again, Benedict had been as sensitive as anyone to temptation: in his solitude he was beset by the seductive memory of a woman he had met; he was all but on the point of going back . He resisted violently, rolled his body naked among nettles and thistles, and thereafter
was at peace. Small wonder, however, that he made it dear, later, that the hermit's vocation ought usually to tame at the end of a long training under wise guidance or in community life.
In spite of everything, he became known: men trooped to him for advice; finally, a community of quasi-monks who lived in a group of caves in a cliff-face begged him
to be their superior. Reluctantly he consented, and soon found how relaxed they were, and started to reform them. " Retested "? Well, they so much resented this that they resolved to poison him. Before meals (which they took in common) the abbot had to bless and taste wine that had been placed in a jar. They put poison into this. Benedict, on entering, blessed it from a distance. "As though he had thrown a stone at it, it fell shattered into frag
ments. He understood; rebuked them; and left them.
But he had learnt that he was meant not for solitude, but for co-operative and governmental work. He began, first, one small monastery, but • finally founded twelve (simple wooden affairs) in that neighbourhood; each contained twelve monks and an abbot. Apparently he retained a general ' supervision over what was, in reality, a colony. It grew. Benedict's fame spread to Rome. Boys and youths were brought to become disciples of the monks—notably the two young lads Maurus and Placidus, round whom charming romances were to
weave themselves. Their feasts are respectively January 16 and October 5.
This life was made up of prayer at regular hours; and of much hard manual work; and might have endured for ever had not a neighbouring priest, Florentius, for reasons still obscure (save that the monks' innocent lives may have shown up the iniquity of his own) determined first to try yet again to poison Benedict, and then, to seduce the virtue of his monks. Benedict decided, that it was best for him, the cause of offence, to leave. He was nearly 50, and his experiment was well established. He put it definitely on its feet, went off south, " the very hills and lakes and woods lamenting him," and came finally to an immense mountain, now Monte Cassino, midway between Rome and Naples. It was crowned with prehistoric masonry, and the district was still half-pagan—in the woods that clothed it, sacrifice was offered by the rustic to heathen gods.
Benedict began again as a hermit; but very soon the populace was won to him; he made an end of pagan worship; he gradually attracted monks to his side, and a very solid monastery was built among the ruins of the ancient buildings. It has been so often sacked, that only here and there can traces of the original structures be discerned. Here then, in very active peace, the day composed of study (about four hours daily), manual work (perhaps as much as six), and the essential " work of God," liturgical prayer in community, was
"Rome Will Decay in Itself" During the ten or more years that Benedict lived at Monte Cassino, we have by no means to imagine him occupied only with his monks. He certainly was in touch with the important men of Rome, though in a short article like this we need not collect instances, for which the evidence moreover is often rather vague. It is however certain that he was visited by the Gothic king Totila, probably in the year 542. Benedict is said to have rebuked him sternly for his atrocious cruelties; to have told him that he would enter Rome, reign for nine years more, and then die. The barbarian king did indeed enter Rome in A.D. 546 — and began to destroy it. He left it in ruins, but had changed his mind and re-entered it in A.D. 549 meaning to settle his government there.
It was therefore to the first entry into Rome that Benedict was alluding when he said to the Bishop of Canusium, who had declared that Rome would be so destroyed by Totila as never to be inhabited again: "Rome will not be destroyed by the barbarians, but . . . will decay in itself." Benedict therefore was alive at the end of A.D. 546. Yet he had not long to live.
Brother and Sister It is touching that at the very end we find him once more in touch with one member of that family which he had left so long ago. His sister Scholastica had become a nun. Once a year she travelled to see her brother; they met within the domain of his monastery, ate towards evening, and then he returned inside his monastery.
Probably. in A.D. 547. she implored him to stay longer. He refused, She prayed, and so appalling a storm broke out, that he was forced to remain, and they spent the
night talking of heavenly things. Three days afterwards she died. He praised God, and told the monks to bury her in the grave he had prepared for himself.
Soon after that, he knew he himself was dying. He sent warning to his monks, and caused the grave to be re-opened. Six days after this, he had himself carried into the oratory, and "strengthened himself for death by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord." Then he caused himself to be lifted up by his monks, and, standing, breathed his last breath among words of prayer.
I ask readers to obtain not only Fr. McCann's essential, brief, and luminous book, but to read, if they can, Newman's Mission of St. Benedict and Italy and Her Invaders; Hodgkin, IV, pp. 496-498: quoted by Fr. McCann p. 244.
" By a strange parallelism, almost in the very year when the great Justinian was codifying the results of seven centuries of Roman secular legislation for the benefit of the judges and the statesmen of the new Europe, St. 'Benedict was unconsciously composing his code for the regulation of the daily life of the great civilisers of Europe for seven centuries to come."
It is the power of this Rule which, says he, accounts for the fame of St. Benedict having "so entirely eclipsed that of all other western monks "—and indeed, sequentibus hanc regulam,—Pax!
For those whose life is based upon this Rule—who are founded upon work, discipline, and worship, there will come to pass that stability, union and peace, for lack of which our distracted world is taking its headlong way to ruin, we may fear, more utter than that of the world into which St. Benedict was born.
May he revive that work in the midst of our days: