St Benedict of Nursia

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Talk to Young Adults, Faith Formation Seminar
Bishop’s House, 11 January 2014

St Benedict was declared a patron of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. He has been long recognised as the father of Western monasticism.

St Benedict’s life is recounted in Book II of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great, written c. 594. It is presented there as the journey of a soul towards God and as a sign that God had not abandoned his people.

The outline that results from this account is as follows.

St Benedict was born in Nursia (now Norcia) in central Italy (province of Perugia) around 480. He had a twin sister, Scholastica.

He belongs therefore to 5 / 6th cc Italy, to a time when the Western Roman Empire finally folded, when Italy was ruled by the Arian Goths and, during the later period of his life, was racked by a civil war caused by the Byzantine attempt to re-conquer Italy for the Empire. He lived at the end of an epoch and, without knowing it, helped to create another.

He went to Rome to study the ‘liberal arts’. He was from a good Christian family and was appalled by the student life in the ancient capital, and perhaps also by weaknesses within himself. It was also a difficult time for the Church in Rome, with two claimants for the papacy and fighting in the streets among the supporters of each. In response to the disorders of society and the Church and the call of God, he decided to become a monk, ‘to please God alone’. So he left Rome and headed inland. First he lived with some others beside a small church at Affile, but then in search of solitude he moved to a cave in the side of a mountain, near a place called Subiaco some 40 miles from Rome on the River Aniene (or Anio). There he grew in knowledge of himself and of God. Above the mountain was a monastery. One of the monks knew of the young man in the cave and would lower food to him in a basket. He lived there for three years. He was then discovered by a local priest and some shepherds. People started to come to him for instruction. He was invited to be superior of a nearby monastery which was in a bad state. But the monks found him too strict and tried to poison him. So he returned to his cave, ‘to live with himself under the heavenly gaze’ of God. But people kept coming, and he began to found monasteries of his own – 12 of them, each with 12 monks, along the valley of the river, a group also living more immediately with him. The whole area became noticeably more Christian. A local priest became jealous of Benedict’s success and started to cause trouble. St Benedict, being a humble man, thought it best to move on.

This period at Subiaco must have been one of initiation and learning for St Benedict, where he overcame personal temptations of lust and anger, and grew in his knowledge of the art of ruling souls.

So – perhaps in the 520s – he moved south to Monte Cassino, a high point in the Apennines about 75 miles south-east of Rome, and founded another monastery there. There again he evangelised the neighbourhood. There his miraculous powers and gift of prophecy came to full flower. There he wrote his Rule for Monks and became known as ‘a man of God’, being visited even by the Gothic ruler Totila. There he died in the late 540s. Aware that he was dying, he asked to be taken into the chapel of the monastery, received Holy Communion, and died standing in prayer, supported by his brethren, with his hands raised to heaven.

His sister became a nun. She would visit him every year. She died before him and was buried at Monte Cassino. He was buried with her.

Such is the outline of his life. It was a movement from life in the world to monastic life, then from hermit life to life in community, and from relative obscurity to a wide reputation, a diffusion of ‘blessing’ (the meaning of his name). Above all, it was a movement towards God in virtue and prayer, culminating in a holy death and his transitus (passage) to heaven.

The most influential thing St Benedict did was to write his Rule. This Rule consists of a Prologue and 73 chapters. And in time, especially from the 9th c. onwards, it became the monastic Rule of the Western Church. It remains this today. It is followed by the Benedictines and the Cistercians, men and women. There are some 530 monasteries of men and some 830 houses of women throughout the world, in all 5 continents,. A total of about 24,000 people live according to the Rule of St Benedict. There are also Benedictine communities among the Anglicans and Lutherans, and in the Orthodox churches. There are also some 25,000 lay people (and diocesan clergy) in 50 countries who have an association with a particular monastery and who take the Rule of St Benedict as a guide for their life in the world. These are called oblates. These included Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Walter Percy. Many parts of the world – e.g. England, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic – were first effectively evangelised by Benedictine monks, including more recently parts of Africa. Some 24 (?) Popes have been Benedictine monks, the last being Gregory XVI in the 19th c. There have been numerous famous Benedictine scholars. There are more followers of the Rule of St Benedict beatified or canonised than members of any other order.

The Rule of St Benedict and Benedictine monasteries remain places of prayer, teaching, inspiration and holiness right up to today. Through his prayer, his Rule and his monasteries, St Benedict is a living presence in the Church. In our own time, a Pope took his name because he too wanted ‘to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.’ St Benedict’s feast day is 11 July, though his death is remembered especially on 21 March.

St Benedict did not invent the monastic life. It was already 200 years old when he became a monk, and had spread all around the Mediterranean and further north and east. One way of describing his gift ot the Church is to say that he made monastic life do-able for ordinary people and laid down principles of lasting value for community life.

For St Benedict a monk is someone who ‘truly seeks God’, who wants ‘to return to God by the labour of obedience from whom he has strayed by the sloth of disobedience,’ who wants to live out his faith and the grace of his baptism. He does this by following Christ, ‘preferring nothing to the love of Christ’. On this path, St Benedict underlines the practice of good works and the virtues of obedience, silence, and humility. The monk is called to ‘share by patience in the sufferings of Christ’ and to come, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to ‘the perfect love that casts out fear’.

The Benedictine monk or nun, then, is someone on a journey to God, to eternal life. Just as Pope Gregory describes St Benedict’s life in this way, so the Rule opens up a way for others to live their lives according to the same trajectory.

One can be a monk on one’s own or with others, i.e. in community. St Benedict is concerned with the latter, coenobites (from two Greek words meaning ‘common’ and ‘life’). For St Benedict the monastery is ‘a school of the Lord’s service’, a sheepfold of the Lord, a ‘house of God’; it is the Church in miniature. And the monastery offers each person making their way to God three great helps:

  • first, brethren, others, ‘the solace of many’;
  • then, a Rule providing for an ordered God-directed way of life;
  • finally, a superior, an abbot.

So a monk accepts his brethren as gifts from God, and takes a vow of stability, to remain a member of this community until death. He embraces the Rule and takes a vow of ‘conversion of life’, which means to seek God, to live as a monk, within the terms of the Rule. And he accepts a superior, an abbot, and takes a vow of obedience.

What do monks do?

They try to travel ‘by the guidance of the Gospel’, ‘never departing from Christ’s teaching’, listening to the word of God in Scripture and Tradition and the teaching of the Church, nourishing his faith and shaping his life by it. Hence the practice of lectio divina.

They pray. Hence the practice of praying the Divine Office several times a day, called by St Benedict ‘the work of God’, and the famous line,’let nothing be preferred to the work of God’.

They seek to live as active members of the community, not just being carried but carrying, giving as well as receiving, caring as well as cared for. Hence the practice of work, especially manual work. And hence the Benedictine motto ‘ora et labora’, pray and work. Typical forms of Benedictine work have been and are horticulture, agriculture, apiculture, arts and crafts, care for the sick within the community, and, vitally, the receiving of guests (hospitality): ‘let every guest be received as Christ himself’. Some monasteries have also been involved in education or in pastoral work or in missionary work. There has also been a tradition of study and scholarship, especially historical and liturgical.

Hence lectio divina, liturgical and personal prayer, and work – these three things – make up the life of Benedictine monks and nuns.

But monastic life is not just a project. Most of all, it’s an experience. And what the monk comes to experience is his own human frailty. And so St Benedict tells him, ‘never despair of the mercy of God’. The monk is, most of all, a man of desire and what’s born in him through his monastic life is a great desire for this mercy. He longs for grace. He hopes for purity of heart and the vision of Christ. He carries in his heart an ever-growing yearning that the Holy Spirit will fall on himself, his brethren, the Church and the whole world and transfigure them with the glory of God.

St Benedict calls this fire of the Holy Spirit ‘good zeal’ and describes its effects in his penultimate chapter (72). This is not the bad bitter zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, but a good zeal which separates us from vice and leads us together to God and everlasting life. Its expressions are: ‘to outdo one another in showing honour, to bear one another’s weaknesses of body and character with the utmost patience, to compete in showing obedience (giving way) to one another, none following what he thinks useful for himself but rather what’s useful for the other, to practise fraternal charity chastely, to fear God with love, to love their abbot with a sincere and humble love, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. And may he bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen’ (Rule 72:4-12).

Then was shown the DVD Si loin, si proche / So far, so near produced by A. I. M. (Alliance for International Monasticism) giving a glimpse of the contemporary monastic life in four monasteries (2 of women, 2 of men) in Africa, Brazil, Vietnam and India.