Almighty and everlasting God, your precepts are the wisdom of a loving Father: Give us grace, following the teaching and example of your servant Benedict, to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord's service; let your ears be open to our prayers; and prosper with your blessing the work of our hands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia. He is important because he really helped establish monasticism in the form which spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and helped civilize much of Europe. The Rule he developed is the Rule of Life used by many monastic orders even to this day. Today is a big deal for Prior Aelred and the brothers; a couple of years ago I heard that they got to sleep in until 5:30 am, and they also got dessert with lunch and wine with dinner. Let's hope they celebrate in the same manner this year!
Benedict was born in the town of Nursia, Italy, a village high in the mountians northeast of Rome, around the year 480. Benedict was a twin and his sister, Scholastica, is also a Saint of the Church. His parents sent him to Rome to study when he came of age, but Benedict found Rome to be too degenerate for his tastes, and he really didn’t like study too much, so he ran away from school. Here is how his biographer, Gregory the Great, explains this episode: Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father's house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom. Benedict ran off to Subiaco, where he lived in a cave for three years. A group of monks discovered him and asked him to join them as their leader. Benedict moved to their monastery and gave them a strict rule to live under. They didn’t like his strict ways but instead of asking him to leave, they decided to poison him. When Benedict blessed the pitcher which contained the poisoned wine, it shattered into pieces, saving his life. He left the monks and their monastery the next day. He established twelve monasteries with twelve monks each in the area south of Rome and he eventually came to Monte Cassino, where he destroyed the pagan temple and established his main monastery. It was at Monte Cassino that he also developed his Rule for Life. Benedict wasn’t much of a scholar, but he did read Latin, and he wrote his rule in that language. He was known more for his holiness than for his scholarship. I want to share some of the stories from Pope Gregory the Great’s biography of Benedict. These stories are meant to inspire more than give accurate historical information, and so the stories are mostly about miracles performed by Benedict.
Three of the monasteries which Benedict founded were situated high on the rocks of mountains and it was difficult and painful for the monks to go down hill to fetch water, with the sides of the hill being so steep. Several of the monks of the Abbey came to Benedict to suggest that they move to another location, someplace close to the lake so that water could be fetched without danger. Benedict comforted them “with sweet words and caused them to return.” The next night, Benedict and Placidus, a little boy who lived at the Abbey, ascended the side of the mountain and spent a long time in prayer. After the prayer session, Benedict took three stones and placed them to mark the spot. Then he and Placidus returned down the mountain side to their Abbey. The next day, the monks came to see Benedict again to try to talk him into letting them relocate. Benedict said, “Go back to the rock and in the place where you find three stones marking the location, dig a little hole, for Almighty God is able to bring forth water in the top of that mountain, and you won’t have to go so far for water anymore!” Off they went, found the spot, removed the stones, and “found it as if it were sweating drops of water.” They dug a little hole and it immediately filled with water. According to Gregory, even to his day the “water springs out and runs down from the top of that hill to the very bottom.”
One day a group of monks were making a wall somewhat higher. Benedict was in his cell at his prayers. While he was praying the devil appeared and insulted him and told him he was off to start some trouble with the monks at work on the wall. Benedict immediately sent a warning to the monks that the devil was on his way to bother them. No sooner had the message been delivered than the devil knocked over the new wall they were building and it crushed a young monk, just a child. The bones throughout his body were crushed and he was severely mangled and maimed. The monks were distraught and sent word to Benedict of the terrible event. They carried the young boy in a sack to Benedict’s cell. Benedict had everyone leave the cell, and, according to Gregory, after he shut the door, he fell more instantly to his prayers than he used at other times. And O strange miracle! for the very same hour he made him sound, and as lively as ever he was before! Benedict sent the recovered boy back to the monks to help finish the wall and to show the devil that he had lost the battle once again!
As I mentioned earlier, Benedict’s twin sister was Scholastica, whose feast is celebrated in February. She was also an important monastic leader and established a convent for women. Benedict and Scholastica would meet once a year at a place between their two monasteries, where they would discuss the intricacies of leadership and share spiritual wisdom. Scholastica died the day after their last visit, and Benedict saw her soul ascend to heaven. He died not long after. According to Gegory the Great, Benedict predicted the day of his death to his monks, but asked them to keep it secret. Six days before he died, he had them open up his tomb (in which Scholastica was buried). He immediately became ill with a fever, which got worse every day. On the sixth day, he had the monks carry him to the oratory, where he armed himself with receiving the body and blood of our saviour Jesus Christ, and having his weak body held up by the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own arms lifted to heaven. As he was praying in that manner, he gave up the ghost. Benedict died in the year 547.
I think that a great example of his personal theology and his understanding of spirituality is reflected in his Rule for Monks. The following is from the prologue to the Rule:Listen carefully, my child,to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father's advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience. To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.
And first of all, whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it, that He who has now deigned to count us among His children may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds. For we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us, that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children, nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions, deliver us to everlasting punishment as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.
Let us arise, then, at last, for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, "Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep" Let us open our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with attentive ears the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,"Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts". And again, "Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches". And what does He say? "Come, My children, listen to Me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord". "Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overtake you". And the Lord, seeking his laborer in the multitude to whom He thus cries out, says again, "Who is the one who will have life, and desires to see good days"? And if, hearing Him, you answer, "I am the one," God says to you, "If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it". And when you have done these things, My eyes shall be upon you and My ears open to your prayers; and before you call upon Me, I will say to you, 'Behold, here I am'" .
What can be sweeter to us, dear ones, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life. Having our loins girded, therefore, with faith and the performance of good works, let us walk in His paths by the guidance of the Gospel, that we may deserve to see Him who has called us to His kingdom.
And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.