23 July 2010

'The Largest & Most Lightsome Jewel'—St Benedict of Nursia

Today, 11 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism. (See the opening paragraph of this post for an explanation of the date.) In the words of Frederick Artz, ‘Benedict is by no means the founder of monasticism, but he is its great legislator and is easily the most important figure in the monasticism of the West.’ [1] Alban Butler writes:

Being chosen by God, like another Moses, to conduct faithful souls into the true promised land, the kingdom of heaven, he was enriched with eminent supernatural gifts, even those of miracles and prophecy. He seemed like another Eliseus, endued by God with an extraordinary power, commanding all nature, and, like the ancient prophets, foreseeing future events. [2]

Finally, according to Basil Hume, OSB, ‘St Benedict, like all great saints of every age and culture, can still speak to us today, for his life and teaching are an illustration and an expression of the principles and doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ [3]

I have posted extensively on St Benedict before (see the ‘St Benedict’ label at the bottom of this post or on the sidebar), including a two-part post based on St Gregory the Great’s famous Vita last year (here and here). Consequently, some of my best material has already been used. But I will go ahead and post one or two things here owing to the importance of this feastday for me and my parish. First, here is the account of St Benedict’s life in the Prologue:

Born in Nursia in Italy in 480, of rich and eminent parents, he did not persevere long with his schooling, for he realised himself that he could, through book-learning, lose ‘the great understanding of my soul’. And he left school ‘an untaught sage and an understanding ignoramus’. He fled to a monastery where a monk, Romanus, gave him the habit, after which he withdrew to a craggy mountain, where he lived for more than three years in a cave in great struggles with his soul. Romanus brought him bread and dropped it over the wall of the crag on a rope to the mouth of the cave. When he became known in the neighbourhood, he, to flee the praise of men, moved away from that cave. He was very brutal with himself. Once, when an impure rage of fleshly lust fell on him, he stripped bare and rolled among nettles and thorns until he had driven out of himself every thought of a woman. God endowed him with many spiritual gifts: insight, healing and the driving out of evil spirits, the raising of the dead and the ability to appear to others from a distance in a dream or vision. He once discerned that he had been given a glass of poisoned wine. He made the sign of the Cross over the glass and it broke into pieces. He founded twelve monasteries, each having twelve monks at first. He later compiled the specifically ‘Benedictine’ rule, which is today followed in the Roman Church. On the sixth day before his death he commanded that his grave, already prepared as the saint had foreseen that his end was near, should be opened. He gathered all the monks together, gave them counsel and gave his soul to the Lord whom he had faithfully served in poverty and purity. His sister, Scholastica, lived in a women’s monastery, where, guided by her brother and herself practising great asceticism, she came to great spiritual perfection. When St Benedict set his soul free, two monks, one on the road and one at prayer in a distant cell, had at the same moment the same vision: a path from earth to heaven, curtained with precious cloth and illuminated at the sides by ranks of people. At the top of that path stood a man of indescribable beauty and light, who told them that the
path was prepared for Benedict, the beloved of God. After that vision, the two brethren discovered that their beloved abbot had gone from this world. He died peacefully in about 550 and went to the eternal Kingdom of Christ the King. [4]

Of course, much of St Benedict’s enduring importance is tied up with the Rule he bequeathed to the Church. In the words of St Gregory the Great, Dialogues II.36, ‘However I would not wish it to be unknown to you that the man of God who became famous in the world by so many miracles was also very well-known for his words of doctrine. For he wrote a rule for monks, remarkable for its discretion [5] and elegant in its language.’ [6] Charles Williams has aptly summarised the wisdom of St Benedict’s Rule in his unique ecclesiastical history, The Descent of the Dove:

He modified the extreme austerities [of Eastern monasticism]; he reconciled even the monk to a life in time; he discouraged fantasies; he taught peace. He pledged his brethren to remain in the abbey of their situations, and he pledged the half-saveage emulation of individual eccentricity to the decent obedience of holy order. He too taught the rule of co-inherence after a particular manner; the brethren were to know none but Christ in each other and in all. The Rule spread; it met and overcame the harsher Rule of Columban, and the most dedicated of lives rooted themselves in localities and quiet. It was the frontier of Christendom which held most stable through all the terrible centuries. [7]

Similarly, Christopher Dawson writes, ‘Thus, in an age of insecurity and disorder and barbarism, the Benedictine Rule embodied an ideal of spiritual order and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in the world of war.’ [8] It is for this reason that philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has famously observed of our own day, ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’ (see my thoughts on this comment in this post). [9]

Finally, it is interesting to note that St Benedict has had the good fortune to appear in one of the greatest works of imaginative literature of all time—Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante describes him as ‘the largest and most lightsome jewel’ of the sphere of Saturn, and the Saint begins addressing the Pilgrim as follows:

. . . ‘If you could see the flame
of charity we burn in, as I do,
you’d have expressed your thoughts and felt no shame.

I would not have your pilgrimage be slow:
that waiting may not hold you from the goal,
I’ll reply to the thought you’ve guarded so.

That mountain with Cassino on its spur
was thronged with worshipers in pagan time,
people disposed to evil and deceived

By cheating gods. I am he, first to climb
that peak to bring His name who brought the earth
the truth that raises us to the sublime;

With radiant grace so far above my worth,
I drew each of the villages around
from the impious cult that had seduced

The whole world. All these other flames were bound
in contemplation, kindled by the heat
engendering the flowers and holy fruit:

Romualdus and Macarius are here,
and my good brothers who, within the close,
held their hearts steadfast where they held their feet.’ [10]

[1] Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 185.

[2] Qtd. in Henry Wadsworth Longellow, tr., The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, n.d.), p. 302, n. 40.

[3] Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, In Praise of Benedict: 480-1980 AD (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1981), p. 78. Hume adds, ‘There are, as we know, ancient spiritual values of fundamental importance which are always new and always contemporary in any age.’

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1985), pp. 283-4.

[5] It is interesting to note that concerning the word discretio, rendered here by its English derivative, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has suggested that ‘discernment’ might be a better translation. Based on St Gregory’s reference to RB 58 in his Commentary on Kings, de Vogüé believes that this famous recommendation of the Rule in Dialogues II ‘is less concerned with the moderation of the Rule—as it is usually understood—than with its rigor’ (St Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, tr. Hilary Costello & Eoin de Bhaldraithe, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993), p. 177).

[6] St Gregory, p. 174.

[7] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 91.

[8] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), p. 48.

[9] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984), p. 263.

[10] Dante Alighieri, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Doré (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 237.


avowofconversation said...

A post on Saint Benedict with no reference to the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé? Are you feeling ill, or has Père de Vogüé fallen from infallibility??

Seriously, a blessed feast!


aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Macrina!

Check footnote 5...

avowofconversation said...

Oops, I stand corrected, really should read the footnotes!

James said...

I am reading a dissertation on Christopher Dawson at present. A friend of mine is writing a dissertation on Christian historiography, and the book I'm working on touches on the subject. Dawson, moderate and steady-minded, seems a model to be followed in writing Christian history. I was annoyed when N. Cantor dismissed him and all RC historiography as bunk. As if atheistic Jewish historiography is solid!