24 July 2009

'He Kept Himself Inside the Cloister of His Thought'—St Benedict of Nursia, Pt I

Today, 11 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism. As I mentioned here, the most common date for the commemoration of St Benedict in the Orthodox Church is 14 March, but I’m not sure where that date came from. The Catholics used to always commemorate him on 21 March—according to them, the day of his passing (see here). But now they primarily observe 11 July, the date of the translation of his relics. My parish, which is dedicated to St Benedict, has successfully petitioned the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad to transfer our feastday to the summer date so that it does not fall during a fast every year. Which brings us to today.

The Second Book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great (for which he is known as ‘the Dialogist’ in the Orthodox East) begins, ‘There was a man whose life was holy. His name was Benedict, and he was blessed by grace and by name’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 3). St Benedict was born in Nursia (modern Norcia, in southeastern Umbria), and sent to Rome at a young age for study. But according to St Gregory—

. . . he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.

. . .

So he gave up his studies of the classics and decided to enter the desert. (p. 3)

The infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, points out the significance of the fact that this took place in two stages. First, the Saint went with his nurse to (present-day) Affile, but once there he attracted attention to himself by performing a miracle. So he fled further, leaving behind the nurse. De Vogüé writes:

It was precisely this glory from which he would now flee. It was not just a question of leaving the world, as any aspirant to the monastic life must do; in addition, he wished to extricate himself from a reputation for sanctity. To do so, a complete disappearance was demanded. Benedict wished to live from that moment on ‘unknown to men’.

. . .

This totally hidden life was Benedict’s heroic response to the temptation to vainglory. Without it, his original decision to ‘go into the desert’ might not have taken such a radical form. (p. 12)

St Benedict took up residence in a mountain cave at Subiaco, forty miles from Rome, near the site of a villa built by Nero (‘Subiaco’ derives from ‘Sublacus’, referring to the lake Nero had constructed there by damming the Anio [de Vogüé, p. 11]). Having received the habit from an older monk named Fr Romanus, St Benedict lived here in continual prayer and asceticism for three years, ‘unknown to men’ as he had wished. But according to St Gregory, he was finally discovered in his grotto at Subiaco by some local shepherds (de Vogüé notes the parallels to Christ’s birth narratives on p. 18).

Seeing him there among the wild bushes, clothed in skins, they took him for an animal. But they soon got to know the servant of God and many of them found themselves completely changed in their attitude, passing from the animal mentality to the grace of piety. And it happened that from then onwards many of them began to visit him. They brought food to sustain his body, and from what he said to them they took back in their hearts nourishment for life. (p. 11)

St Gregory notes that ‘the man of God . . . set about producing a harvest of virtues in greater abundance’, and as word of this spread ‘his name became celebrated’ (p. 22). Soon, St Benedict was asked by a nearby community of monks to become their abbot, and reluctantly agreed. However, the men rebelled against his ascetic directions and attempted to poison him. St Benedict was unharmed, because as he made the sign of the cross over the poisoned drink, the cup shattered. He returned to his cave. As St Gregory writes:

If he had wished to hold them forcefully subject to himself for a long time, he could have exceeded his strength and lost his peace. He might have turned the eye of his soul away from the light of contemplation as he neglected his own affairs in his weariness about their incorrigibility, and would perhaps have lost himself without finding them. For every time we are led outside ourselves by excessive concern, we remain ourselves but we are no longer with ourselves, because having lost sight of ourselves, we wander in alien places.

. . .

I would say then that this venerable man lived with himself because he was always preoccupied with guarding himself. Before the eyes of the Creator he always looked at himself, always examined himself, never let the eye of his soul look outside himself.

. . .

The venerable Benedict, in his solitude, dwelt with himself in the sense that he kept himself inside the cloister of his thought. But every time that the ardors of contemplation raised him towards the heights, without doubt he left himself beneath himself. (p. 31)

De Vogüé notes that the ‘episode of the interrupted abbacy’ serves to mark the dividing point between the stages of praxis and theoria in St Benedict’s life: ‘After the heroic self-denial of the three years passed fully incognito, in deprivation and hunger, Benedict should arrive at “contemplation”, at the “dwelling within himself” under the eye of God, at the very “rapture” which is the “summit of contemplation” (p. 36).

It was thus that the holy man was finally prepared for his community of true disciples, for gradually individuals began to come to live near him at Subiaco. But, as Leonard von Matt and Stephan Hilpisch point out in their beautiful book, Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, OSB (London: Burnes & Oates, 1961), ‘St Benedict did not erect a large-scale monastery at Subiaco: his idea was to distribute his monks in small communities. In this he was only following an old tradition attested by John Cassian, whom Benedict was always glad to follow’ (p. 81). In the end St Benedict built twelve monasteries for these spiritual children, eventually repairing himself to a thirteenth—Monte Cassino. (Incidentally, after the All-Night Vigil for St Benedict last night, our beloved Bishop Peter of Cleveland suggested that our parish organise a pilgrimage to Monte Cassino!) It is there that, as de Vogüé writes, St Benedict ‘reached the summit of contemplation . . . , during the fullness of his abbacy, as we shall see at the end of the book’ (St Gregory, p. 38).

Go here for Part II of this post.


Ian Climacus said...

A blessed and joyous Feast Day!

Thank you: I have always had a love for St Benedict, and the spiritualty and life of those who still hold his name in monastic life.

Monk Michael said...

Thank you -- I "accidentally" came across your post today and was so pleased to see it on this wonderful feastday, which we also keep as our main celebration of Our Holy Father Saint Benedict.

May the Lord bless you and please, of your charity, pray for us.

Monk Michael
Stavropegial Monastery of Christ the Savior (Benedictine, ROCOR)

aaronandbrighid said...

Greetings with the Feast to both of you!

Fr Michael, please pray for us as well. In case you haven't discovered this elsewhere on the blog, my wife and I are struggling novice oblates.