24 July 2009

'Rejoice, Thou Who Didst Set Down Thy Rule'—St Benedict, Pt 2

In other posts I have already related and commented upon some of the events which took place after the creation of the twelve monasteries I mentioned in the last post, while St Benedict dwelt at Monte Cassino. Here I blogged about St Maurus, who figures prominently in Dialogues I.iii.14-vii.3 (see St Gregory, pp. 41-3). Here I reflected on the story of St Benedict’s raven in Dialogues II.viii.3 (St Gregory, p. 53). Finally, in this post, I gave the story of St Benedict’s sister according to the flesh, St Scholastica, from Dialogues II.xxxiii-xxxiv (St Gregory, pp. 154-5). So I will just give the brief tale of one of St Benedict’s miracles before moving onto something else. In Dialogues II.xxv, we read:

1 One of his monks was affected by restlessness of mind and would not stay in the monastery. The man of God corrected him assiduously and frequently admonished him but he would not, under any circumstances, agree to stay in the community, and with repeated requests urged that he be released. One day the venerable Father, wearied by his excess, got angry and told him to leave.

2 Soon after leaving the monastery, he found a dragon with open mouth standing on the road before him. As the dragon wanted to devour him, he began to shake and tremble and shout in a loud voice, ‘Hurry, hurry, because that dragon wants to devour me.’ The brethren came running, but they saw no dragon. They led the shaking, trembling monk back to the monastery and he immediately promised that he would never leave it again. From that moment he kept his promise, for by the prayers of the holy man he had seen standing before him the dragon which formerly he had followed, though he had not seen it. (pp. 113-4)

I excerpt this story primarily because it features a dragon, but it is also interesting to note its similarities with the superb Papadiamanis story, ‘The Monk: A Short Study’, which I mentioned yesterday.

In his comments on St Gregory’s references to St Benedict’s experiences of contemplation at Subiaco, before the foundation of the twelve monasteries, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé writes, ‘Contemplation rejoices in solitude but it does not need it absolutely. This is so true that Benedict reached the summit of contemplation at Monte Cassino, during the fullness of his abbacy, as we shall see at the end of the book’ (p. 38). In Dialogues II.xxxv, St Gregory tells of how St Benedict, praying in his tower in the middle of the night—

looked up and saw a light spreading from on high and completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendor that it surpassed the light of day, even though it was shining in the midst of darkness.

3 A marvelous thing followed in this contemplation for, as he himself related afterwards, the whole world was brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun. The venerable Father, while straining his attentive gaze on this splendor of shining light, saw the soul of Germanus, bishop of Capua, carried up to heaven by angels in a fiery sphere. (p. 164).

But as remarkable as this vision of the uncreated light is, perhaps the most interesting thing about this chapter is St Gregory’s subsequent explanation of the vision in II.xxxv.6-7. He writes:

6 . . . The whole of creation will seem small to the soul who sees the Creator. For however little she sees of the light of the Creator, everything created grows small for her, because in the very light of the internal vision the capacity of the soul is enlarged; it is so expanded in God that it is placed above the world. Indeed the soul of the seer is raised above itself. In the light of God it is carried above itself and is expanded interiorly. . . .

7 When I say that the world was gathered under his eyes, this does not mean that heaven and earth had shrunk, but that the mind of the seer was enlarged: caught up in God, it could see without difficulty all that is under God. This light which shone on his exterior eyes was also an interior light in his mind which revealed to the soul of the seer, because it was caught up to higher things, how narrow are all lower things. (p. 165)

It struck me how astonishingly consonant this is with the hesychastic tradition of the Orthodox East. We have already seen St Gregory’s hesychastic emphasis on St Benedict’s practice of watchfulness and the concentration of the nous in the heart—‘Before the eyes of the Creator he always looked at himself, always examined himself, never let the eye of his soul look outside himself’ (p. 31)—but here we have the object of St Benedict’s vision, ‘the light of the Creator’, explicitly contrasted with ‘everything created’ (p. 165). To me, it could not be more plain that this great Western Father is speaking of the uncreated light.

Incidentally, de Vogüé points out, in the absence of any identifiable scriptural parallels to this story, three interesting non-biblical ones, each corresponding to one part of this passage in the Dialogue. With the ‘noctural illumination’, he links the story of ‘the illuminated vigil of the monk Victorinus Aemilianus’ in St Gregory’s own Homily on the Gospel, 34, 18 (p. 168). He compares in depth the vision of ‘the world reduced to a point’ with Cicero’s famous ‘Dream of Scipio’ (pp. 168-72). Finally, he mentions the parallels of ‘the soul carried up to heaven’ with St Anthony’s vision of the soul of Amun (Ammon) passing up to heaven (p. 172).

The last part of St Gregory’s Life of St Benedict, Dialogues II.xxxvi-xxxvii, focuses on three things: what de Vogüé calls a ‘eulogy’ of the Rule, a brief account of St Benedict’s repose, and a story of a miracle performed at the Sacro Speco at Subiaco after the Saint’s repose. Concerning the Rule, St Gregory writes:

However I would not with 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 [on p. 177, de Vogüé argues that ‘discernment’ might be a better translation of discretio here than the obvious cognate] and elegant in its language [here de Vogüé suggests ‘brilliant’ of form for sermone luculentam]. If anyone wishes to have a closer knowledge of his life and habits he will find all the points of his teaching in this rule, for the holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived. (p. 174)

De Vogüé points out that this presentation of the Rule constitutes the requisite ‘portrait’ of the man typical of the biographical genre. For comparison he mentions the second part of Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian and also the Life of St Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, in both of which the portrait is also ‘set just before the death of the hero’ (p. 176). Though de Vogüé wishes that St Gregory had added his own ‘portrait’ rather than just referring the reader to the Rule, he notes that historically this is the only 6th-c. reference to the Rule, and that it ‘constituted a first-class advertisement for the Rule, one which assured it of an enormous circulation’ (p. 177). Von Matt and Hilpisch observe, ‘No other Pope has exercised so profound an influence in the spiritual and ascetical sphere as this pontiff. . . . St Gregory’s encomium of St Benedict and his Rule reached a wide audience and helped to decide the problem as to what Rule should be adopted by the monks of the West’ (p. 144).

St Gregory’s account of the repose of St Benedict notes, first of all, the fact that like many Saints he had foretold the day to some disciples earlier that year, swearing them to secrecy (II.xxxvii.1; p. 174). Then, in xxxvii.2 he writes:

Six days before his death, he ordered his tomb to be opened. Soon he was attached by fever and was weakened with severe suffering. As the illness grew worse every day, he asked his disciples to carry him into the oratory. There he strengthened himself for his departure by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. While the hands of his disciples held up his weak limbs, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and breathed his last breath amidst words of prayer. (p. 174)

Concerning this blessed repose, de Vogüé is struck by the fact that it seems as if ‘it is to the saint’s own initiative—the order to carry him to the oratory—that death seems to respond by coming to the meetingplace Benedict had arranged’ (p. 178). His death becomes more heroic as he ‘strengthened himself for his departure by receiving’ the Mysteries. Then, de Vogüé writes, ‘But the most striking aspect of his agony is the heroism with which the dying man remains standing in prayer, upheld by his disciples, until the last moment’ (p. 178). He models for us ‘the struggle of a spent body to keep itself in an attitue of prayer as long as the breath of life remains in it. . . . He was a monk heading towards God, who obeyed until the last moment the evangelical command to pray without ceasing’ (p. 179). It is this moving account that has led to St Benedict’s traditional identification as an intercessor for a holy death (here I have noted that the medal of St Benedict contains the inscription, Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamus, ‘May we at our death be fortified by his presence’).

(As an aside, I will note that de Vogüé does not miss the similarity of the story of St Benedict’s arms being held up by his disciples with that of the Prophet Moses’s arms being held up by the Prophets Aaron and Hur at the battle with the Amalekites at Rephidim in Exodus 17:8-13, an episode I have blogged about here, in my post on a lecture by Fr Justin of Sinai. De Vogüé makes this comparison on p. 179 of his commentary.)

In conclusion, I offer two stanzas from the 9th Ode of the Canon for St Benedict, followed by Ikos IV of the Akathist in his honour (taken from St Benedict of Nursia, trans. Reader Isaac Lambertson [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1989]):

Thou wast shown to be like the great sun, illumining creation with awesome signs and rays of the virtues; wherefore, celebrating thy truly luminous memory, we are enlightened with heartfelt feelings, O father.

The flock of monastics assembled by thee giveth praise day and night, having in their midst thy body which poureth forth rivers of miracles abundantly an dunceasingly enlighteneth their steps, O wise father. (p. 25)

Hearing how thou wast like unto the heavenly hosts in the loftiness of thy righteousness, O father, the saved increased in number around thee; and for them didst thou flourish like a lily of the desert. With them do we also make bold to chant unto thee with compunction:

Rejoice, thou who wast arrayed in the splendid robe of dispassion;
Rejoice, thou who didst live an angelic life on earth!
Rejoice, O all-wondrous one who with faith hast taught us the ways of salvation;
Rejoice, O mighty one who trampled down the madness of idolatry!
Rejoice, thou who didst set down thy rule, which is sweeter than honey;
Rejoice, for thou didst reveal thy heart as a mirror of divine thought!
Rejoice, thou who didst make thy spirit a dwelling-place of the Trinity;
Rejoice, thou who didst found a great habitation for the praise of the Lord!
Rejoice, O prophet adorned with foreknowledge;
Rejoice, O venerable one, who through the air dost go to those who are amid tribulations!
Rejoice, O divinely wise one, for by thee are the faithful instructed;
Rejoice, O divinely blessed one, for by thee are many saved!
Rejoice, O Benedict, wonderworker of Nursia! (pp. 28-9)

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