Friday, 11 July 2008

Feast of St Benedict

Today is the Feast of St Benedict in the Benedictine calendar (he gets two feasts, one for the translation of his relics). In Benedictine monasteries, it is traditional to use Pope St Gregory the Great's Life of St Benedict (his Dialogues Book II) as table reading from this date.

And the Dialogues make wonderful reading - St Gregory wrote only around 50 years after St Benedict's death, and was able to base his work on eyewitness testimony from four of St Benedict's disciples, including his immediate successor as abbot. And he also provides some interesting commentary (in the form of a dialogue between Gregory and his Deacon, Peter, hence the title of the text) on issues to do with the spiritual life, such as when to persevere and when to cut your losses!

Over the last century of course, the historical accuracy of the text, whether the miracles recorded were real or should be interpreted 'symbolically', and even whether it was written by St Gregory have come into question, sadly mostly not from atheist rationalists but from revisionist monks. Traditionally however, St Gregory's life (together with the Rule of St Benedict) is one of the foundational texts for Benedictines, and is a real spiritual treasure.

And so I thought that, in honour both of the saint and of our current Pope who has taken him as his patron, I might give you a series of extracts from it, along with a little commentary, by way of a lead up to the start of the official part of the Pope's visit to Australia.

The Life and Miracles of St Benedict

The Prologue to St Gregory's Life of St Benedict starts as follows:

"There was a man of venerable life, blessed by grace, and blessed in name, for he was called "Benedictus" or Bennet: who, from his younger years, carried always the mind of an old man; for his age was inferior to his virtue: all vain pleasure he contemned, and though he were in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yieldeth, yet did he nothing esteem it, nor the vanities thereof.

He was born in the province of Nursia, of honourable parentage..."

Nursia is in fact modern day Norsica, pictured below. The late antiquity village (depicted in St Benedict's hands in the wall painting above) is largely intact (although a bit the worse for wear due to earthquakes and the like).

His father was, it is believed a magistrate, and the place of St Benedict and his twin sister St Scholastica's birth in 480 now forms the crypt of the modern day church. The town is well worth a pilgrimage - apart from a very young and vibrant monastery of mainly American monks, the place is a gourmet capital, selling black truffles, hams and much more!



As a teenager, he was sent to Rome (his cell there has been preserved in the Church pictured below) to study, along with a nurse as was customary. Rome however was a disaster zone at this time. The Western Roman Empire is generally considered to have ended in 476, and Rome was effectively under the control of the Goth Theodoric, an Arian heretic. In the Church, East and West were split by the Acacian Schism, and factions of the anti-pope Laurentius were waging a violent and bloody campaign against the forces of the newly elected Pope Symmachus. No wonder then that St Benedict didn't stay there long. St Gregory says:

"...and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. But for as much as he saw many by reason of such learning to fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance therewith, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf: wherefore, 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: and in this sort he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom."
He joined a community of devout men at Affile near Rome (the medieval town is depicted below), as St Gregory goes on:

"Benedict having now given over the school, with a resolute mind to lead his life in the wilderness: his nurse alone, which did tenderly love him, would not by any means give him over. Coming, therefore, to a place called Affile and remaining there in the church of St. Peter, in the company of other virtuous men.."


It was in Affile that he performed his first miracle:

".. it fell so out that his nurse borrowed of the neighbours a sieve to make clean wheat, which being left negligently upon the table, by chance it was broken in two pieces: whereupon she fell pitifully a-weeping, because she had borrowed it.

The devout and religious youth Benedict, seeing his nurse so lamenting, moved with compassion, took away with him both the pieces of the sieve, and with tears fell to his prayers. After he had done, rising up he found it so whole, that the place could not be seen where before it was broken; and coming straight to his nurse, and comforting her with good words, he delivered her the sieve safe and sound.

Which miracle was known to all the inhabitants thereabout, and so much admired, that the townsmen, for a perpetual memory, did hang it up at the church door, to the end that not only men then living, but also their posterity might understand, how greatly God's grace did work with him upon his first renouncing of the world.

The sieve continued there many years after, even to these very troubles of the Lombards, where it did hang over the church door.

But Benedict, desiring rather the miseries of the world than the praises of men: rather to be wearied with labour for God's sake, than to be exalted with transitory commendation: fled privily from his nurse, and went into a desert place..."

More tomorrow!

And don't forget, if you are in Sydney, head for Peterham tonight for a special Mass for the Feast.
For Part II of this series, go here.

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