Saturday, 12 July 2008

Life of St Benedict Part II

By the time he died, St Benedict had founded more than twenty monasteries. But first he embarked on a long preparation process. Yesterday, you will recall, he fled Rome and joined a community in Affile. The next step was to become a hermit in Subiaco, where he probably arrived around 494. (the present day monastery and St Benedict's original cave are pictured below).


St Gregory tells us that he fled from the fame caused by his first miracle:

"...and went into a desert place called Subiaco, distant almost forty miles from Rome: in which there was a fountain springing forth cool and clear water; the abundance whereof does first in a broad place make a lake, and afterward running forward, comes to be a river.

A fifth century religious devastation problem?

There, he ran into a monk:

"As he was travelling to this place, a certain monk called Romanus met him, and demanded whither he went, and understanding his purpose, he both kept it close, furnished him what he might, vested him with the habit of holy conversation, and as he could, ministered and served him.

The man of God, Benedict, coming to this foresaid place, lived there in a narrow cave, where he continued three years unknown to all men, except to Romanus. He lived not far off, under the rule of Abbot Theodacus, and very virtuously stole certain hours, and likewise sometime a loaf given for his own provision, which he carried to Benedict.

And because from Romanus' cell to that cave there was not any way, by reason of a high rock which hung over it, Romanus, from the top thereof, on a long rope, let down the loaf, on which also with a band he tied a little bell, that by the ringing of it the man of God might know when he came with his bread, and so be ready to take it. But the old enemy of mankind, envious of the charity of the one and the refection of the other, seeing a loaf on a certain day let down, threw a stone and broke the bell. Yet, for all that, Romanus did not cease to serve Benedict by all the possible means he could."

I have to say I've always found this a little intriguing.

First it tells us that there were already monasteries in Italy - St Benedict didn't literally found Western monasticism, he rather transformed it. Secondly, why didn't St Benedict simply join the existing monastery? Or was this monastery a bit too fourth century novus ordo for his taste, given the evident lack of much concern for obedience to his abbot on the part of the monk Romanus?!

And you've got to love the taking of the habit being such a casual affair!

The sacraments?

And there's another curious aspect to St Benedict's life here. The standard advice to grow in grace is to frequent the sacraments. But St Benedict's spiritual life at this time was clearly nourished by silence and solitary prayer, as the following story illustrates:

"At length when almighty God was determined to ease Romanus of his pains, and to have Benedict's life for an example known to the world, that such a candle, set on a candlestick, might shine and give light to the Church of God, our Lord vouchsafed to appear to a certain Priest dwelling a good way off, who had made ready his dinner for Easter day.

He spoke thus to him: "Thou have provided good cheer for thyself, and my servant in such a place is afflicted with hunger." Hearing this, the priest rose up, and on Easter day itself, with such meat as he had prepared, went to the place, where he sought for the man of God among the steep hills, the low valleys and hollow pits, and at length found him in his cave. After they had prayed together, and sitting down had given God thanks, and had much spiritual talk, then the Priest said to him: "Rise up, brother, and let us dine, because today is the feast of Easter."

The man of God answered, and said: "I know that it is Easter with me and a great feast, having found so much favor at God's hands as this day to enjoy your company" (for by reason of his long absence from men, he knew not that it was the great solemnity of Easter).

But the reverent Priest again assured him, saying: "Verily, today is the feast of our Lord's Resurrection, and therefore it is not right that you should keep abstinence. Besides I am sent to that end, that we might eat together of such provision as God's goodness hath sent us." Whereupon they said grace, and fell to their meat, and after they had dined, and bestowed some time in talking, the Priest returned to his church."
The point, I think, is that contemplation comes first.

Conquering sin

St Benedict's main task in this period though, was not converting others, but subduing the flesh, by more or less drastic methods:

"On a certain day being alone, the tempter was at hand: for a little black bird, commonly called a merle or an ousel, began to fly about his face, and that so near as the holy man, if he would, might have taken it with his hand: but after he had blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the bird flew away: and forthwith the holy man was assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life.

A certain woman there was which some time he had seen, the memory of which the wicked spirit put into his mind, and by the representation of her so mightily inflamed with concupiscence the soul of God's servant, which so increased that, almost overcome with pleasure, he was of mind to have forsaken the wilderness."

I have to admit I love that passage. Whatever sin our particular challenge is, the temptation to abandon our path and give up is ever present! Not too many of us though, will feel called to adopt such drastic methods of dealing with it:

But, suddenly assisted with God's grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn. So, by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, inwardly burned in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire."

St Benedict's period of purgation was over.

Interestingly, St Benedict's Rule contains strong warnings about the dangers of the eremitical life - he recommends a long trial in the monastery first. A warning no doubt based on his own experiences, notwithstanding his own special call to this state for a period....

Next part here.

1 comment:

David said...

hi, thanks for your continued updates on this blog. i am enjoying reading it, even if i can't comment all the time.

just wanted to let you know that i have a wyd blog - I will be trying to blog from my mobile phone.


David Webb