Monday, 14 July 2008

St Benedict Part IV - Benedictine monasticism starts

This is part IV of a little series on the life of St Benedict in honour of the feast of the saint, and of the visit of the Pope who has taken him as his patron, and is now visiting our shores. You can find the first part here.

Following the failure of his attempt at reforming an existing monastery, St Benedict established his own, at Subiaco (pictured below) around 505.

St Gregory's Life records a number of miracles associated with the building of the monastery, and the establishment of regular life there.

I particularly love the stories about St Benedict miraculously knowing when various monks had committed various breaches of the Rule, or had not followed his instructions - what an incitement to obedience! I won't go into all of those here - you can read them for yourself at one of the online copies of the Dialogues (the version on the OSB website in probably easiest being in modern albeit rather prosaic English).

As I have a nice copy of a painting depicting the scene (below), and it illustrates very nicely the two central Benedictine virtues (humility and obedience), I thought I would however, include the story of SS Maurus and Placidus, two of St Benedict's earliest disciples.

St Gregory says:

"On a certain day, as venerable Benedict was, in his cell, young Placidus, the holy man's monk, went out to take up water at the lake, and putting down his pail carelessly, fell in after it. The water forthwith carried him away from the land as far as one may shoot an arrow. The man of God, being in his cell, by and by knew this. He called in haste for Maurus, saying: "Brother Maurus, run as fast as you can, for Placidus, who went to the lake to fetch water, has fallen in, and is carried a good way off." [St Benedict was deeply involved in the lives of his monks.]

A strange thing, and since the time of Peter the Apostle never heard of! Maurus asked his father's blessing [Not perhaps the first thing that would spring to our minds under pressure! But in fact the opening lines of the Rule say do nothing without first praying; and the Rule stresses the idea of doing nothing except under obedience....] and, departing in all haste at his command, ran to that spot on the water, to which the young lad had been carried by the force of the water. Thinking that he had all that while been on the land, Maurus took fast hold of Placidus by the hair of his head, in all haste he returned with him. As soon as he was on land, coming to himself, he looked back, and then knew very well that he had run on the water. That which before he dared not to presume, being now done and past, he both marveled and was afraid of what he had done.

Coming back to the father, Benedict, and telling him what had happened, the venerable man did not attribute this to his own merits, but to the obedience of Maurus. Maurus, on the contrary, said that it was done only on his commandment, and that he had nothing to do in that miracle, not knowing at that time what he did. The friendly contention proceeded in mutual humility, but the youth himself that had been saved from drowning determined the fact. He said that when he was drawn out of the water, he saw the Abbot's garment on his head, affirming thereby that it was the man of God that had delivered him from that great danger." [Obedience is often stressed as the central Benedictine virtue, and it certainly is right up there - but I think St Benedict marks out humility as being just as important. Read Chapter 7 of his Rule and you will see what I mean. And he scatters references to it throughout the text as well.]

St Benedict and his twin sister St Scholastica (her monastery is depicted in the distance in the photo above) eventually made a dozen monastic foundations around Subiaco (several stories in the Life relate to his monks' ministry to nuns, and the problems thereof!). St Benedict though, attracted the jeolousy of a local priest, who tried various ploys to kill him, or tempt him to sin. In the end St Benedict decided to move on, and started again at Monte Cassino (pictured below) around 529.

Monte Cassino was at the time a pagan shrine to Apollo - St Benedict destroyed the shrine, and by his preaching converted the pagans living there. The monastery itself has been destroyed several times over the centuries (most recently during World War II), but has always been rebuilt....a symbol perhaps of the repeated pattern of destruction and rebirth of Benedictine monasticism over the centuries?

More tomorrow!

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