Thursday, 11 July 2013

Feast of the translation of the relics of St Benedict, patron of Europe

Fr Angelico

There are, I think, few saints more appropriate for our times than St Benedict.

St Benedict, like us, lived at a time when the old order of civilisation was collapsing.

His response was a radical rejection of the world, fleeing the temptations of Rome first for a small community, then living as a hermit in the wilds of Subiaco.

Yet he ultimately establishing the form of monasticism, those oases of civilisation, that was to prove such a bulwark against the collapse of civil society over the centuries.

Calendar and monastic wars...

In the traditional Benedictine calendar, St Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism, has two feast days.

In one of the best arguments I know of for a bi-form approach, one of them, conveniently, (March 21, the date of his birth into heaven), is celebrated in the traditional Roman (EF) calendar, the other (July 11, the translation of his relics) is celebrated in the Ordinary Form calendar.

Monte Cassino after WWII

Today's feast dates back to around the year 652 AD.  Monte Cassino was abandoned at the time (it was destroyed not long after St Benedict's death, and not re-established until 718), but St Benedict and St Scholastica had a strong following in the north of France.  Accordingly, the monks of Fleury (St. Benôit sur Loire) went on a relic hunting expedition and claimed to have returned with the bones of the saints.  Mind you, several other monasteries claim to possess relics of St. Benedict, with Monte Cassino itself having the best case.

Either way, this date was chosen for the novus ordo calendar in order to avoid the potential for conflict with Lent, though that possibility was fixed for Europe at least when the saint was made patron of Europe and the feast a solemnity by Pope Paul VI.

The death throes of the West

True Benedictine monasticism has all but disappeared in our times.

Though many monasteries still claim to be of St Benedict's Order, it is one of those enduring ironies of the revolution of the 1960s that while the claimed intention was to go back to the sources of the order and discard the distortions and accretions of the intervening years, in fact today most monasteries follow fewer provisions of his Rule today than they did before Vatican II. No surprise then, that the number of Benedictine monks and nuns continues to fall precipitously despite a few brighter lights here and there.

What is surprising is that even many claiming to be 'traditional' or traditionally inclined monasteries don't actually utilise the psalm schema St Benedict sets out in considerable detail in his Rule for the Divine Office.  That's a shame given all that we now know, from the work of people like Catherine Pickstock and others, about the formative effect on our spirituality of the particular repetitions and patterns contained in specific forms of the liturgy.

Nonetheless, there are some thriving traditional Benedictine monasteries around the world, and just as St Benedict's conception of monasticism proved important to the preservation of the best products of antiquity, so too it may yet prove important in the dark times ahead of us.

The feast of St Benedict is a good time to reassert the conviction that monastic life has a future as well as a past, and that, as the historian Dom David Knowles once wrote:

"if a particular generation (even though it be our own) destroys it or disfigures it, it will return again when saints arise to show its nobility to the modern world."

St Benedict, pray for us.

Sequence Laeta Quies

Below is a recording from the monks of Norcia, the saints birthplace, of the Sequence for the feast. A translation of the text is:

Joyful rest of our leader, that brings the gift of a new light, we commemorate you today.

Grace is given the loving soul, may our ardent heart be united to the songs of our lips.

By the radiant way going up to the east, let us admire our Father rising to heaven, equal to the patriarchs.

His innumerable posterity, figure of the sun, made him like to Abraham.

See the crow serving him and recognize hence Elias hiding in a little cave.

Recognize Eliseus, when he bids return the axe from beneath the current.

It is Joseph through his life without stain; 
it is Jacob bringing future things to mind.

May he be mindful of his people, and may he lead us till we behold with him the eternal joys of Christ.

Amen.  (from the "Supplement for the Order of Saint Benedict" (Saint Andrew Daily Missal, Brugge: Desclee de Brouwer & Co., 1957, p. 21-22 via the OSB website).

Traditionally in monasteries, the table reading over the next few days is the Life of St Benedict by St Gregory the Great - it is not very long and well worth the read.  You can find a copy online here.

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