Overrun by half-civilized pagan and Arian hordes during the fifth century, Italy and the entire Mediterranean world was falling back into barbarism.
The Church was torn by conflict, city and country alike were made desolate by war and pillage, violence was rampant among Christians as well as heathen.
During this anarchic time appeared one of the noblest of the Fathers of the Western Church—St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of the great order which bears his name. We know little of his background, save that he was born about the year 480 at Nursia, in the province of Umbria, in north central Italy, and that his family was probably of noble lineage.
We also know that he had a sister called Scholastica, who from childhood vowed herself to God.
Sent to Rome to be educated, young Benedict was quickly revolted by the licentiousness of his fellow students. He was not yet twenty when he decided to go away from Rome to live in some remote spot.
No one knew of his plan except an aged family servant, who loyally insisted on accompanying him to serve his wants. Benedict and this old woman made their way to a village called Enfide, in the Sabine Mountains, some thirty miles from Rome.
The Hidden Lake
In the Dialogues, St. Gregory gives us a series of remarkable incidents associated with Benedict’s life, one of them occurring at this time.
While staying in the village, Benedict miraculously mended an earthen sieve which his servant had broken. Wishing to escape the notice and the talk which this brought upon him, he soon started out alone in search of complete solitude. Up among the hills he found a place known as Subiaco or Sublacum (beneath the lake), so named from an artificial lake created there some five centuries earlier. It was near the ruins of one of Nero’s palaces.
He made the acquaintance of a monk called Romanus, and to him Benedict revealed his desire to become a hermit. Romanus, who lived in a monastery not far away, gave the young man a monastic habit made of skins and led him up to an isolated cave, where he might live completely undisturbed. The roof of the cave was an overhanging rock over which descent was impossible, and it was approached from below with difficulty In this desolate cavern Benedict passed the next three years, unknown to all but his friend Romanus, who each day saved for him a part of his own portion of bread and let it down from above in a basket by a rope.
According to Pope Gregory, the first outsider to find his way to the cave was a priest, who while preparing a special dinner for himself on Easter Sunday heard a voice saying to him: “Thou art preparing thyself a savory dish while my servant Benedict is afflicted with hunger.”
The priest immediately set out in search of Benedict, and finally discovered his hiding place. Benedict was astonished, but before he would enter into conversation with his visitor he asked that they might pray together. Then, after they had talked for a time on heavenly things, the priest invited Benedict to eat, telling him that it was Easter Day, on which it is not reasonable to fast. Later Benedict was seen by some shepherds, who at first glance took him for a wild animal because he was clothed in the skins of beasts.
It did not occur to them that a human being could live among the barren rocks. From that time on, others made their way up the steep cliff, bringing such small offerings of food as the holy man would accept and receiving from him instruction and advice.
Even though he lived thus sequestered from the world, Benedict, like the Desert Fathers, had to struggle with temptations of the flesh and the devil. One of these struggles is described by Gregory.
“On a certain day when he was alone the tempter presented himself. A small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his face and came so near him that, if he had wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on his making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then followed a violent temptation of the flesh, such as he had never before experienced.
The evil spirit brought before his imagination a woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it. He was almost overcome and thought of leaving his solitude.
Suddenly, however, with the help of divine grace, he found the strength he needed. Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul.” Never again was he troubled in the same way.
Between Tivoli and Subiaco, at Vicovaro, on the summit of a fortified rock overlooking the Anio, there lived at that time a community of monks. Having lost their abbot by death, they now came in a body to ask Benedict to accept the office, no doubt with the idea that his growing fame would attract offerings to their community.
He at first refused, assuring the monks that their ways and his would not agree. At length they persuaded him to return with them. It soon became evident that the severe monastic discipline he instituted did not suit their lax habits, and in order to get rid of him they finally poisoned his wine. When, as was his habit, he made the sign of the cross over the cup, it broke as if a stone had fallen on it.
“God forgive you, brothers,” Benedict said serenely. “Why have you plotted this wicked thing against me? Did I not tell you beforehand that my ways would not accord with yours? Go and find an abbot to your taste, for after what you have done you can no longer keep me with you.” Then he bade them farewell and returned to Subiaco.
Disciples now began to gather around Benedict, attracted by his sanctity and by his miraculous powers. At last he found himself in a position to initiate the great work for which God had been preparing him. This was the idea that had slowly been germinating during his years of isolation: to bring together those who wished to share the monastic life, both men of the world who yearned to escape material concerns and the monks who had been living in solitude or in widely scattered communities, to make of them one flock, binding them by fraternal bonds, under one observance, in the permanent worship of God.
In short, his scheme was for the establishment in the West of a single great religious order which would end the capricious rule of the various superiors and the vagaries of individual anchorites. Those who agreed to obey Benedict in this enterprise, he settled in twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. Although each monastery had its own prior, Benedict himself exercised general control over all of them from the monastery of St. Clement.
They had no written rule, although they may at first have been guided by the Eastern Rule of St. Basil. According to one old record, they simply followed the example of Benedict’s deeds. Romans and barbarians, rich and poor, came to place themselves under a monk who made no distinction of rank or nation. Parents brought their young sons, for, in the prevailing chaos, the safest and happiest way of life seemed to be that of the monk.
Gregory tells us of two noble Romans, Tertullus, a patrician, and Equitius, who came with their small sons, Placidus, a child of seven, and Maurus, a lad of twelve. They were the forerunners of the great hosts of boys, in succeeding centuries, who were to be educated in Benedictine schools. On these two aristocratic young Romans, especially on Maurus, who afterwards became his coadjutor, Benedict expended his utmost care.
Gregory tells also of a rough untutored Goth who came to Benedict, was gladly received, and clothed in the monastic habit. As he was working one day with a hedgehook to clear the underbrush from a sloping piece of ground above the lake, the head of the hook flew off and disappeared into the water.
When Benedict heard of the accident, he led the man to the water’s edge, took from him the shaft, and dipped it into the lake. Immediately from the bottom rose the iron head and fastened itself in the shaft, whereat Benedict returned it to the astonished Goth, saying in a kindly voice, “Take your tool; work and be comforted.”
One of Benedict’s greatest accomplishments was to break down in his monasteries the ancient prejudice against manual work as something in itself degrading and servile. The Romans had for centuries made slaves of conquered peoples, who performed their menial tasks. Now times were changing.
Benedict introduced the novel idea that labor was not only dignified and honorable but conducive to sanctity; it was therefore made compulsory for all who joined the order, nobles and plebeians alike. “He who works prays,” became the maxim which expressed the Benedictine attitude.
The Envious Priest
We do not know how long Benedict remained in the neighborhood of Subiaco, but he stayed long enough certainly to establish his monasteries there on a firm and permanent basis. His departure seems to have been unpremeditated. There was living in the neighborhood an unworthy priest called Florentius, who was bitterly envious of the success of Benedict’s organization and of the great concourse of people who were flocking to him. Florentius tried to ruin him by slander; then he sent him a poisoned loaf, which failed of its purpose.
Finally he set out to corrupt Benedict’s monks by introducing into their garden women of evil life. Benedict realized Florentius’ malicious schemes were directed at him personally and he resolved to leave Subiaco, lest the souls of his spiritual sons should be further assailed. Having set all things in order, he summoned the monks, or their representatives, from the twelve monasteries, bade them farewell, and withdrew with a few disciples from Subiaco to the more southerly territory of Monte Cassino, a conspicuous elevation where land had been offered him by Placidus’ father, the patrician Tertullus.
The town of Cassino, formerly an important place, had been destroyed by the Goths, and the remnant of its inhabitants, left without a priest, were relapsing into paganism; the once-fertile land had fallen out of cultivation. From time to time the inhabitants would climb up through the woods to offer sacrifices in an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo, which stood on the crest of Monte Cassino. Benedict’s first work, after a preliminary forty-day fast, was to preach to the people and win them back to the faith.
A New Abbey
With the help of these converts, he proceeded to overthrow the pagan temple and cut down the sacred grove. He built two oratories or chapels on the site; one he dedicated to St. John the Baptist and the other to St. Martin. Round about these sanctuaries new buildings were erected and older ones remodeled, until there rose, little by little, the tremendous pile which was to become the most famous abbey the world has known. The foundation was laid by Benedict probably about the year 520.
Profiting no doubt by his earlier experience, Benedict did not distribute his monks in separate houses, but gathered them together in one great establishment, ruled over by a prior and deans under his own direction. Almost immediately it became necessary to build guest chambers, for Monte Cassino was easily accessible from Rome, Capua, and other points. Among the early visitors were Placidus’ father, who came to confirm his donation, and Maurus’ father, who bestowed more lands and churches on Benedict.
Another generous benefactor was Gregory’s father, Gordianus, who in the name of his wife Sylvia gave Benedict the Villa Euchelia in the suburbs of Aquinum, not far away, and other valuable property. Not only laymen but dignitaries of the Church, bishops and abbots, came to consult with the founder, whose reputation for sanctity, wisdom, and miracles was spreading.
A Reasonable Asceticism
It was probably during this period that Benedict composed his famous Rule. Gregory says that in it may be perceived “all his own manner of life and discipline, for the holy man could not possibly teach otherwise than as he lived.” Although the Rule professes only to lay down a pattern of life for the monks at Monte Cassino, it served as a guide for the monks of the whole Western Empire. It is addressed to all who, renouncing their own will, take upon them “the strong and bright armor of obedience, to fight under our Lord Christ, our true king.”
It prescribes a diversified routine of liturgical prayer, study, and physical work, in a community under one father. It was written for laymen by one who was not a priest; only after some five hundred years were clerical orders required of Benedictines. Its asceticism was intended to be reasonable; the monks abstained from flesh meat and did not break fast until mid-day. Self-imposed and abnormal austerities damaging to health were not encouraged.
When a hermit who lived in a cave near Monte Cassino chained his foot to a rock, Benedict, to whom he looked for direction, sent him the message, “If thou art truly a servant of God, chain thyself not with a chain of iron but with a chain of Christ.”
Donation and Deliverance
Far from confining his attention to those who accepted his Rule, Benedict extended his solicitude to the people of the countryside. He cured the sick, relieved the distressed, distributed alms and food to the poor, and is said on more than one occasion to have raised the dead. When Campania suffered from a famine, he gave away all the provisions stored in the abbey, with the exception of five loaves. “You have not enough today,” he said to his monks, noticing their dismay, “but tomorrow you will have too much.”
Benedict’s faith had its reward. The next morning a large donation of flour was deposited by unknown hands at the monastery gate. Other stories were told of prophetic powers and of an ability to read men’s thoughts. A nobleman he had converted once found him in tears and inquired the cause of his grief. Benedict astounded him by replying that the monastery and everything in it would be delivered to the pagans, and the monks would barely escape with their lives. This prophecy came true some forty years later, when the abbey was wrecked by a new wave of invaders, the pagan Lombards.
Meanwhile, Totila, King of the Goths, had defeated the Emperor Justinian’s army at Faenza and in 542 was making a triumphal progress through central Italy towards Naples. On the way he wished to visit Benedict, of whom he had heard marvelous tales. He therefore sent word of his coming to the famous abbot, who replied that he would see him.
To discover whether Benedict really possessed the supernatural insight attributed to him, Totila ordered Riggo, captain of the guard, to don his own purple robes, and sent him, with the three counts who usually attended him, up to Monte Cassino.
The trick did not deceive Benedict, who greeted Riggo with the words, “My son, take off what thou art wearing; it is not thine.” Confounded, Riggo threw himself at Benedict’s feet and then withdrew in haste to report to his master.
Totila now came himself to the abbey and, we are told, was so awed by Benedict that he fell prostrate. Benedict, raising him from the ground, rebuked him sternly for his cruelties and foretold in a few words all that should befall him. “Much evil,” he said, “dost thou do and much wickedness hast thou done. Now, at least, make an end of iniquity. Rome thou shalt enter; thou wilt cross the sea; nine years thou shalt reign, and die the tenth.”
Totila begged for his prayers and departed, and from that time on, people said, was less cruel. In course of time he advanced on Rome, sailed thence to Sicily, and in the tenth year, lost both his crown and his life. Benedict did not live long enough to see the prophecy fulfilled.
He who had foretold so many things was forewarned of his own death, and six days before the end bade his disciples dig a grave. As soon as this was done, Benedict was stricken with a fever, and on the sixth day, while the brethren supported him, he murmured a few words of prayer and died, standing, with hands uplifted towards Heaven. He was buried beside his sister Scholastica, on the site of the altar of Apollo which he had thrown down.
In art Benedict is commonly represented with King Totila, or with his finger on his lips, holding the Rule, or with the opening words, “Ausculta, O fili,” (“Hearken, O son”) proceeding from his mouth. His symbols are reminders of various incidents in his life: we see him with a blackbird, a broken sieve, a rose bush, a scourge, a dove, a globe of fire, or a luminous stairway up which he is proceeding to Heaven; occasionally he is depicted with King Totila at his feet.
The order which Benedict founded has spread over the earth. It was mainly responsible for the conversion of the Teutonic races, and has left its mark on the education, art, and literature of Europe. Within its cloisters, always marked by an atmosphere of industry and peace, were copied and recopied the great writings of the past, to be cherished and passed on to succeeding generations.
Monastery Photo CC Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. | Flickr