Great Catholic Saints: St Benedict of Nursia
The aim was to introduce Coptic saints to the Western Christian community. Which prompted me to research great Western saints who may not be very well known to the Eastern Christians. Basically, we hope to celebrate what we all share as the children of the one living God. Considering St. Benedict of Nursia is the founder of monasticism in the Western world, his story is more than relevant for this purpose. You see, the father of Monasticism is St Anthony of Egypt. And so he and his brother in Christ who founded this great tradition in the West St Benedict are a perfect illustration of the bond and the tradition all Christians share.
St. Benedict was born to a wealthy family in Nursia around 480AD, a twin brother to his sister Scholastica.
"His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he lived with his parents and attended the schools until he had reached his higher studies. Then "giving over his books, and forsaking his father's house and wealth, with a 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 [from Rome], instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom" (Dial. St. Greg., II, Introd. in Migne, P.L. LXVI). There is much difference of opinion as to Benedict's age at the time. It has been very generally stated as fourteen, but a careful examination of St. Gregory's narrative makes it impossible to suppose him younger than nineteen or twenty. He was old enough to be in the midst of his literary studies, to understand the real meaning and worth of the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have been deeply affected himself by the love of a woman (Ibid. II, 2). He was capable of weighing all these things in comparison with the life taught in the Gospels, and chose the latter, He was at the beginning of life, and he had at his disposal the means to a career as a Roman noble; clearly he was not a child, As St. Gregory expresses it, "he was in the world and was free to enjoy the advantages which the world offers, but drew back his foot which he had, as it were, already set forth in the world" (ibid., Introd.). If we accept the date 480 for his birth, we may fix the date of his abandoning the schools and quitting home at about A.D. 500. "
Considering his family's wealth, St Benedict could have lead an easy prosperous life and enjoyed all the world could offer. But as if to show those who can't comprehend the power of God's love, he easily abandoned the world to enjoy the one true pleasure in his heart: God's company.
"At Enfide Benedict worked his first miracle by restoring to perfect condition an earthenware wheat-sifter (capisterium) which his old servant had accidentally broken. The notoriety which this miracle brought upon Benedict drove him to escape still farther from social life, and "he fled secretly from his nurse and sought the more retired district of Subiaco". His purpose of life had also been modified. He had fled Rome to escape the evils of a great city; he now determined to be poor and to live by his own work. "For God's sake he deliberately chose the hardships of life and the weariness of labour" (ibid., 1). "
The story of St Benedict takes us to a cave on a steep mountain face where he lived and prayed alone with God for 3 years.
"During these three years of solitude, broken only by occasional communications with the outer world and by the visits of Romanus, he matured both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man, and at the same time he became not merely known to, but secured the respect of, those about him; so much so that on the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighbourhood (identified by some with Vicovaro), the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot. Benedict was acquainted with the life and discipline of the monastery, and knew that "their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent" (ibid., 3). The experiment failed; the monks tried to poison him, and he returned to his cave. From this time his miracles seen to have become frequent, and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance. For them he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with "a few, such as he thought would more profit and be better instructed by his own presence" (ibid., 3). He remained, however, the father or abbot of all. With the establishment of these monasteries began the schools for children; and amongst the first to be brought were Maurus and Placid. "
He spent the rest of his realising the ideals of monasticism, and so the Benedictine Rule was established. The Benedictine Rule was written by St Benedict and addressed to all who wish to live a life of obedience to Christ. The fact he addressed his Rule to everyone and not just to church clergy shows that he saw his life away from the world and its pleasures, a simple offering to God. He clearly didn't place himself above the average laymen, but sought to teach the willing about the way to a life lived in God's grace.
This is a very brief explanation of the Benedictine Rule:
- The great disciplinary force for human nature is work; idleness is its ruin. The purpose of his Rule was to bring men "back to God by the labour of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience". Work was the first condition of all growth in goodness.
- Work is not, as the civilization of the time taught, the condition peculiar to slaves; it is the universal lot of man, necessary for his well-being as a man, and essential for him as a Christian
- Life apart from one's fellows, the life of a hermit, if it is to be wholesome and sane, is possible only for a few, and these few must have reached an advanced stage of self-discipline while living with others
- The Rule conceives the superiors as always present and in constant touch with every member of the government, which is best described as patriarchal, or paternal (ibid., 2, 3, 64). The superior is the head of a family; all are the permanent members of a household.
The most outstanding feature of Benedictine monasticism is the commitment to working to serve the community.
"They met for the last time three days before Scholastica's death, on a day "when the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen". The sister begged her brother to stay the night, "but by no persuasion would he agree unto that, saying that he might not by any means tarry all night out of his abbey.... The nun receiving this denial of her brother, joining her hands together, laid them on the table; and so bowing her head upon them, she made her prayers to Almighty God, and lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightening and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Bennet, nor the monks that were with him, could put their head out of door" (ibid., 33). Three days later, "Benedict beheld the soul of his sister, which was departed from her body, in the likeness of a dove, to ascend into heaven: who rejoicing much to see her great glory, with hymns and lauds gave thanks to Almighty God, and did impart news of this her death to his monks whom also he sent presently to bring her corpse to his abbey, to have it buried in that grave which he had provided for himself" (ibid., 34). "
St Benedict was a gentle, humble and God loving man who cared very much for those around him. Monasticism is often misunderstood by the world as a way of escaping the hardships of life, or failure to face one's problems. Through the life on St Benedict we can see that this is simply not true. He may have escaped the world, but it wasn't for fear of failure. Like St Anthony, he was the son of a wealthy family and he wouldn't have faced too many failures in life. But what he wanted was greater and more pleasurable than life itself.
Yet when he later lived amongst monks as their Abbot and father, he carried out his duty toward them with love and humility. He taught them, encouraged them, cared for their spiritual wellbeing and helped them so that they could help the world be a better place around them.