Saint of the Day: St. Benedict of Nursia
Today is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the twin brother of St. Scholastica, the patron of Europe, and the founder of Western monasticism.
Tradition teaches that St. Benedict lived from 480 to 547, though we cannot be sure that these dates are historically accurate. His biographer, St. Gregory the Great, pope from 590 to 604, does not record the dates of his birth and death, though he refers to a Rule written by Benedict. Scholars debate the dating of the Rule though they seem to agree that it was written in the second third of the sixth century.
Saint Gregory wrote about St. Benedict in his Second Book of Dialogues, but his account of the life and miracles of Benedict cannot be regarded as a biography in the modern sense of the term. Gregory’s purpose in writing Benedict’s life was to edify and to inspire, not to seek out the particulars of his daily life. Gregory sought to show that saints of God, particularly St. Benedict, were still operative in the Christian Church in spite of all the political and religious chaos present in the realm. At the same time it would be inaccurate to claim that Gregory presented no facts about Benedict’s life and works. According to Gregory’s Dialogues Benedict was born in Nursia, a village high in the mountains northeast of Rome. His parents sent him to Rome for classical studies but he found the life of the eternal city too degenerate for his tastes.
Consequently he fled to a place southeast of Rome called Subiaco where he lived as a hermit for three years tended by the monk Romanus.
The hermit, Benedict, was then discovered by a group of monks who prevailed upon him to become their spiritual leader. His regime soon became too much for the lukewarm monks so they plotted to poison him. Gregory recounts the tale of Benedict’s rescue; when he blessed the pitcher of poisoned wine, it broke into many pieces. Thereafter he left the undisciplined monks. Benedict left the wayward monks and established twelve monasteries with twelve monks each in the area south of Rome.
Later, perhaps in 529, he moved to Monte Cassino, about eighty miles southeast of Rome; there he destroyed the pagan temple dedicated to Apollo and built his premier monastery. It was there too that he wrote the Rule for the monastery of Monte Cassino though he envisioned that it could be used elsewhere.
The thirty-eight short chapters of the Second Book of Dialogues contain accounts of Benedict’s life and miracles. Some chapters recount his ability to read other persons’ minds; other chapters tell of his miraculous works, e.g., making water flow from rocks, sending a disciple to walk on the water, making oil continue to flow from a flask. The miracle stories echo the events of certain prophets of Israel as well as happenings in the life of Jesus. The message is clear: Benedict’s holiness mirrors the saints and prophets of old and God has not abandoned his people; he continues to bless them with holy persons.
Benedict is viewed as a monastic leader, not a scholar. Still he probably read Latin rather well, an ability that gave him access to the works of Cassian and other monastic writings, both rules and sayings. The Rule is the sole known example of Benedict’s writing, but it manifests his genius to crystallize the best of the monastic tradition and to pass it on to the European West.
Gregory presents Benedict as the model of a saint who flees temptation to pursue a life of attention to God. Through a balanced pattern of living and praying Benedict reached the point where he glimpsed the glory of God. Gregory recounts a vision that Benedict received toward the end of his life: In the dead of night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away. According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes “in what appeared to be a single ray of light” (ch. 34). St. Benedict, the monk par excellence, led a monastic life that reached the vision of God.
Patronage: Against nettle rash; against poison; against witchcraft; agricultural workers; cavers; coppersmiths; dying people; erysipelas; Europe; farm workers; farmers; fever; gall stones; Heerdt, Germany; inflammatory diseases; Italian architects; kidney disease; monks; nettle rash; Norcia, Italy; people in religious orders; schoolchildren; servants who have broken their master’s belongings; speliologists; spelunkers; temptations.
Quote: “Prayer ought to be short and pure, unless it be prolonged by the inspiration of Divine grace.”
~ St. Benedict of Nursia