July 11. Saint Benedict of Nursia
Mass Readings + homily notes for special feasts and memorials
Benedict (480-543) from Nursia in Umbria (Italy) spent years as a hermit in a mountain cave at Subiaco (64 km east of Rome), before being inspired to gather companions to live a monastic life in community. Later he moved to Monte Cassino near Naples. The "Rule of Saint Benedict" is admired for its balance and moderation and became the most influential monastic rule in Western Christendom. Into the Middle Ages it was mainly the monasteries that provided education and preserved the culture of Greece and Rome in the west. For this reason, Benedict is honoured by the Catholic church as the patron of Europe
The value of wisdom, devotion and fear of the Lord, taught by Saint Benedict
My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures –
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and fairness and every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.
Whoever leaves things behind for the sake of Jesus, will be rewarded a hundredfold
Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.
Benedict was born in Nursia, a small town near Spoleto, and a tradition reports that he and his sister Scholastica were twins. His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he attended both junior and higher studies. Then "forsaking his books and his father's house, wanting only to serve God, he sought a place for this holy purpose; and so he left Rome, taught by learned ignorance and possessing unlearned wisdom" (Dial. St Greg., II, Migne, P.L. LXVI). There is some doubt as to Benedict's age at the time of his monastic vocation, but Gregory's narrative suggests at least nineteen or twenty. He was old enough for his literary studies, to understand the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have personally felt the love of a woman (Ibid. II, 2). He was capable of comparing all these things with the life taught in the Gospels, and chose the latter. Clearly he was no child if, as Gregory puts it, "he was free to enjoy the advantages the world offers, but drew back after already setting forth in the world." If we take the 480 for his birth, we may date his quitting home at about A.D. 500.
On the steep side of the ravine above Subiaco he reached a cave above which the mountain rises almost perpendicularly; while on the right hand side, in St Benedict's day, lay a deep lake five hundred feet below. On his way, he met a monk, Romanus, whose monastery was above the cliff overhanging Benedict's cave. Romanus discussed with Benedict the purpose of a life of prayer, and gave him the monk's habit. By his advice Benedict became a hermit and for three years lived in this cave above the lake. St Gregory now speaks of Benedict as a man of God. The monk Romanus served the saint in every way he could, apparently visited him frequently, and on fixed days brought him food.
During these three years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character, and at the same time gained the respect of a monastery in the neighbourhood, whose community came and begged him to become its abbot. After he consented to this the experiment failed miserably; the monks so differed from his views that some of them tried to poison him. After he returned to his cave, by this time his miracles became frequent and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to ask 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 himself lived with a few, whom he thought would "benefit from his own presence." He remained, however, the father or abbot of all.
He spent much time composing the ideal of monasticism described in his Rule. By his own experience and his knowledge of the history of monasticism he had learnt that the regeneration of the individual is not normally reached by total solitude, nor by austerity, but by the path of man's social instinct, with its necessary conditions of obedience and work; and that neither the body nor the mind can safely be overstrained in the effort to avoid evil. Thus, at Subiaco we find no solitaries, no great austerities, but men living together in organized communities for the purpose of leading good lives, doing such work as came to hand, gardening and household work, building the twelve cloisters, clearing the ground, teaching children, preaching to the country people, reading and studying at least four hours a day, receiving strangers, accepting and training new-comers, attending the regular hours of prayer, reciting and chanting the Psalter.
The life at Subiaco and Benedict's own character attracted many to the new monasteries, and the increasing numbers and influence inevitably led to jealousy and quarrels, so that eventually Benedict left Subiaco and went to Monte Cassino, where he built another monastery. After his experience at Subiaco, instead of building several houses each with a small community, he kept all his monks in one monastery and provided for its government by appointing a prior and deans (Rule, 65, 21). We find no trace in his Rule, probably written at Monte Cassino, of the view that had led him to built the twelve separate monasteries at Subiaco. If Subiaco was a retired valley away in the mountains, Cassino was on one of the great highways to the south of Italy, which brought the monastery into frequent communication with the outside world. It soon became a centre of influence in a district with a large population. Men of all classes were frequent visitors, and he numbered nobles, abbots and bishops among his friends. There were nuns in the neighbourhood whom the monks went to preach to and to teach. There was a village nearby in which St Benedict preached and made many converts (Dial. St Greg., 19). The monastery became the protector of the poor, their trustee (ibid., 31), their refuge in sickness, in accidents and in want.
There is a charming story about his sister Scholastica, greatly dedicated to Our Lord, to whom Benedict used to come once a year on a visit. 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. She begged her brother to stay the night, but could not persuade him to agree until "receiving this denial of her brother, she made her prayers to Almighty God, and when she lifted her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thunder, and rain, that neither Benedict, nor his monks could put their head out of door" (ibid., 33). Three days later, he saw the soul of his sister, departing from her body, in the likeness of a dove " (ibid., 34).
In Monte Casino, which is now considered the birthplace of the Benedictine order, he wrote his Monastic Rule which set a standard for the future Western Monastic tradition. St. Benedict's Rule is marked by moderation, balance and humanity. Community was a key feature of his monastic vision and he stressed the value of community life as a school for holiness. He saw the community as a place of equality where each person was helped by everyone else along the path of holiness. The monk's primary occupation was liturgical prayer, complemented by the reading of the Scriptures and manual work of various kinds.
He was made patron of Europe in 1964. In the words of the gospel, Benedict left everything as a young man. Yet, in leaving everything he gained that new family which the gospel refers to. Indeed he gained a family of families, a great multitude of monastic families or communities, linked together by his spirit and his rule. He is a living example of that image of the grain of wheat which when planted in the ground dies but in dying bears much fruit. Whenever we give generously, we invariably receive more than we give. Our giving, our dying, creates a space for the Lord to work in a life-giving way in us and through us.
In Benedict's ideal picture of an abbot (Rule, 64), he has given us a portrait of his own character: "It behoves the abbot to be ever doing some good for his brethren rather than to be presiding over them. He must, therefore, be learned in the law of God, that he may know whence to bring forth things new and old; he must be chaste, sober, and merciful, ever preferring mercy to justice, that he himself may obtain mercy."