Order Of Saint Benedict
(Benedictines; Black Monks: O.S.B.)
The marble atrium of the patrician's villa with its richly inlaid mosaics, gave out upon an open court; and from his couch at the banquet table Benedict could see between the columns the deep Roman sky, still a dusky cobalt although the summer night was far advanced; and the clear, bright stars plunged into its soft depths.
That was God's universe, out there. Even the garden, with its ilex and laurel, its luscious blooms heavy-laden with perfume even the garden, though trimmed into formal design by the hand of man, was primarily God's. But here, within . The young man, scarcely turned nineteen, looked about him with a mounting disgust. This was man's world, as a Roman patrician of the year 498, in a supposedly Christian century, had fashioned it.
Benedict had accepted the invitation reluctantly; but since it had come from an important Senator, one to whom his parents had recommended him when he had left their home in Nursia, cradled off there in the Sabine Hills, and since he needed powerful friends in Rome while completing his studies in law, he had sent back a courteous acceptance by the Senator's slave.
But the evening had developed into something other than a banquet. It was nearing an orgy. And with the appearance of the dancing girls in the garden, who just then suddenly descended like a shimmering host of Satan to defile God's universe, Benedict slipped quietly away, finding an unobtrusive exit into the night. He could dispense with farewells, for already his host was too far gone in wine even to notice his departure.
Walking rapidly through the dark streets, he noticed with relief when he approached his own apartments that light still burned within. His sickened soul had been somewhat revived by the clean night air, although disturbed at intervals by the drunken laughter and wild singing which floated over the high walls surrounding the greater houses. On this eve of what was actually an ancient pagan feast, Christian Rome was in festive spirit. And from the talk he had heard at his tutor's that day, he knew that most of his fellow students were now reveling the night away.
With a sigh, Benedict knocked softly at his own portal. It was opened almost immediately by Cyrilla, the faithful old housekeeper who had insisted upon accompanying him to the capital.
"You did not remain long, master."
"Too long, Cyrilla. But now, to bed, for tomorrow you must be up betimes. There are arrangements to be made. We are setting forth on a journey."
Before that journey had begun Benedict had spent the early hours in prayer at the tombs of the Saints. Despite the protests of Cyrilla, he had called in beggars from the street and had given them his costliest clothing. Stripped to the bare necessities, his goods were tightly wrapped in a shawl, which Cyrilla deftly poised upon her head. Curious eyes in the noisy, crowded streets followed the odd couple the old slave, and the young man with the serene brow and noble features who carried a dignity beyond his years. Soon they had passed through the city gates and had set out upon the Valerian Way. Somewhat later they turned off to the south and pointed their course toward the town of Enfide.
Sudden though it had appeared, Benedict's decision to leave Rome did not greatly surprise Cyrilla. But once they were on their way, what really surprised her was that he had not turned off toward the Sabine Hills, toward Nursia. Having been in his parents' household since he was born, she knew what had repelled him in Rome. Ever since they had arrived, the youth's awakening disillusionment had been evident as little by little the city had been revealed to him. Soon the first flush of excitement that feeling of a new importance at being sent off to the capital to complete his studies had vanished as though it had never been. His new companions, sons of wealthy families within and without the city, were quite different from the sturdy, simple youths with whom he had grown up. Cyrilla did not approve of them.
Actually in those waning years of the fifth century, the capital remained deep-set in pagan philosophy and outlook, covered merely by the thinnest veneer of Christianity. Time had witnessed the dissolution of the early vital forces, which had flung an Empire across the world. More than a hundred years before Benedict's birth, the Emperor Constantine had established Christianity as the State religion. But now in Rome itself most of the patricians gave to it only lip-service and followed the Arian doctrine; while in the countryside the peasants remained frankly pagan and rendered homage to the ancient gods.
Four years before Benedict's birth, and culminating more than two centuries of infiltration by the Barbarians, there had occurred the practical extinction of the Western Empire. That of the East, with its capital at Constantinople, now stood for what was left of ancient Roman supremacy. The barbarian, Odoacer, had overthrown Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Emperors of the West, and had become King of Italy. However, he recognized the supremacy of the Emperor in Constantinople, and retained in his new kingdom the established Roman laws and administrative system, while Latin remained the language of Rome.
Odoacer had later been overthrown by Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, who, though following the Arian creed, had not as yet been any menace to orthodox Christianity. On the contrary he had greatly helped to stabilize it during the contested papal election of Pope Symmachus who now occupied the Chair of Peter. The Ostrogoth king had brought peace to Italy had drained the marshes and made harbors, and vastly improved the land and condition of the farmers.
Now as the youth strode along beside Cyrilla he reflected that it was not civil unrest which had driven him from Rome, but its shocking contrast to Nursia and his home with its solid Christianity. When the city's sick soul had been revealed to him, of a sudden he had known that he could not remain longer or follow law as a career. There was something else he must do, something to save his own soul and the souls of others. He was not quite sure what it was, except that it must start with a period of prayer and penance. And he had heard that at Enfide, which they were now approaching, there dwelt near the Church of Saint Peter a number of holy men who were engaged in sacred studies. He felt a great desire to be among these men at least, for a while.
His thoughts reverted lingeringly to his home, to his mother and father. And above all to his twin, Scholastica, who from earliest memory had shared more closely than any other, his prayers and his dreams. How particularly difficult had been the parting from Scholastica! But he must not permit himself to dwell upon it. Nor did the stem resolution he had taken allow of any such indulgence as a return to Nursia and his loved ones. Strange, that his feet should seemed propelled as by a force quite beyond himself, not only away from Rome, but from all he had known up to now.
As they climbed the ascent from the valley, the peace of the encircling mountains found its way into his soul. Here again, was God's universe, undespoiled. Here at the little town which rested just above them on a ridge whence he could look upward at the everlasting hills, he would find God again. And that terrifying sense of a powerful force striving to wrench them asunder which had increasingly possessed him in the capital, would vanish.
The scrolls of law now forgotten, with Cyrilla attending to his material needs and his memory washed clean, Enfide proved a realm of peace. The Church of Saint Peter stood near at hand, as comforting as the Rock for whom it had been named, and he clung to it through long days of prayer. He sought out the holy men who lived in its hospice, and they offered him friendship and spiritual counsel.
It was perhaps from them that he began to learn more about those to whom had been given the wisdom that the purpose of life is but to love God more perfectly, that man's peace on earth is measured by the extent to which he is capable of approaching this truth. He had known, of course, that since the start of Christianity, men possessed of such wisdom had shed all material things, all family ties, all human companionship, and had sought out solitude, the better to achieve communion with God.
For centuries they had dwelt in isolated places in the valley of the Nile. There had been the great Anthony who had died about the year 350 more than a hundred years before Benedict had been born. After half a lifetime of solitude in the desert, Anthony had emerged to instruct others in the ascetic and mystical life. The desert was soon the refuge of those who followed his precepts. Sometimes as single hermits they led the eremitical life of prayer and fasting; or again they lived as monks, in small prayerful communities.
There had also been the holy Pachomius who had established the earliest known monastery of the cenobitic life; not only leading men along this path, but also instructing women who wished to live in community apart from the world. In the year 340 Athanasius had carried the system of the Egyptian hermits and monks to Rome and in Italy from that time forward there had been communities drawn apart in penance and prayer, and abiding by certain common rules of asceticism. Not much later in the East, Saint Basil had promoted monasticism, and had there laid the foundations of the Christian cenobitic life. Much more recently, there had been the great Bishop of Africa, Augustine, who had left certain manuscripts on the monastic life.
Now at Enfide Benedict could discuss these ideas with his new friends, and could read further in the writings left by the holy Egyptian Fathers.
Neither did Cyrilla lack for companionship. As she busied herself about the garden of their small lodging, she had made friends with a neighboring housewife. After some weeks, one day Cyrilla had borrowed from her neighbor a fine earthenware sieve with which to prepare a special dish for her master. This purely domestic and homely episode was oddly enough to have dramatic effects upon his destiny. As Cyrilla, happy in the culinary surprise she was preparing, hastened to complete the task before her master should return from prayer, by mischance she let the vessel fall and saw it crash in pieces on the floor. When Benedict entered, he found his old housekeeper bent over the pieces, weeping in an agony of remorse. How could she ever again confront the friend who had been so kind to her!
Finding her quite inconsolable, Benedict dropped to his knees, himself in tears at her distress. As he picked up the broken pieces, he began earnestly to pray. Suddenly he looked down and saw the shards in his hands, completely restored and whole again. But his warm gratitude to God for thus comforting the old servant, was soon turned to discomfiture. Cyrilla, awakening from her spell at this demonstration of sanctity, now took the sieve and ran headlong into the streets, crying out that her master had wrought a miracle. The good neighbor was as overjoyed as she. The news spread like wildfire throughout Enfide, and in no time had reached the Church of Saint Peter. The next thing Benedict knew was that the miraculous sieve had been hung high up over the church door for all to see, as an exhortation to prayer and a reminder that a Saint dwelt amongst them.
It was notoriety of a sort most distasteful to Benedict. With his inborn humility, the last thing he wanted was to be proclaimed a Saint. Early the next morning, before Cyrilla had awakened, he tied a few belongings together and stole out into the dawn, taking the road to the northwest along the bank of the river Anio. He knew that Cyrilla, once assured that he had vanished, would return to Nursia and her old place in the household there. And for the time at least, he desired that no one should know his whereabouts. For now he was convinced that it was people who were constantly coming between him and his Creator, and they were not confined merely to the unvirtuous who dwelt in Rome. To search out God, he must then attempt the solitary path followed by the Fathers of the desert. He would seek a remote place on a mountainside where he could be utterly, totally alone.
He had gone perhaps five miles along the road when he was overtaken by another traveler whose garb proclaimed him to be a monk. Well, if he had to have human companionship, this one, dedicated to retirement, would be less of a danger than the good citizens of Enfide. As they strode along together exchanging polite conversation, Benedict began to apprehend a sensitive quality in his volatile, older companion of the bright, lively brown eyes. And Romanus (for so he had introduced himself) regarded with increasing interest the young stranger with the noble, benevolent face. Of a sudden Benedict found himself confiding in his companion with complete candor. Frankly, he was now in search of some solitary cave where he might live apart from men for a time, devoting himself solely to prayer and penance opening his heart utterly to God.
Romanus understood. For himself, he preferred to serve God as a monk living in community with other monks; but if Benedict felt called to the eremitical life, by all means he should essay it. But on the practical score, how then would he feed himself? It was a thought, which had never occurred to Benedict, so accustomed was he to the ministrations of Cyrilla. But he could plant a little garden and subsist on what it produced! The practical Romanus reminded him, however, that it would be some time before the garden could be made to produce.
Benedict fell into a discouraged silence, broken almost immediately by the resourceful Romanus. Benedict need have no anxiety about food; or for that matter, about finding a suitable cave. It developed that the monastery of Romanus was built high up on a mountaintop, and was reached by a steep winding path. Along the path but well withdrawn from it, he knew of a splendid cave one ideal for a hermit. Above it, the mountain rose almost perpendicularly to the monastery. Romanus saw no reason why he could not provide Benedict daily with a little bread out of his own monastic substance. No one need be the wiser since to preserve his solitude Benedict urged the utmost secrecy. From the high cliff above, Romanus would lower the bread in a basket attached to a cord, and a little bell would be suspended. Its tinkling would serve as a signal.
Now Benedict strode forward with gratitude and new confidence. It may have been, too, that he reflected with humility and contrition how helpless he would have been without this stranger he who had wished to flee from all men, even monks. And how God had so devised things as to make men dependent upon one another, that they might thus show forth that Second Commandment of the Law which "is like unto this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Actually, it was this very conviction of man's need of his fellowman in his pursuit of God, which some time later was to determine the most important action of Benedict's life.
Thus, clad only in a rough sheepskin given him by Romanus to mark him out as a man of prayer, Benedict of Nursia who was not yet twenty, launched upon his life as a hermit. It was as wild and rugged a spot in the mountainous country of the Abruzzi as to satisfy the soul of any artist provided he didn't have to live there. A natural cave in the heart of the mountain opened in a rough triangle, and extended about ten feet in depth. It would suffice for shelter and prayer. The little wild creatures accustomed to frequent it, would make space for him, for they too were God's creatures. The stony floor for a bed would supplement his penances. Outside there ran a small stream from a spring to provide him with water.
Straight above, rose the rocky cliff down which daily the faithful Romanus lowered his food. Five hundred feet below there stretched the blue, artificial lake, which had long ago been created by the Emperor Claudius. Close to this had once stood a palace of the Emperor Nero, the dreary ruins of which Benedict could see as he reflected upon the transitoriness of human glory; upon the punishment of sin. God's universe remained glorious, beautiful, undefiled, all about him, but the palace of the once mighty Nero lay in ruins. Down the narrow mountain path about two miles distant, was the little town of Subiaco.
For a long time no one ever approached the hidden path which led to his cave. At last he was free of men. In the eloquent silence which stretched everywhere about him, he could hear the voice of God. Here he could practise asceticism as the desert Fathers had practised it. Rome, Nursia, his parents, even Scholastica, all now seemed very remote. But how much nearer was his God! The days seemed to pass in an endless dream, although even in a cave there was a routine to follow. He had set himself scheduled hours for prayer and meditation. Outside, there were herbs to plant and to nourish; underbrush to be cut away. But he would leave that tough thorn-bush with its sharp nettles, which grew at the entrance to the cave, for of that he would have need.
Once the bell attached to the basket of Romanus broke in the course of its descent down the precipice. Benedict was desolate, thinking he had been abandoned. But later he found the basket and understood. Had the hand of the Evil One crushed that little bell in order to destroy the peace he had found with God? Again he thanked his Creator for it, and again, for making whole the earthenware sieve. Not only had this comforted his poor Cyrilla, but it had sent him flying from the world and its temptations toward his salvation.
He spoke too soon. As though to remind him of his unstable nature, now in his mountain retreat he was beset by grave temptations. Memories of the world he had fled crashed thunderingly into his prayers, scattering them like sheep before the wolf. Visions of Rome the magnificent and its luxury plagued his dreams, robbed him of sleep. From out the mists, siren voices called to him, "Return, return!" Shaken, he clutched the side of the cave until the rough stones drew blood from his palms. Just then a blackbird appeared from nowhere, and flew at his face. Benedict managed to grasp the fluttering creature gently, and making over it the sign of the cross, let it fly away again with his blessing.
It was as though the bird had been a harbinger. For at that precise moment, he was assailed by the worst temptation he had yet experienced. Before his eyes flashed vividly the Senator's banquet, and the dancing girls swirling down upon the garden. There had been one who smiled at him; had held out her arms just before he slipped away into the night. Now she danced again before him, so close that he could feel her breath and his own came in gasps at the spell of her beauty. Trembling, he tried to falter his prayers; but she would not depart. Then summoning all his strength, he cast off his sheepskin and plunged into the depths of the thornbush. When he emerged, bleeding from a score of wounds, the mirage had vanished. It was even so, he reflected, that Satan had assailed the holy Anthony in the desert.
After some months had passed, it was inevitable that the recluse should be discovered. Some shepherds came by accident upon his retreat. To these he was very gentle, and they went away filled with awe for the holy man. One by one they crept back, bringing him food, and begging him to discourse with them of God. And soon all Subiaco knew of the hermit who dwelt in a cave on the mountainside. Eventually, even eminent men of Rome came to seek him out. His solitude was shattered; but Benedict who had fled the fellowship of men now found this consoling. For the mountain had given him something of its own strength; and prayer and vigils had augmented it.
Down at Vicovaro, some miles below Subiaco, there was a monastery where a new abbot was needed. The monks climbed the steep path to invite the holy man to come and be their superior. He told them it was not possible; that he and they would never agree on the mode of life that should be followed in a monastery. But they would not be put off; and at length he reluctantly yielded. It transpired as he had feared when he attempted to regulate their hitherto disorganized life, they resented it.
One day at dinner one of the monks offered the new abbot a jug of wine. Benedict leaned over to bless it, and at once the vessel was shattered in the bearer's hands, the wine spreading in a dark, sinister pool over the stone floor. The holy man knew at once that it had been poisoned; that this was the means adopted by the monks to rid themselves of him. Aloud he begged God to have mercy on them; and with a reminder that he had given them warning at the start that they would never approve his methods, he took his leave of them. Once again he resumed his solitary life in the lofty cave.
The experience served only to enhance his reputation, and now there flocked to him increasing numbers of young men who wished to be monks, begging him to guide them in his own especial way. From Rome came the rich Equitius, offering him a monastery if he would but accept his son, Maurus, as a postulant. He was followed by the patrician, Tertullus, who begged him to accept his child, Placidus, and train him, so that one day he too might be a follower of Benedict.
In humility, the hermit recalled again his encounter on the road with the good Romanus some three years earlier, when he, fleeing human society, had discovered it to be a very necessary adjunct. Romanus had found him his cave; Romanus had kept him alive. In his pursuit of God, he had needed Romanus. Now others needed him. And he faced this truth squarely: he also needed them. For if a man would achieve spiritual perfection through living as a hermit, he should first strengthen himself through the sacrifice and humility demanded by a life in community with other men. He had mistakenly worked in reverse. But suffering and experience had taught him that it should be first the monk; and next the hermit. Thenceforward, this would be how he would counsel those seeking perfection. At Vicovaro he had failed to change a long-established order, which he knew to be a violation of the true monastic ideal. Perhaps, starting on fresh ground, he could establish that ideal.
And so was begun the great Benedictine institute, when the founder was scarcely more than twenty years old. At nearby Subiaco the erstwhile hermit launched his first simple monastery, to house twelve men. Almost at once it proved too small for the numbers who sought to be admitted. He had to hasten to build a second one, himself laboring with his followers at its construction. In a very short time there was a cluster of twelve monasteries, some clinging precariously to the cliffs above the lake of the Emperor Claudius, each with its own abbot, but all under Benedict's direction. Rapidly the community grew to a total of one hundred and fifty monks.
There were but few priests among them; for in that era monks were generally laymen who wished to lead a religious life without plan of entering the priesthood. Though Benedict lived to a ripe age, there is no solid evidence that he himself was ever ordained. Each monastery, however, required the services of a priest to celebrate the Mass, and to function in other religious capacities. (At a later period in their history, the Benedictine monks were to assume the priesthood.)
From the start, the holy abbot insisted upon two main pursuits: the daily chanting of the Psalms by the monks in common and at regular periods throughout the day and night; and manual labor by each individual in field or workshop. In all activities there should be inner concentration upon the praise of God.
It is significant that two of the many miracles attributed to Benedict which are frequently recounted, deal with humble labor: the one, Cyrilla's sieve; and the other, restoration to a sickle of its iron blade which, upon being wielded too vigorously near the edge of the lake, had flown from its handle and sunk in deep water.
Here at Subiaco the abbot carefully trained his monks as he would have trained them at Vicovaro, had he been permitted. And here the devoted Maurus, son of Equitius; and the boy-monk, Placidus, came to be two upon whom he greatly depended. For some years he guided his community with the combination of fatherly kindness and firmness, which were characteristic of him, even as a young man. Although the monks individually were pledged to poverty, the wise father saw to it that each had sufficient food, clothing, and sleep. And the good name of the monasteries at Subiaco spread throughout Italy.
However, the lax monks at Vicovaro had not been the only ones who had wished to do away with Benedict. His very sanctity caused him to be a target of envy. There had been the priest, Florentius, who unable to endure the reputation won by the hermit of the rocky cave, had once sent to him there, a poisoned loaf. Without tasting, Benedict had known it at once for what it was. But Florentius was not a man to give up easily. And now that his rival had become abbot of a dozen monasteries and famed throughout the land, he determined upon another course. This time he planned something that he hoped would completely wreck Benedict's work.
Oddly, and as though guided by the Spirit of Evil, Florentius hit upon a plan which so nearly touched what had been the abbot's most severe temptation, as now to make him tremble for his sons. At dusk one evening, when the priest knew that the monks would be gathered in the open cloister, he deliberately sent into their garden a company of seven "depraved women," described by some as naked dancers.
This act was sufficient to convince Benedict that Florentius would not rest until he had destroyed the monasteries. It was time to remove from Subiaco. He would seek a new haven for his monks. Appointing priors to assist the abbots of the other monasteries, he closed his own and took the road with those who had been exposed to the evil of Florentius, bidding the others remain until he could send for them.
The little company had gone scarcely ten miles when they were overtaken with a message from Maurus urging them to return. They could do so now in perfect safety since Florentius, rejoicing that he had at last got rid of Benedict, had stepped out upon a balcony, which collapsed beneath him, carrying him to his death. Maurus had not been able to restrain a note of jubilation in the missive. Benedict took a different view. He sent back a heavy penance to Maurus for his lack of charity, prayed forgiveness for the soul of his enemy, and continued serenely on his way to the south. He had a new plan in mind for his monks.
And that was how, after a journey of two weeks, they at last came to that spectacular height which because of Benedict was to become famed throughout all the world Monte Cassino. Lying halfway between Rome and Naples, and with its lofty plateau hung above a great highway, it offered both the aloofness the abbot desired for his new monastery, and a channel by which the many could find their way to its doors. It is conjectured that some wealthy patron had given the mountain to Benedict, for at once he took possession of it and of the ancient acropolis upon its summit, which had once been occupied by a Roman legion.
Rather than the cluster of small monasteries which had marked his first endeavor at Subiaco, this time Benedict's plan comprised a single large monastery. Sleeping in temporary shelters, the monks began construction; and soon, upon the leader's summons, they were joined by their brothers from Subiaco. Among the first tasks set them by their abbot was the demolition of an old pagan temple to Apollo, and the erection upon its site of both an oratory and a monastic church, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and Saint Martin of Tours. Close at hand were the ancient "sacred" groves with their pagan shrines, where even after the monks' arrival the country people were accustomed to come secretly by night, to worship Venus. Benedict lost no time in demolishing the shrines, and burning the groves to the ground.
And now the light of Christianity everywhere dispelled the ancient gloom. Furthermore, a peculiar and sweet peace descended upon the mountain, reaching into the simple, narrow cell of every monk, embracing all in the monastery. This was Benedict's own, his special and perpetual gift to his sons pax which endures to this day.
There is conjecture about the time when he founded Monte Cassino, but recent scholarship indicates that it was probably about the year 520, when he would have reached the age of forty. Almost at once the monastery came to signify a quality of stability; a fixed center of order in a world which for more than two hundred years had been sadly disordered.
Barbaric chieftains from the north with their land-hungry hordes had descended upon the Peninsula late in the third century. Before a hundred years had passed, the Huns had driven the Goths from western Germany to seek shelter in Italy. Sixty years later, Alaric, the Visigoth, had crossed the Alps with his people and had laid siege to Rome. Only forty years afterward, Attila and his hordes had overrun northern Italy. Almost immediately, in the year 455, the Vandals from Africa had sacked Rome.
The barbarians had fought their way in, and stayed, settling upon the land, where they were tolerated as none-too-welcome "guests." First as mercenaries fighting to defend the Western Empire, and then in literal control of the imperial army, they had come to wield the real power in Italy under a shadowy Emperor who ruled in name only. They ended by unsettling him and placing the Goth, Odoacer, upon the throne as king. Odoacer had obliged by distributing one-third of all the land among his people. Within less than twenty years, the barbarian Ostrogoths had poured in from the north, had deposed Odoacer and placed their own Theodoric upon the throne. In all but theory, the Western Empire was no more, and there was now but one capital, Constantinople.
Although Theodoric had brought order from the anarchical conditions which had for so long prevailed, yet when Benedict founded Monte Cassino there remained from the long racial upheavals a great restlessness and shifting of population and neglected stretches of land laid waste by the trampling of armies. Displaced and unhappy Italians resented the barbarians not only as intruders and self-appointed rulers, but also as Arians, and thus not followers of the orthodox Christian faith.
In such conditions had the monastery of Monte Cassino risen upon its heights. There it stood like a rock, casting its spirit down upon the restless throngs treading the Via Latina and influencing them despite their unawareness. Up above them dwelt and worked the only men of the time who seemed "to know where they were going"; and they were about the only ones who were not on the march.
Among the hapless wanderers there was a class of monks whom Benedict termed Gyrovagues. They did not attempt to dwell in community, but lived on the road, journeying from monastery to monastery; and of these he wrote that they were "ever roaming and never stable, given up to their own wills and the allurements of gluttony." He knew them well, for they had often visited Subiaco. So one of the first vows he exacted of his monks was that of stabilitas loci, a promise that they would remain for life in Monte Cassino unless directed by their abbot to do otherwise.
It brought the first real stabilization into western monastic life; it stretched beyond the monastery into the restless contemporary world, bidding it pause and take root. It also helped to lay the successful foundation for a form of monasticism, which was to endure for more than fourteen centuries. From such a base, and from the inspired Rule, which the abbot composed, all the great religious congregations of the West, which were to be founded in centuries to come, were to borrow in one fashion or another.
As the years passed, and Benedict had grown in the knowledge of training men at Vicovaro, at Subiaco, at Monte Cassino and through study of the rules laid down by the early Fathers from Saint Anthony to Saint Basil in his mind his own great Rule slowly evolved, the fruit of much thought and prayer. He had become more assured than ever that the cenobitic life must precede any attempt at the eremitical. And in community life, the austerities of the desert hermits must be moderated to permit a man to work healthily and happily, and to maintain the physical strength to do so.
At the same time there should be periods of fasting, and basically it should be a life of self-denial and of silence. Spiritual mortifications the conquering of pride and other faults were to replace the mortifications of the flesh as practised by the early hermits. Poverty, humility, and implicit obedience to superiors; eradication of pride and self-will, were essentials in the monastery. It went without saying that chastity accompanied these. Prayer, sacred reading, and manual labor were means by which monks could arrive at spiritual perfection. And above all, that thing to which "nothing is to be preferred" the Divine Office in praise of God, chanted in community at regular hours throughout the day and night the Opus Dei, as he called it. But there should be ample hours for sleep, and sufficient food, barring flesh-meat, which should be served only to the infirm, the very young, and the very old.
The abbot would have supreme authority, and yet would be obliged to hearken to his council, or the entire community in matters of importance, and should give consideration to the opinions of even the youngest. He was to be a loving father to all; and where reprimands were necessary the emphasis should be upon moderation, rather than upon severity. He must never forget that he would be held responsible for their souls. He would be elected by the community itself, and would govern for life, but provision was made whereby his removal, if desirable, could be effected.
As for the monks, in addition to the vow of stability they would also pledge themselves to the "conversion of manners" a blanket endorsement which covered by implication, poverty, chastity, and obedience. The poverty was individual, for ownership of property corporately by the community was permissible. The labor of the monks would support the community. A period of training and probation would be required before a novice would be accepted as a member. Thus Benedict established two principles upon which religious communities have ever since operated: the requirement of vows, and the trial-period of novitiate, during which any man was free to change his mind and leave. Priests who desired to enter this community of laymen would be bound by the same rules as the others, and would enjoy no special privileges.
In its seventy-three chapters, the Rule is a model of legislation. It is said that in composing it, the holy author borrowed more freely from the Rule of Saint Basil, promulgated in the East in the fourth century, than from any of the early writers who had laid patterns for the religious life.
But apart from its wisdom and common sense, the quality which has made the Rule of Benedict immortal over a stretch of fourteen centuries during epochs when the world was "growing-up," ever changing, ever expanding is the quality of his own soul which shines endearingly through its lines. From his Rule, the man looks out to us, at once holy and human, benevolent and firm, long-visioned, tolerant, and humorous, and above all, possessed of a consuming love of God.
Monte Cassino was launched, it is estimated, with about one hundred and fifty monks, of whom the larger number were sons of the nobility. Benedict clad them in a rough habit of woven cloth, with long sleeves, a hood, and a scapular-apron to wear when at work. From the monastery, food and alms were generously dispensed to the poor, and hospitality rendered to travelers. The fields were cultivated, the Gospel was preached, and youth was educated. In the scriptorium which the abbot set up, the monks were set to copying the manuscripts of Sacred Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church, which were to become the priceless heritages of succeeding generations.
It would seem that the founder's monastic family soon outgrew even the widespread mountain summit, for not many years later he established another monastery near the seaport of Terracina, some thirty miles to the southwest.
As Monte Cassino became the important focal center in the life of the area, beggar and prince sought out the holy abbot. But it was his reputation as a wonder-worker, which drew to him so many of the sick and the suffering. He made nothing of his part in the miraculous cures, fleeing in terror as he had long ago fled Enfide, at any resultant adulation. Yet in his kindness he never turned anyone away. With strangers, as with his monks, he could look deep down into the dark well of men's hearts, and read all that rested there. And he possessed in high degree the gift of prophecy.
When the powerful King Totila of the Goths came to visit him in the year 542, Saint Gregory relates that Benedict "rebuked him for his wicked deeds, and in a few words told him all that should befall him, saying: 'Much wickedness do you daily commit, and many great sins have you done: now at length give over your sinful life. Into the city of Rome shall you enter, and over the sea shall you pass: nine years shall you reign, and in the tenth shall you leave this mortal life.' The king, hearing these things, was wonderfully afraid, and desiring the holy man to commend him to God in his prayers, he departed: and from that time forward he was nothing so cruel as before he had been. Not long after, he went to Rome, sailed over into Sicily, and in the tenth year of his reign he lost his kingdom together with his life."
Similarly in later years, the abbot prophesied to his sons that their beloved Monte Cassino would one day be destroyed by the Lombards, but that none of the monks would be harmed. This indeed came to pass, long after his death. But during his later years the turmoil of war surged back and forth on the highway, below the house of peace that was Monte Cassino. It continued to remain aloof in the contemplation of God, and its pax, which he had so firmly established, was undisturbed. In the year 536, the general Belisarius from the Eastern Empire landed in Italy and seized Naples, bent upon winning back the Western Empire from the barbarians. Eighteen years of bloody and ruinous wars were to follow, and Benedict was to die before the Goths were finally eliminated and a Roman Emperor, Justinian, ruled again in Rome. Actually there is only conjecture about the certain year of the Saint's death; some scholars aver that it was the year 555, when Benedict would have reached the age of seventy-five; and others that it occurred some years earlier.1
He who when a mere youth had renounced the world and those he loved best, to possess God, was to be consoled in his last days by the near presence of Scholastica. In the long years that had ensued, Scholastica herself had followed the religious life while remaining at home with her parents. After their death, she established herself in a convent near Monte Cassino where at intervals she might see her brother. Benedict was accustomed to meet her just beyond the monastery gates where the monks maintained a guest house.
One lovely summer day "when there was no cloud in the sky," he went as usual to meet her. The gentle and now aged Scholastica was there, waiting for him; and after a happy visit Benedict arose as sunset approached, to return to his abbey. To his surprise, for the first time Scholastica begged him not to leave her, but to remain there through the night. Distressed at her supplications, Benedict reminded her of his duty as the abbot. Whereupon Scholastica, "joining her hands together, laid them upon the table; and so, bowing down her head upon them, she made her prayers to Almighty God, and . . . there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such an abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict nor his monks that were with him, could put their heads out of the door."
"'God Almighty forgive you, Sister; what is this that you have done?'
"'I prayed you to stay, and you would not hear me. I prayed to Almighty God, and He heard me. Now, go to the monastery if you can!'"
And so Scholastica had her way, and many more hours with the one she loved best upon earth. Three days later, she died. Her brother, off in the monastery, knew at once the hour of her passing and sent for her body that it might be placed in the tomb he had prepared for himself in the oratory of Saint John which he had long ago erected upon the site of the old pagan temple to Apollo.
Many scholars believed that he did not long survive her. He foretold the day of his death; and six days before that date he had his tomb prepared. Immediately thereafter he was seized with a great fever, which weakened him to the point of death. On the sixth day he asked his sorrowing monks to carry him to the oratory, and there received the Sacrament. Then in his great weakness he struggled to his feet, and supported on either hand by the brethren, he "stood with his hands lifted up to heaven; and as he was in that manner praying, he gave up the ghost."
It was thus that he would have his monks remember him.
Less than fifty years after his death, his other prophecy came to be fulfilled. In the year 589 Monte Cassino was attacked and destroyed by the Lombards. As he had foretold, none of the monks was harmed, but all sought refuge in Rome, where they were welcomed and given shelter by Pope Pelagius II. He was soon succeeded in the Papacy by a man who, as a monk, had himself followed the Rule of Benedict and who now, in the Chair of Peter, determined that the good Father's plan of monasticism should be spread over Christendom. Gregory the Great became Pope in the year 590; and it was he who wrote down the first accounts of Benedict, in the famous "Dialogues" with his deacon, Peter. They were based on testimony from those still living who had been disciples of the Saint: Constantinus, Valentinian, and Honoratus, who had been the immediate successors of the founder as abbot of Monte Cassino.
Pope Gregory, the great administrator, also established a Benedictine monastery in his family castle in Rome, and it was from there that he dispatched Augustine and forty other monks in the year 595 to re-Christianize England. There Augustine established the historic abbey of Canterbury, and very shortly the Benedictines had become the center and soul of England as they preached and taught, and prayed and built, throughout the land. The Benedictine nuns, whose origins may well go back to Scholastica herself, and who have followed the Holy Rule through the centuries, were also particularly important in the development of Christian England.
Later from England the monks were sent out to Christianize most of western Europe, then largely pagan. They established monasteries in Gaul and Spain in the seventh century. In the eighth century, the great Saint Boniface converted Germany and Austria.
Following their long exile, Monte Cassino had been restored to the monks in the eighth century, and shortly thereafter was visited by Charlemagne himself who had the Rule of Saint Benedict copied so that he might distribute it among all the monasteries of his empire. His son, Louis the Pious, further promoted it; and the monk, Benedict of Aniane, Charlemagne's adviser, who was later to be canonized, firmly established the Rule generally in the monasteries of France. Within the next two or three centuries it had become strongly rooted in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bohemia, Poland, all Scandinavia, and even Greenland and Iceland. Because of its practicability and moderation, it had supplanted earlier Rules, among them that of the Irish Saint Columbanus which had first guided monastic life in Europe and the British Isles. When the Middle Ages dawned, the Benedictine system was supreme, and the "Black Monks," as they had now come to be called because of their garb, had converted all pagan Europe, and revivified the Faith in old Christian lands. For almost seven centuries, they were to be the only monks in Europe.
They had cleared and cultivated the waste places; they had taught the people the agricultural arts and had educated them. They had fostered learning through the copying and preservation of manuscripts; they had developed architecture through the construction of their abbeys and churches. And they had been a towering force in the civilization of Europe.
It was an outcome which the holy founder in his true humility could hardly have foreseen. When he had written his Rule, he had written it gracefully, humbly, (and at times almost tentatively) offering it to the children of his own family. It was not his intent to found an Order at least as Orders were later to develop for he made each monastery an autonomous unit, and left each abbot a wide latitude in adapting the Rule to suit immediate circumstances. There was no centralization of authority. But as the centuries passed and the system became more widespread, a varying degree of centralization was inevitable; as was the sacrifice of autonomy exacted in certain areas, particularly in France. By the eleventh century, the scriptorium had come to occupy so much of the monks' time that lay brothers were introduced to assist in cultivating the land.
The twelfth century marked both the height of Benedictine prestige, and the invisible start of a slow decline. Imperceptibly there had come about a weakening of the links in the chain forged by Benedict. The sacrifice and toil of generations of monks, obeying his behest to labor with their hands, and the gifts of rich patrons, had now created for many monasteries vast holdings of land whose revenues were administered by the abbot. Operating in feudal times, he was virtual feudal lord over his territory and the towns, which had sprung up everywhere, clustering about the abbeys from which they drew their subsistence.
Both revenues and influence attracted the envy of bishops and the diocesan clergy, as well as that of the nobles and the civil powers, resulting in a weakening encroachment upon the system, which the abbots tried to stem by enhancing their own powers. They held high ecclesiastical and civil offices, and maintained themselves in a state that was a far cry from the humble austerity, which Benedict had adopted, although the monks themselves generally remained true to their vow of poverty. But power and corporate riches had dimmed the lines of the Holy Rule. The sparkling simplicity of the early Monte Cassino had become tarnished and dull.
From time to time, reforms were launched by the Benedictines themselves, as one group would separate from their parent abbey, and set up a new monastery for stricter observance of the Holy Rule. Such a movement was that of Cluny, launched in the year 910, and which soon multiplied its monasteries until it came to be the most powerful ecclesiastical force in Europe for almost two centuries; and that of Citeaux, founded in 1098, which soon overtook and passed Cluny. Both these reforms themselves became in time targets of reform, with branches shooting forth, ever reaching upward toward the dimming light of the lost purity of the first days. For the spirit of Benedict never died, but remained vibrant, constantly beckoning and urging his sons toward the lofty heights which early Monte Cassino on its mountaintop had symbolized.
The thirteenth century ushered in a new trend away from the traditional monasticism. Francis of Assisi and Dominic launched their Orders of mendicant friars to live by alms, and to preach to the poor, with no vast monasteries to call their home, but with "the wide world as their cloister." They were at once a reaction against the old system, and an answer to the needs of the changing times, as feudalism struggled to its death and the Middle Ages got into their stride. Correspondingly, the more aloof Benedictine system began to wane. But for long it was to continue as the greatest cultural force in Europe.
In the fourteenth century a member of the Citeaux reform became Pope Benedict XII, and propped up the parent tree by dividing the Benedictines into provinces, and compelling them to hold regular chapters.
Both the Cluny and Citeaux reforms had been launched in France; and a later effort in that country was made by the foundation in 1621, of the Congregation of Saint Maur, which soon at its famous abbey of Saint-Germam-des-Pres near Paris established a reputation for scholarship that endured for almost two centuries, and has never been surpassed in a similar period of time by any society in the history of letters.
But more than two centuries before the French Revolution had swept away monasteries and monks, and all religious congregations, the Reformation had dealt them a fatal blow in England and on the Continent. The Benedictines suffered particularly heavily in England, where the sons of Augustine had contributed so much to the land. In 1536, Henry VIII, crying corruption, began his suppression of the smaller monasteries and the expropriation of their property to fill his private purse. Within a short time he extended this policy to the greater abbeys, and soon there was not a single Benedictine house left in England nor a single Benedictine, many of them having died as martyrs. The lovely old buildings were demolished, or turned over to Henry's favorites for their private use. Thus were the monks liquidated in the land they had Christianized and educated, and which owed to them its very culture.
Other Protestant countries followed suit in varying degree, finding the Benedictines easy victims from the previous forces, which had weakened them. The destructive system of abbeys held in commendam a device by which non-Benedictine clergy, or even laymen, politically appointed "abbots" had drained off the monastic revenues and impoverished the monasteries. (See succeeding chapters: The Cistercians, The Trappists.) .
Monasticism survived in Catholic Europe and in parts of Germany, and the Benedictines with other religious congregations had an opportunity for revitalization in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But by the dawn of the nineteenth, the frenzy of the French Revolution had struck down all religious, and everything that pertained to them. Those in France were the heaviest sufferers (although the effects were by no means confined to that land) and many Benedictine martyrs went to their death for loyalty to the Faith. The widespread repercussions were soon to be followed by the Napoleonic depredations, and successions of anticlerical governments in most of Europe. Over a vast area where thousands of Benedictine monasteries once had flourished, there was now left but a handful.
It was significant that England, almost the first country beyond their homeground where Benedictines had brought the Faith, was the first to shelter them again from the storm of the French Revolution. There the abbey of Ampleforth was established in 1802; and that of Downside in 1815. France herself soon followed with the abbey of Solesmes in 1837; and in 1863 the Benedictines were restored to Bavaria. Weakened and depleted in numbers as they were, a vigorous re-building had begun.
Throughout periods of vicissitude, the vital spark had remained aglow in Germany, and German monks were the first of Benedict's family to come to the United States. They carried with them the traditional devotion to the liturgy, that Opus Dei, which the holy founder had ordained should be preferred above all; and the same dedication to agricultural pursuits and education. It was a German Benedictine, Boniface Wimmer, who in 1846 launched near Pittsburgh what was to become the Arch Abbey of Saint Vincent, which itself established the American-Cassinese Congregation in 1855, now numbering sixteen abbeys. Very early in its history Saint Vincent's became famous for its preparatory school for boys and for its college, which hold distinguished records among American educational institutions.
Swiss Benedictines established themselves in 1854, in Indiana, at Saint Meinrad's Abbey (now also an Arch Abbey) and formed a new congregation, the Swiss-American, which today includes six abbeys, a priory, and a monastery. In the early part of the twentieth century, English Benedictines founded a priory at Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where they conduct a notable preparatory school for boys. The English Congregation also conducts Saint Anselm's Priory in Washington, D.C. The Congregation of St. Ottilien for Foreign Missions was founded in 1924, in Newton, New Jersey. Both American and French congregations have established abbeys in Canada. The Benedictine tradition is also represented in North America by the Benedictine nuns, and other religious communities, which follow the Holy Rule in varying degree.
Early in the twentieth century new Benedictine abbeys were founded in the British Isles: Fort Augustus, in Scotland, to be augmented later in England by those of Belmont, Ramsgate, Ealing Priory, Quarr, Farnborough, Buckfast, and Prinknash. The past century and a half have witnessed a great revival everywhere of the Benedictine life.
On the missionary front, European, English, and American Benedictines are laboring in Africa, South America, the Philippines, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. As with all Christian missionary groups, they have been expelled from China by the Communists. American Benedictine missionaries are especially active in the Bahamas. Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Japan are their other fields.
Through the centuries the Benedictines have clung jealously to the principle of autonomy, as established by Saint Benedict, and in this respect differ from many existing religious Orders. They are composed of a number of congregations, each autonomous but bound by allegiance to the Holy Rule, which is susceptible to modification according to the circumstances of each house. There is no supreme governing authority other than the Pope himself. The Abbot Primate who resides in Rome is the central representative of Benedictine interests; but while presiding over the regular meetings of the abbots, he has no actual jurisdiction over them.
In addition to monks and lay brothers, the institute includes lay oblates of two classes: the claustral oblates, men who live in the monastery, wear the habit, undertake a novitiate, and promise "conversion of manners," but who are bound by no vows as are the religious; and oblates, both men and women in the world who endeavor as far as their state of life permits, to live according to Saint Benedict's Rule.
During the long roll of centuries since the youth from the Sabine Hills turned away from the world to establish western monasticism, those who have followed his Holy Rule include great numbers of the Saints and the Blessed. Among the most famous are the gentle Benedict himself, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, and Saint Anselm; as well as the Venerable Bede, historian of the early English Church, who died in 735. Five Benedictines have been declared Doctors of the Church. Twenty have governed the Church in the Papacy.
Today the monks pledge themselves to five vows: conversion of manners, stability, poverty, chastity, and obedience. They chant the Divine Office in common at regular hours, and devote themselves to private prayer, meditation, and devout reading; teaching and preaching. Their houses are erected in rural districts that they may continue their agricultural tradition.
World membership of the Order today numbers 11,676.
The work of the 2,889 Benedictine monks in the United States is largely devoted to education and the operation of high schools, colleges, and seminaries. They also assist in parish work.
Since the day of its foundation early in the sixth century, the great Monte Cassino, their cradle, has suffered destruction three times: by the Lombards in 589; by the Saracens in 884; and finally in our own time in World War II, when, since it was held by the Germans, the American air force was obliged to bomb it. But the spirit of Benedict is indestructible, and the immortal lines of the Rule he composed still echo down the centuries: "The Lord says to thee: My son, give Me thy heart, and let thine eyes keep My ways."
1. It is now generally agreed that Benedict died in 547 A.D.
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