Friday, July 16, 2010

Medieval Saint of the Week #3: St. Benedict



Do you ever wish life came with an instruction manual?  It does.  Benedict wrote it.


Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy, around 480.  He was born in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the world he entered was one of confusion and chaos.  Many people were turning away from society and living in small, communal monasteries or in isolation.

Benedict went to Rome, accompanied by his nurse, in order to complete his education.  Once there, though, he was disgusted by the debauchery he saw, and he fled his nurse and the city for the wilderness of Sublacum.  He felt that the body and the soul were in opposition, and that it was only by denying his body corporeal desires that he could become spiritually pure.

It is hard to say exactly what happened to young Benedict then.  Most of the information we have from him comes from the entertaining Dialogues of St. Gregory, who wrote about Benedict's life.  However, these writings are not histories, but rather hagiographies, idealized accounts of a saint's miracles.  So you can't believe everything you read in them, but they give a good idea of what kind of man Benedict was.

According to Gregory, Benedict lived in a cave in the wilderness for three years.  He wore animal skins and survived on the beneficence of another monk who lowered loaves of bread to him from above.  At one point, a few shephards stumbled across Benedict's cave, and they took him to be "a beast."  However, Benedict spoke to them and eased their fears.



Benedict in his cave

One day, Gregory tells us, Benedict was troubled by a mental image of a woman he once knew.  There's no way to tell what he was picturing in his mind, but he was so upset by the temptation that he tore off all his clothes and jumped into a briar patch, where the thorns of the plant tore his skin into ribbons.  Gregory tells us that "by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul." 

After stunts like that one, it should come as no surprise that Benedict became famous for his devotion.  A nearby monastery asked Benedict to come and take the place of their recently-departed leader.  He left the wilderness and became a leader of men, but his rules were so strict that the other monks soon conspired to get rid of him.  Their solution was to poison his wine and murder him.  According to Gregory, Benedict made the sign of the cross in front of his wine glass, and it immediately shattered.  The poisoned wine splattered to the ground.  He knew that his so-called followers had tried to kill him, and he left right away. Before leaving, though, he said, "Almighty God have mercy on you, and forgive you."



While at the monastery, he performed another miracle that Gregory recounts in his Dialogues.  It seems that the monks were rebuilding the walls of their building when a large stone toppled and killed a young man (he is referred to as a "boy" in Gregory's Dialogues.)  The young man's body was so crushed that they had to carry his remains to Benedict in a sack.  Benedict dismissed his monks and prayed so that the young man returned to life.  And what did Benedict do then?  He sent him right back to the wall to finish his job.

However, all of this is prelude to what Benedict is best known for.  He wrote the rules for monastic life and founded the order of monks as we know it.  

Benedict's rules are straight-forward, common-sense guidelines for monastic life.  However, they are applicable to everyone, religious or not.  His rules covered a monk's:

* CLOTHING (This should be light in the summer, but heavier in the winter.  Never too excessive.)
* SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS (Each man gets his own bed, but they may have to sleep in the same room)
* DRINKING  (Each monk gets half a liter of wine a day unless, of course, the abbot says they should have more.)
* POSSESSIONS (There are no possessions.  Everything is owned communally.)



You don't have to agree with Benedict's religious views, but his rules for life are simple, logical, and attainable.

Benedict died in 547.  Pope Honorious III canonized him in 1220, and in 1964, 1400 years after his death, he was declared patron of Europe.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing about St. Benedict. One of my favorite accounts of his life is his vision of seeing the world in a single ray of light. The account is described in my blog.

    The reference to 1964 in your excellent summary of this great Catholic saint should be to the date St. Benedict was declared patron of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964 source.

    Today St. Benedict is called the co-patron saint of Europe. Source.

    St. Benedict was canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1220. Source.

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  2. John--Thank you for your kind words and your useful corrections. I did not know about Benedictine oblates until reading your blog.

    If you have a recommendation for my next Medieval Saint of the Week, I am all ears.

    -Aaron

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  3. Are those all the rules they had to follow?

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