St Benedict the Abbot
This anniversary of the 15th century of the birth of St Benedict is an opportunity to listen once again to his social and spiritual message.
1. In every religion there have been those who, “exerting themselves in various ways to meet the restlessness of the human heart" ("Nostra Aetate", 1), have been singularly attracted to the absolute and the eternal. In Christianity these were the monks who already in the 3rd and 4th century founded in certain areas of the east their own way of living designed to realise divine inspiration. These monks followed the example of Christ, “given over to contemplation on a hill" ("Lumen Gentium", 46), or pursued a solitary and hidden life, or gave themselves to service in a cohabitation of brotherly charity.
Monastic discipline penetrated from the east into the entire Church. This discipline fired those who imitated the Saviour in his form of living and religion. The Saviour who “brought voice of the Kingdom of God and converted sinners to a better life” ("Lumen Gentium", 46).
At a time when this spiritual activity was bringing greater strength to the Church, the decrepit Roman civilization was drawing to its close. Shortly before the borth at Norcia of St Benedict in 480 AD, the Roman Empire had in fact collapsed.
"Benedict, who was blessed by God not only in his name, was like an old man right from the earliest years of his youth"; "keen to please only God" (St Gregorii Magni "Dialogorum lib. II", Prolog.: PL 66,126), he listened to the Lord, who was seeking his vehicle, (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 1.14), and with the aid of the Bible he overcame the hesitations that arose in his spirit at the outset, "through difficulty and bitterness" (S. Benedicti "Regula", 58,8) he embarked on the "narrow path that leads to life" (cfr. Mt 7,14).
By living a secluded life in a variety of places and purifying himself by overcoming temptation, Benedict achieved to open his heart entirely to God. Then, urged onwards by divine love, he gathered other men around himself and started, as a father, the "school of the service of the Lord" (S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 45). Through a judicious use of the "instruments of good works" (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 4), coupled with a sense of duty, Benedict and his disciples founded a small Chrisian community "where at last,” said Paul VI our recent predecessor, “reigned love, obedience, innocence, the freedom of things and the art of putting them to good use, the supremacy of the spirit, peace – in a word: the Testament” (cfr. Pauli VI "Allocutio in Archicoenobio Casinensi habita", die 24 oct. 1964: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", II  604).
By combining all the good that there was in the traditions of the eastern and western churches, the saint from Norcia elevated himself to the consideration of Man in his entirety and left a legacy of his unique personal dignity.
By the time of his death in 547 the foundations of monastic life had been solidly grounded. Particularly after the Carolingian synods, this way of life became western monasticism. Through the abbeys and Benedictine houses spread everywhere, this form of life acted as the corner stone of a new Europe, a Europe to whose “peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinava, from Ireland to the Polish plains, he and his children brought Christian civilization through the Cross, the book and the plough,” (cfr. Pauli VI "Pacis Nuntius": AAS 56  965).
2. Today We wish to bring three fundamental aspects of Benedictine life to mind: prayer, work and the paternal exercise of authority. To understand these three elements in greater depth We believe that they must be considered within a broader theological framework in as mush as they are the fruit of Benedict’s life, teaching and particularly his rules.
According to Benedict himself, the Benedictine rules are "a minimal rule for beginners". In truth they are a rich translation of ideas from the Bible for an uncommon way of living. With the idea of Man and his redemption in mind, the rules in fact propose certain doctrinal principles but chiefly a way of life. And although this way of life is directed at monks – and in particular monks of the 6th century – it contains and proposes teachings that concern our time and are beneficial to all those who have been baptised and live in faith. All those who, through “the inertia of disobedience” have strayed from God and who through the not always easy obedience of faith are seeking to return to Him (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 2).
Within the framework of the Church, Benedictine life appears especially as a very ardent quest for God and a method that should distinguish the life of any Christian tending towards the “highest peaks of doctrine and virtue” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 73,9; cfr. "Lumen Gentium", 9; "Unitatis Redintegratio", 2), until he reaches the Kingdom of Heaven. Benedict trod this path with humanity and diligence, indicating the many obstacles that render it arduous and the dangers that seem to exclude it and place it beyond any possible reach. Because man is slave to reckless desires that in alternation swell him with vain pride or sap his strength (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 48).
But this “way of life” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 20) can be followed only on certain conditions: the undivided love of Christ and the conservation of a genuine humility. Only if these conditions are fulfilled does the Christian, conscious of his infirmity and indigence, enter spiritual life with the help of God and frees himself of burdens. He contemplates with greater clarity his real nature as a person and discovers that God is present even in the deepest abyss of his soul. Love and humility therefore combine to move man first downwards and then upwards. Our life is in fact a stair “that for the humility of the heart the Lord points towards the sky” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 7,8).
External considerations of monastic life have fostered the opinion that Benedictine life is only useful for the monk, who is careless of the needs of others and therefore alienates his soul from the social reality and from the problems of mankind. Sadly, the cloistered monastic life of prayer, solitude and silence, is seen in exactly this same way by certain members of the ecclesiastical community.
It would be correct to say that when the monk gathers up his spirit or, as St Gregory said of St Benedict of Norcia, lives with himself and waits diligently upon himself through the purification of menance, he does so also to free himself of the slavery of his “own will”. But this attention to the spirit that one directs towards oneself is only one of the necessary conditions for opening up his soul towards God and his fellow brothers. Behind the drive of this Benedictine way of thinking about life, individual monks live together in a community that becomes a place of welcome.
St Benedict travelled along that very road of monastic family that leads to God. But monastic cohabitation – referred to by the saint himself as the unique environment in which the hearts of those that belong to it are opened by the exercise of reciprocal obedience – is moved and stimulated by a vehement neighbourly love, with each individual driven to dedicate himself to his brother’s well-being at the expense of his own advantage.
When man strives day by day towards the unquenchable need for balancing internal harmony, modesty and taking part in life, the ability to fulfil his role as an authentic person with relations to others and particularly with God – the “absolute other” – grows within him..
This way of holding in high esteem man and social reality was present in St Benedict and in all the tradition that has emanated from him. And it was not circumscribed only to the monastic community. While the cloistered life does in fact separate the monk from secular living, and should function as an unbreakable barrier against all kinds of vacuous dissipation, it does not separate the monk from love. It is on the contrary a defence that opens up greater freedom for the monk – in the same way that every man lives in his own “smaller cloistered” existence – to live and grow in love. A place where he can open his heart to his brothers that wish to share his experience of union with God. It is in these places, as wisely observed by Paul VI, that this form of life is “ever more frequented as a house of peace and prayer, where men can find themselves and God within them” (Pauli VI "Epistula ad Ioannem Carmelum Card. Heenan, Archiepiscopum Vestmonasteriensem: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", XIII  615). In other words, the monastic life should be a place where “the school of the service of the Lord” is built. Which is “the school… of virtue and contemplation that originates from the clear and grounded explanations of the Bible and the traditional teachings of the Church” (Pauli VI "Epistula ad Ioannem Carmelum Card. Heenan, Archiepiscopum Vestmonasteriensem: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", XIII  616), so that the monk necessarily reaches out to every single person and overcomes through prayer all boundaries and limitations of time and space. All these conditions combine to make the Benedictine monk a universal brother, an evangeliser, a messanger of peace and love.
3. In St Benedict’s time the ecclesiastical community and society in general had many similarities with today. Past wars, some of which were still raging, had caused upheavals and cast an uncertain shadow over the future. People were anguished and troubled to such an extent that life had lost any certain or valid meaning.
Within the Church itself a difficult controversy was underway, with certain ardent men investigating in an animated fashion into the mysteries of God – in particular the unfathomable truths concerning the divinity of the Son of God and his authentic human nature. All these things emerge in the worthy words of Leo the Great, the successor of Peter and Bishop of Rome.
In carefully considering this state of affairs, St Benedict turned to God and to the tradition of the Church for enlightenment with regards to the correct path that he should follow. Although the saint’s choice may not offer a concretely determined method of life for all, it can be considered a paradigm of Christian duty in the vicissitudes of our earthly pilgrimage.
Jesus Christ is the vital and absolutely necessary pivot around which all reality and events must revolve if they are to acquire a sense and a solid consistency. Referring to a quote by St Ciprianus, Bishop of Carthage, Benedict sombrely and forcefully states that "nothing must stand before the love of Christ" (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 4,21; 72,11).
Men and earthly reality in fact have strength and importance only when they are connected to Christ, the only light in which they must be considered and esteemed. All those in the monastery, from the superior abbot to the unknown and poor guest, the sick person or the lowliest brother, bear with them the implicit meaning of the presence of Christ. The monastery’s possessions too are signs of the love of God for his creatures, or of the love that guides man towards God. Even the work tools are considered “sacred altar pieces” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 31,10).
St Benedict does not offer an abstract theological vision. He begins with the reality of things, as was his custom, and grafts theology into every day life through a precise way of thinking and acting. He is not so concerned with discussing the truths of Christ. He advocates living the full truth of the mystery of Christ and of the consequent situation of Christ at the centre of existence.
The priority attributed to the supernatural vision of every day events should be in line with the truth of incarnation. A man who is faithful to God should not forget what is human – he must also remain faithful to mankind. Our so-called “vertical” duties, which translates into prayer, are ordered correctly when they are in close harmony with our “horizontal” duties of reality, first and foremost of which is work.
In monastic life, therefore, under the guidance of he who “by faith acts on behalf of Christ in the monastery” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 63,13; cfr. 2,2), St Benedict indicates a remarkably discreet and balanced course of action. This course of action combines solitude and cohabitation, prayer and work, and must be necessarily trod by every man of our time – with individual variations according to individual needs – if he is to bring his vocation to fruition.
4. True and absolute love for Christ is manifested significantly in prayer, which is the pivot around which the Benedictine monk’s entire day revolves.
But according to the doctrine of St Benedict the basis of prayer lies in the fact that man listens to the word, because the Word incarnate, here, today, is unrepeatable. Man listens to the Word through the Scriptures and the ministerial mediation of the Church, which in the monastery also finds its expression in the words of the community’s father and brothers.
In such a climate of faithful obedience the Word of God is heard with humility and joy in the knowledge that time does not diminish it, and rather makes it stronger by the day. The Word of God therefore becomes and inexhaustible source of prayer, since “God Himself speaks to the soul, with the answer that he heart desires. It will be a prayer diffused throughout the day’s single moments that feeds daily activities like an underground spring” (cfr. Pauli VI "Allocutio ad Benedectinas Antistitas", die 29 sept. 1976: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", XIV  771).
Through a ponderous and tasty meditation – a veritable spiritual rumination – the word of God unleashes flashes of light that illuminate the entire day of those who are dedicated to prayer. To summarise this concept briefly one could cal it the “prayer of the heart”, that “brief, pure prayer” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 20,4), through which we respond to divine impulses and urge the Lord to share with us the inexhaustible gift of charity.
Every day, therefore, the soul lovingly awaits the word of God and explores it with fervent duty, through a vital sense of application that is the fruit not of human science but of a wisdom that contains something of the divine: not aimed at “knowing more” but rather at “being more”, so to speak. To speak with God, speak to Him with His same Word, think what He thinks – in a word, live His same life.
By listening to the Word of God, the faithful is lead to understand the course of events and the time that in His providence the Lord has arranged for the entire human family, so that the believing soul has a broader view of the greater design of salvation. Through this vision of faith we can arrive at perceiving the wonders of God’s work with open eyes and “finely tuned ears” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", Prolog., 9). Together with silence and marvel, the divine-inducing light of contemplation excites the flame of that particular form of prayer through which the monks celebrate and sing the praises of the Lord each day. Prayer then becomes almost the voice of entire creation, and in a certain way anticipates the high song of celestial Jerusalem. In this earthly pilgrimage the Word of God makes us feel how life in its entirety is open to the gaze of He that sees all things from above. Directed at the Father, prayer therefore gives voice to those who have lost the power of speech, and in a certain way resounds with the joy and anguish, with the successes and disappointments and the longing for better times of all.
In the sacred ceremony St Benedict is led by the Word of God not to achieve that the community becomes a mere assembly ardently celebrating divine mysteries, sharing the common experience with the Spirit through song. Benedict is in fact more concerned that the soul should respond more intimately to the spoken and sung divine word, and that “our spirit be in harmony with our voice” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 19,7). Approached and savoured in this vital way, the holy scriptures are read with delight when the individual is dedicated to prayer at the same time. Love drives the soul towards God, and nothing obstructs His work (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 4,55.56; 43,3). The prayers said during the liturgical ceremony are transposed into live and transform life itself into a prayer. Once finished, the ceremony resounds from those lofty spaces in a more restricted environment, prolonging interior meditation and silence. In this way a person may pray for himself and the prayer will continue and pervade the day’s moments and actions.
A lover of the Word of God, St Benedict perceives it not only in the sacred scriptures but also in that vast book that is nature. By contemplating the beauty of creation, man is moved in the depth of his soul and is induced to elevate his mind towards Him that is its source and origin. But at the same time he is induced to behave with reverence towards nature, highlighting its beauties and respecting its truth.
"Where silence breathes, prayer speaks" (cfr. Pauli VI "Allocutio ad Benedectinos monachos", die 8 sept. 1971: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", IX  756): in solitude prayer acquires a certain personal richness. And this is equally true of that wild valley of the Aniene river, where St Benedict lived alone with God, as it is of the city brimming with technology but alienating for men, where the man of our times is emarginated and abandoned to himself. To lead a truly spiritual life, the spirit must experience a certain form of desert since this preserves it from empty words and makes for an easier access to God, men and things. In the desert, interpersonal relations are reduced to the essential and primary and acquire a certain austerity. This purifies the heart, which rediscovers the practise of daily prayer that rises up to God from its soul. This prayer does not lose itself in many words, but rises “within the purity of a heart filled with fervour and in the compunction of tears” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 20,3; 52,4).
5. Man’s face is often run over with tears. And although they may often not be tears shed with genuine compunction, or through an excess of joy, they induce the soul to prayer. They are often shed from the pain and anguish of those who see their human dignity trodden underfoot and who do not manage to obtain their deserved goal or to get a job that is adequate for their needs and abilities.
St Benedict also lived in an unjust society, where the individual was not cared for, or was cared for only as an object. In that social context, structured in layered orders, the disinherited were emarginated and considered servants, the poor fell into an ever greater depth of misery, while the landowners grew richer and richer. That worthy man, on the other hand, wanted the monastic community to be based on the rules of the Bible. He returned dignity to man regardless of his social rank and provided for the needs of all according to the rules of a wise system of distributive justice. He assigned complementary offices that were cleverly coordinated between themselves. He took care of the infirmities of some without encouraging laziness in any way. He gave space to the hard work of others without making them feel in any way coerced, encouraging them to bring out their best energies.
For St Benedict man should not be considered an anonymous production machine, to be exploited for maximum profit regardless of any moral consideration. In his time, hard work was normally assigned to slaves who were denied the dignity of human beings. But Benedict saw all kinds of work as an integral part of life and obliged each monk to fulfil this part as a duty of conscience. Work should also be supported “for obedience and expiation” (Pii XII "Fulgens Radiatur": AAS 39  154), since pain and sweat are inseparable from any really effective exertion. This exertion also has a redeeming strength in that it purifies man from sin and ennobles both man’s surrounding reality and the environment in which the work is carried out.
In living an earthly life in which work and prayer were conveniently balanced, St Benedict happily inserted work within a supernatural perspective of life itself, helping man to recognise himself as a colleague of God’s and helping him to achieve this status while his personality finds expression in creative labour and is promoted in its entirety. In this way human action becomes contemplative and contemplation acquires a dynamic virtue that has its own importance and illuminates the goals it is aiming for.
All this is not solely to avoid slothfulness, that mines the spirit. It is especially designed to develop man as a conscious person, aware of his duties and diligent, able to grow and perfect himself in the completion of these duties so that slumbering energies may awake from the depths of his soul and contribute to the common good “so that all may glorify God” (1Pt 4,11).
In this way work is not lightened by a heavy expenditure of energy but acquires a new interior drive. Notwithstanding the work he is carrying out, the monk in fact uses that same work to reach God, since “while he works with the mind or with his hands he is always, continuously, going towards Christ” (cfr. Pii XII "Fulgens Radiatur": AAS 39  147).
Therefore even humble and scarcely appreciated work is enriched by its own dignity and is performed with a different vitality, that of the “lofty and exclusive search for God in solitude and silence, in humble and meek labour, to instil life with the meaning of a continued prayer, of a‘sacrificium laudis”, celebrated and consumed together in the breath of a joyful and brotherly charity” (cfr. Pauli VI "Allocutio ad Benedectinas Antistitas", die 28 oct. 1966: "Insegnamenti di Paolo VI", IV  514).
If Europe has become a Christian land it is thanks to the children of St Benedict, who transmitted to our ancestors a teaching that embraced all things, not only the arts and manual labour but especially the evangelical spirit necessary for safeguarding the spiritual treasures of man.
Paganism, which legions of missionary monks at that time transformed into Christianity, is once more running rampant in the western world as the cause and effect of a lost value in work and its dignity.
If Christ is lacking in imbuing every human action with a loftier meaning, he who works is nothing more than a slave to reckless production that seeks only profit. St Benedict on the contrary established the need for giving work a spiritual value, extending the confines of human labour so that the action of labour itself is preserved from the exasperated activity of production technique, avarice and private gain.
6. Within the social structure that has gained a foothold in today’s world and which in places appears to be a “fatherless society”, St Benedict helps to recover the primary – and perhaps too often forgotten – fatherly dimension.
For his monks, the saint of Norcia acts as a Christ figure, and they obey him as they do the Lord, with the same feelings that the Saviour had for the Father. This obedience and attentiveness that is typical of the son is answered by the penetrating concern that St Benedict has for all his monks, for their person in its totality. And it is this attention that stimulates him to diligently take care of all the community’s needs.
Whilst not overlooking anythings concerning the ordering of the monastic family or its material affairs, he who exercises authority places special attention on the spiritual condition of each single person, since the single person should have priority over all earthly and transitory things.
In his consideration of those earthly elements that are spiritual and fundamental, the abbot is illuminated by his frequent contact with the Word of God, from which he gleans new and ancient treasures. The abbot must conform intimately with this Word of God, so that his action can become almost a fermentation of divine justice spreading through the minds of his sons.
St Benedict invests the abbot with full and unquestionable authority over the decisions that take place within the community. But this is not a derivation of an absolute form of domination since the father seeks the advice of all his sons, in private, and without prejudice, in the conviction that even in things of great importance “often the Lord reveals what is best to the youngest” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 3,3)).
In his brotherly discussions the abbot listens to the requests of those he is speaking to so that they may accept a particular office. But for the good of the individual and of the entire community the abbot must be firm in commanding things that may at times seem impossible. He must above all else hold dear the promotion of the single individual so that he may develop better and benefit and invigorate the entire community.
The community father’s primary aim should be to help the brothers and guide them wisely in a way that highlights the supremacy of love. The father should therefore “always prefer forgiveness over justice” (S. Benedicti "Regula", 64,10; cfr. Gc 2,13), and try to inspire love rather than fear, in the knowledge that “he must above all please rather than command” (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 64,14.8).
Conscious that he will be held responsible for all those that have been entrusted to his care, the abbot should love his brothers, and love with them, performing his duties as a good shepherd and doing what is beneficial to the common good as well as what is healthiest. “The abbot should in fact dedicate himself with the utmost attention and zeal to making sure that not one of the sheep that have been entrusted to him is lost… And he must imitate the example of the good shepherd, who left ninety-nine sheep in the hills to go and look for the one lost sheep, filled with compassion for its weakness to such an extent that he raised her on his sacred shoulders to bring her back to the fold (S. Benedicti "Regula", 27,5.8-9). Those fathers who have the responsibility of guiding souls should know that their pastoral ministry will have to adapt to the different characters of many (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 2,31). He must conform and adapt to the individual, to ensure that he is able to provide that person with the precise help they need. He should be patient with all, without tolerating the sins of transgressors. He should detest prevarication and be free of resentment and unsuitable zeal, guiding his sons with magnanimity.
This method of guiding others with authority brings into question another aspect of this position: discretion – the measure and balance in decisions that avoids useless murmurings. If they obey with humility, the single individuals are both helped to overcome the narrow limitations of what they believe to be useful for them at that moment and rise to a more elevated vision of good and social life. They cooperate by the duty of their conscience, thereby attaining that interior freedom that is necessary for achieving personal maturity.
In fulfilling his duty as the wise administrator of the House of God (cfr. S. Benedicti "Regula", 64,5; 72,3-8), the words uttered by the abbot are based on the utmost peace. A peace that rests on the reciprocal acceptation and esteem of the brothers towards one another, regardless of inevitable defects and which allows each individual to express his own personality.
This is the peace that comes when single individuals humbly, and with the conscience of duty, commit themselves to the ties of such a society, where the laws of the Spirit prevail over matter, where a correct order of things is set up, where all things are conveniently arranged for the greater glory of the Kingdom of God.
This year St Benedict has in a certain way returned to visit us, to show us the way of leading a human life that is close to the doctrines of the Bible. And such a project can not be refused.
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