Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monasticism in the Western Church, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part essay on monasticism by Stephanie Swee, President of the Society of St. Gregory the Great. See Part 1 here.

The Legacy of St. Benedict:
Monasticism in the Western Church

While there was activity in the West to set up monasteries prior to St. Benedict, he is universally regarded as the founder of Western monasticism, partly for the comprehensive and detailed rule he executed. In The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, St. Gregory the Great chronicles this abbot’s prodigious work of founding community after community.  Gregory received his information directly from disciples of the great saint and, using the form of dialogue with his deacon, Peter, related incidents in Benedict’s life that show even at the beginning of his search how close he was to sanctity.

Born about 540 A.D., Benedict was sent to get a liberal education by his wealthy and distinguished parents. However, once he encountered the dissolute life led by some students, “in his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, left home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life.[1]  Some authors have noted that, although Benedictine spirituality is often associated with learning, its founder was focused not on formal education, but on a simple life of work and prayer.

One of the first miracles chronicled by Pope Gregory was an incident that involved Benedict’s nurse, who had accompanied him in his search for a place to withdraw from the sinfulness of the world. Having asked to borrow a tray for cleaning wheat at the house where they were lodging, the nurse accidentally allowed he tray to fall and break in two. When Benedict returned and saw her weeping, “he prayed earnestly to God … (and) soon noticed that the two pieces were joined together again.” [2]

Shortly after this, Benedict left his nurse and proceeded to Subiaco, where he spent three years in prayer and solitude. During that time the monk Romanus, who had clothed Benedict in a simple habit, brought him food and drink. It is in this period, too, that Benedict experienced perhaps the most famous of his temptations, in which the devil tried him with lustful images. The young man responded by throwing himself naked into a patch of nettles so that “the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart.”[3] From that day forward, Benedict was free from this kind of temptation and began to instruct others in the way to live for God.

Another event in Benedict’s life shows how God intervened to guide him. He and his twin sister, Scholastica, who had been consecrated to God from an early age, would meet periodically to encourage one another and pray together. One time when they had praised God all day and darkness was falling, Benedict, ever mindful of his vow of stability, wished to return to his monastery. Scholastica entreated him to stay the night, so they could continue talking and praying together. When her brother refused, she prayed earnestly and the sky, which had been clear, clouded over and a great storm arose, making it impossible for Benedict and his brothers to leave. The siblings spent the night talking of the joys of heaven and, when Benedict finally reached his monastery the next day, he had a vision of Scholastica’s soul entering heaven. He then rejoiced at her glorification, gave thanks to God and brought her body to be buried in a plot near his monastery. [4]

An often-told story throws light on the virtue of Benedict and his direction of his brother monks. It seems a certain priest, Florentius, who lived in the neighborhood of Benedict’s monastery, observed that the saint had inspired many to a more fervent piety.  Seized by envy and hatred for Benedict, Florentius sent him a loaf of bread he had poisoned, hoping to kill his rival. Benedict, however, knew what was in the bread and gave it to a raven to take away.  

Foiled in that attempt, Florentius then sent naked dancing girls to compromise the virtue of the younger monks. Fearing that his monks would fall into temptation, Benedict took them and left the monastery. As they journeyed away from their home, God struck Florentius dead when the roof over him collapsed. One of Benedict’s monks, Maurus, caught up with him and gave him the news, rejoicing in Florentius’s demise. Benedict reprimanded Maurus severely and gave him a penance for showing pleasure that another had died unrepentant of his sin.[5] The fact that Gregory calls Benedict, “vir Dei,” indicates in what high regard he was held even shortly after his death.
Eventually Benedict wrote his rule for all the foundations he had created and it has remained the standard for much of monasticism up the present day. Modern historians believe that the Rule of the Master, which is a much longer and more detailed set of prescriptions for the pursuit of perfection, may have influenced Benedict, but there are many differences in style and content between the two.  

Benedict’s rule is uncompromising in what is necessary for the pursuit of perfection, but still gentle in its language. His description of the Abbot is that of a loving father, who adjusts his methods of direction to the temperament of each monk. The Rule covers many topics, but in no very discernible order. One part may talk about the celebration of Lauds on feasts, while shortly thereafter the saint treats of who shall sit at the Abbot’s table or how absent brethren are to be received. Nevertheless, it covers most questions and details practices necessary for a well-ordered community life.

[1] Pope St. Gregory the Great, Life and Miracles of St. Benedict (Book Two of the Dialogues) tr. By Odo J. Zimmerman, O.S.B. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press,
[2] Pope St. Gregory the Great, p.3.
[3] Pope St. Gregory the Great, p. 8
[4] Pope St. Gregory, pp. 69-70.
[5] Pope St. Gregory, pp. 23-25.

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