SAINT BENEDICT OF NORCIA
Abbot and Founder of the Benedictine Order
480 – 547
Feast Day: July 11
Patronage: Europe, Chemists, Farmers, Engineers, Architects, Monks, People in Religious Orders, Schoolchildren, Speliologists, Coppersmiths, the Dying
Invoked Against: Poisoning, Gall Stones, Kidney Diseases, Inflammatory Diseases, Gossip, Temptation
Symbols: Pastoral Staff, Miter, Book of the Rule, Raven with bread in its beak, Cup with two serpents, Broken sieve
“Pray and Work.” A summation of the Rule of Saint Benedict
Though his sole intention was the moral and spiritual training of individuals seeking a holy life, the followers of Saint Benedict are credited with saving Western Civilization during the dark ages. Benedictine builders and architects created cathedrals, abbeys, castles and churches in every country of Europe. Regions scattered throughout the continent owe their agricultural prosperity to the skills of Benedictine monks in reviving lost farming practices. Because of this Order, ancient literature was preserved, pioneering strides in medicine were made and schools and universities were created that still exist today. After 1500 years, the Benedictine Rule is the basis of all Western Monastic Rules and for this reason Benedict is considered the patriarch of Western religious orders.
Most of what is known about the life of Saint Benedict comes from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. Written within a generation of Benedict’s death, among those consulted for these writings were Benedict’s first followers and eyewitnesses to his life. Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica were born in Nursia ( today’s Norcia), a prosperous town in Umbria. His family sent him to Rome along with his servant to complete his higher education. Equipped with enough money to fully enjoy himself, he was instead, appalled at the loose morals of his fellow students. The study of rhetoric had replaced the search for truth and they seemed to squander every one of their advantages in the pursuit of pleasure. Disgusted by the corruption in the government and the schisms in the church, he gave up his inheritance and went off to live 40 miles away in the city of Affile. There he began studying the bible with a small group of like minded young men. When his servant accidentally broke a wheat-sifter, Benedict picked up the pieces to examine them and it was miraculously made whole. The notoriety of his first miracle forced him to go into hiding, this time he moved into a cave on the ridge of Mount Subiaco. Another hermit living nearby, advised him and brought him food. Benedict spent three years there, praying and studying. The devil appeared to him as a blackbird that constantly circled his face. When Benedict made the sign of the cross it disappeared but he was instantly sieged with an attack of lust for a woman he had previously known. He threw off his tunic and rolled himself in the sharp nettles and brambles to stop his thoughts, healing himself of further temptation.
Benedict’s reputation for holiness spread and the monks of Viscovo asked him to be their leader. He warned them that he would be too strict for them. When this proved true, they tried to put poison in his wine to get rid of him. When he made the sign of the cross over the cup, it shattered and forgiving the monks, he returned to his cave. As his fame spread, many came to Subiaco asking for guidance in living a monastic life. At that time, the first monastic communities had been formed in the East and they included harsh ascetic deprivations that Benedict felt served to hinder a true study of scripture. He set up 12 religious houses of 12 men each, with their own patriarch. He lived in a 13th house, with several other monks in training. When he realized that it was a major problem for his monks to bring fresh water up the mountains on a daily basis, he spent the night in prayer. When dawn came a natural spring appeared which from then on supplied water to all 13 communities. Because of their reputation for higher learning, local people entreated the monks to start a school. While Benedict was meeting with a monk named Maurus he had a vision of one of the students drowning in a lake. He ordered Maurus to save the child. Only after he had safely gotten the boy ashore, did Maurus realize that he had actually ran across the surface of the lake to do so. Benedict’s ability to see multiple things happening at one time would continue over his lifetime. Because of the success of his religious community of laymen, the local priest was overcome with jealousy. As a legitimate member of the clergy it infuriated him that he did not warrant half the respect of Benedict and his followers. When he tried to poison Benedict with a loaf of bread, a raven snatched it out of Benedict’s hands and flew off with it. This raven frequently appears in Benedict’s iconography, along with the cup of poisoned wine wrapped in serpents which symbolize the devil.
Placidus, the child that Maurus saved came from a wealthy family. In gratitude to Benedict, his father gave the saint the citadel of Monte Cassino. An area high up on a mountain ridge which in earlier times had stood as a shrine to the gods Apollo and Jove, in recent times it had been destroyed by an invasion of the Goths. When the little group of monks moved there in 525, these ancient cults had been revived. After spending 40 days in prayer, Benedict cut down the grove of trees sacred to the gods. On the place of the temple to Jupiter he built a church named for Saint Martin and another named for Saint John the Baptiste, considered the ideal hermit. Instead of having many small houses of monks, Benedict decided to have one large one and in 530 the building of the most famous monastery in the world began.
The monastery at Monte Cassino was built as a city of God. In order to properly run it Benedict wrote out a Rule which every Western monastery since has based its founding principles on. It is important to note that Benedict was not a priest and his followers were not educated clergymen but laymen who wanted to live good lives as proscribed in the Gospel. In his belief that idleness was ruin, Benedict defied the prejudices against manual labor. All monks had to work, either in the fields or in the construction of buildings. All monks were equal regardless of what social level they were born into. All monks would spend hours a day reading. Prayer was to consist of the Psalms and Canticles, with the entire Psalter being recited within a week. He did not legislate private prayer, but advised it be short and heartfelt. He did not approve of excessive self deprivation, thinking it to be a form of vanity. His order of monks were encouraged to have enough food and wine as they needed as well as warm blankets and clothing. They ate no meat from four legged creatures and remained celebate. Hospitality was to be granted to all travelers who needed it and as long as any visitor was willing to follow the laws of the monastery, they were welcome to stay as long as they wanted. Included in his Rule is the responsibility of the monastery to help the surrounding community in any way possible. This included sharing food, crops and helping in debt repayment. As his original order of monks transformed the swampy area of Monte Cassino into fertile farms, a community sprang up around them. By having a Rule to follow it became possible for other religious orders to model their communities after the great monastery at Monte Cassino. Though the Rule is written for men, it proved to be an equally effective model for women’s convents.
Near the end of his life, Benedict was outdoors in the middle of the night when a single ray of the sun appeared, illuminating the entire universe. He believed he had actually seen God. When his sister Scholastica met him in the little house she kept outside the gates of the monastery for their yearly visit, she asked him to stay the night. He told her it was impossible to leave his duties. She bowed her head in prayer as he was leaving and a fierce thunderstorm erupted forcing Benedict to stay. She later told him that she asked God for that which Benedict refused and God granted her prayer. They spent the night talking and reminiscing and three days later Benedict saw a dove fly into the sky. He realized it was the soul of Scholastica on its way to heaven and knew his own death would soon follow. Having the gift of prophecy, he had his tomb opened and spent six days in prayer. He fell into a high fever and died surrounded by his followers.
Though Benedict never traveled out of Monte Cassino, at one time there were over 40,000 monasteries following his rule. His system of constant work and study created great prosperity in the areas surrounding monasteries that employed it. While chaos and instability plunged Europe into the dark ages, the Benedictine monasteries were enlightened places where knowledge was preserved and shared. The immense monastery of Monte Cassino was completely destroyed in one of the fiercest battles of the second world war and the only parts of it not obliterated were the underground cell of Benedict and the tomb of he and his sister.
In art Benedict is traditionally depicted with an open book of his Rule, usually inscrbed with “Pray and Work”. At times a cup is near him wrapped in two serpents, symbolizing the attempts to poison him. In many instances the raven who saved him is also with him. The raven is also a symbol of the hermit, since they were credited with dropping food to the original desert fathers. His patronage extends to engineers, architects and farmers because of the advances made in those fields by the early Benedictines. His early schools make him the patron of schoolchildren. He is invoked against kidney ailments and stones because of his powers to heal them and because he was a victim of diabolic temptations, gossip mongers and poisoners he is also called on for protection against these situations. Because he could predict the time of his own and other’s deaths, he is invoked by the dying for a good death.
Prayer to Saint Benedict
O glorious Saint Benedict, sublime model of all virtues, pure vessel of God’s grace!
Behold me, humbly kneeling at they feet.
I implore they loving heart to pray for me before the throne of God.
To thee I have recourse in all dangers which daily surround me.
Shield me against my enemies, inspire me to imitate thee in all things.
May thy blessing be with thee always, so that I may shun whatever God forbids
and avo id the occasions of sin.
Graciously obtain for me from God those favors and graces of which I stand so much in need,
in the trials, miseries and afflictions of life.
Thy heart was always so full of love. compassion and mercy
towards those who were afflicted or troubled in any way.
Thou didst never dismiss without consolation and assistance anyone who had recourse to thee.
I therefore invoke they powerful intercession,
in the confident hope that thou will hear my prayers
and obtain for me the special grace and favor I so earnestly implore (mention),
and if it be for the greater glory of God and the welfare of my soul.
Help me, O great Saint Benedict, to live and die as a faithful child of God,
to be ever submissive to His holy will, and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven.
Excerpted from the book: “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua.