Creating Christian Culture: Learning from St. Benedict
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Solemnity of St Benedict, honoring the repose of this man of God. It is a blessing to speak on this occasion of the Patron and father figure of this parish. It is upon the bedrock of the ideals St. Benedict embraced and lived that the foundation of this parish is built, ideals which have established our past and which will guide our future.
From the plethora of things that could be recounted in regard to the Saint, today I would like to address three subjects: 1. Witness 2. Response and 3. Responsibility
First, let us consider the witness of the life of our own Saint, our Patron Benedict.
This leader, shepherd of the flock of God, wonderworker and humble monk was born with his twin sister to a noble family in Nursia, or Norcia, Italy, northeast of Rome. Benedict was born about 480 A.D. He entered the world at an historic and auspicious time. When he was merely four years old, the Western Roman Empire formally fell by the deposition of the last Emperor, Romulus Augustulus. Barbaric tribes were invading the strongholds of empire. Culture as it had been defined under Roman governance was changing. The Church was faced with violence without and the Arian heresy within. Anarchy was festering in the crumbling of an empire that had shaped western civilization for a millennium.
Young Benedict was sent to Rome to complete his education. There the licentious and dissolute lifestyle in the city caused him to make his first life changing decision. To remove himself from this corruption, Benedict left the city and settled in the village area of Enfide, along with his elderly nurse whom his parents had sent off to school with him to look after him. There his first miracle occurred to pull him out of obscurity. A ceramic wheat sifter borrowed from a neighbor had been broken and his nurse was quite upset over it. Benedict took the pieces of the vessel and after praying, returned it to the neighbor whole again. This incident brought much more attention than Benedict wanted, as he became the talk of the village.
He left the nurse at Enfide and journeyed alone until he came upon a cave in a cliff near Subiaco. There he sought solitude to pray and reflect. He encountered an elder monk, Romanus who provided him with a monk’s habit. Romanus brought Benedict food at certain times and began to teach him about monastic life. After three years of solitude, Benedict gained attention again. A priest was guided to Benedict’s cave by a vision and sought his counsel. Reports of his wisdom spread and other men began to seek him out. Soon the would-be hermit was surrounded by those who recognized God’s gift in him.
A nearby monastery in Vicovaro invited Benedict to come and be their abbot. Benedict had heard of the lax lifestyle led by these monks. He refused the request and told them that they would not like the discipline he would impose as an abbot. Because of his notoriety, the monks insisted until Benedict gave in and joined this group as abbot. Very quickly the monks were angered at his insistence that they work and pray regularly and observe fasting rules. Rather than ask him to leave, which would have been an embarrassment to them, they sought to poison Benedict. However, in another miracle, when offered the poisoned chalice, the young monk made the sign of the cross over it and the chalice shattered. The plot was revealed to Benedict and he left the monastery. Returning to Subiaco, he was again beset by men seeking to learn the spiritual life. He formed them into communities and the roots of his monastic rule began to take shape. Twelve communities of twelve men each were organized and the Saint taught each of them to observe hours of prayer and balance prayer with work to preserve humility.
A local priest, Florentius, was jealous of the success of Benedict and the respect he was given. He slandered the monk and even attempted to poison him. When these attacks had no effect, he sought to defame his monastic communities by sending prostitutes into the groups to tempt the monks. Realizing these attacks were personal to him, Benedict left Subiaco to protect his communities from assault. He set a monk over each community and made his way to Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino was the site of ancient pagan celebrations, and included a temple to Apollo. Locals still offered regular sacrifice there, but rather than flee the decadence, St. Benedict now believed it would be an ideal place to begin a Christian community, in the midst of it. He began a fast of 40 days. When his fasting was complete, Benedict the man of God began preaching the Gospel to all pagans who came to the site. Many were converted, and it wasn’t long before the pagan faith was replaced by Christianity, the temple torn down and, around 530, an abbey was built in its place.
This conversion, and the building of the abbey, inaugurated the most famous chapter of St. Benedict’s life. During this time he designed his renowned “Rule of Holy Living,” which was to become the foundation stone of western spiritual discipline. The rule included all the canonical offices for daily prayer, instructions on living according to the liturgical calendar, a list of expectations and functions for abbots and priors, rules of discipline for monks, work assignments and expectations, rules for travel, rules governing the consumption of food and drink, assignments of silence, and perhaps most importantly, inherent throughout the rule is counsel on the pursuit of humility.
Miracles continued to follow this Saint in his work to establish the spiritual life in the monks whom God gave him to shepherd. He had the charism of clairvoyance to know the hearts of men and to guide them into the virtues, especially humility. Benedict enabled Maurus his assistant to walk on water to save a drowning monk. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry. Once when famine ravaged the area, Benedict gave all but five loaves of the bread in the monastery to the nearby town of Campano. He told his dismayed monks that “you will not have enough today, but tomorrow you will have too much.” The following morning, the monks found 200 bushels of flour sitting at the doors of the monastery.
On one occasion, during construction at the abbey, St. Benedict perceived that Satan was going to attack the monks to stop the work. He sent word to warn them. Just as the message arrived, a wall collapsed and crushed a young boy. The horrified monks dug him out, wrapped the broken body of the boy in a cloth and brought him to the Saint. Benedict took him in his cell, prayed over the lifeless body and soon he opened the door and the happy lad was restored whole to the monks with great rejoicing.
We could go on with examples of miracles and piety exemplified in the extraordinary witness of our beloved Saint. We have not begun to even touch the highlights, but let us wrap it up with this account.
Six days before his death, Benedict told his monks that he was soon to leave them, and requested they dig his grave. Shortly thereafter, he was stricken with fever. On his last day, he went into the church and received the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord for the last time. Supported by several of his brethren, who held him upright, Benedict said his last prayers on this earth and died standing on his feet with his hands uplifted to heaven. He was buried beside his twin sister St. Scholastica on the very site of the altar to Apollos which he had earlier removed.
St. Benedict, who had fled Rome to seek a solitary life of prayer, died in the arms of those whom he had trained in the spiritual life of community. Though he had diligently sought the solitary life, he became, instead, an advocate and example of the corporate life. Inevitably St. Benedict became a spiritual father to all those who came to him. Though his witness to the Holy Faith occurred long ago, we here in the Western Rite Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Faith, formed by the prayers and discipline which he left us, are the living recipients of the holy example of St. Benedict.
Secondly, response. Let us consider another modern Christian response to a world in need and to the life work of St. Benedict.
The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book, ‘After Virtue,’ notes comparisons and parallels of the epoch in which the Roman Empire crumbled into what were called the Dark Ages with the modern age of Europe and North America, that same period wherein we find our hero, St. Benedict.
McIntyre states this: “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.” He concludes stating, “We are waiting… for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.”
In his writing, McIntyre speaks of what is coined as the ‘Benedict Option.’ The Benedict Option refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American empire, and who therefore are intent upon constructing local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. More simply, the Benedict Option is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modern culture and who recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition will require embedding themselves within communities and institutions which are dedicated to that formation of the virtues.
In seeking for this salvation from the moral and civil decline, Christians of many backgrounds, Roman Catholic, Protestant and undecided, are seeking to form or enter communities such as our Patron Saint developed, which preserve by their very nature reason, morality, civility and virtue.
Roman Catholic Cardinal Newman noted; “St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it [the caveat], not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”
Lastly, let us speak of responsibility, our responsibility, here in this parish with our particular brothers and sisters.
The spirituality, the culture, the witness of St. Benedict is our rich inheritance. Whenever we say the Offices of the Church, be they monastic or parochial, we are saying liturgies founded upon the prayer disciplines of this holy Saint. Whenever we practice our Lenten disciplines, we do so following some of the guidelines which he laid out. When we confess our sins, we are often following the pastoral instruction of St. Benedict. Thus, he is more than the father of some generic western form of piety; he is a founder of much of the Western Rite practice of Holy Orthodoxy. The ethos of this parish is founded in the spiritual rule of St. Benedict, our father among the Saints. The Benedictine principles of Order, Prayer and Work, Stability, Community, Hospitality and Balance can define our parish.
Therefore, we are by grace, heritage and our choice, the very epitome of the so-called ‘Benedict Option.’ And we are more. We are this ‘Benedict Option’ being sought by those who long for virtue, but lived out in the truth of the Orthodox Faith. At the least, we have the opportunity and responsibility to be so. We have the responsibility to be the community which shines the light of Truth in a dark and broken world. We have the responsibility to shine this light by the lives we live in community as clergy, monastics, oblates and lay people here in St. Benedict’s own parish, changing the world slowly, quietly, steadfastly and patiently, attaining the virtues which will serve for all eternity.
“Benedict thou father and guide of monks, thou most holy Confessor of the Lord, intercede for us all and for our salvation.” +
[Antiphon for the Benedictus, Benedictine Office of Lauds]