St. Benedict, Abbot
Forty days after the white dove of Cassino had mounted to heaven, Benedict, her glorious Brother, ascended by a bright path to the blissful abode, where they were to be united for ever. Both of them reached the heavenly country during that portion of the year, which corresponds with the holy Season of Lent. It frequently happens, however, that St. Scholastica’s feast is kept before Lent has begun; whereas St . Benedict’s day, the twenty-first of March, always comes during the Season of penance. God, Who is the Sovereign Master of time, willed that the Faithful, whilst practising their exercises of penance, should always have before their eyes a Saint, whose example and intercession should inspire them with courage.
With what profound veneration ought we not to celebrate the Festival of this wonderful Saint, who, as St. Gregory says, ” was filled with the spirit of all the Just!” If we consider his virtues, we find nothing superior in the annals of perfection presented to our admiration by the Church. Love of God and man, humility, the gift of prayer, dominion over the passions, form him into a master-piece of the grace of the Holy Ghost. Miracles seem to constitute his life: he cures the sick, commands the elements, casts out devils, and raises the dead to life. The spirit of prophecy unfolds futurity to him; and the most intimate thoughts of men are not too distant for the eye of his mind to scan. These superhuman qualifications are heightened by a sweet majesty, a serene gravity, and a tender charity, which shine in every page of his wonderful Life; and it is one of his holiest children who wrote it, St. Gregory the Great. It is this holy Pope and Doctor, who had the honour of telling posterity all the wonders which God vouchsafed to work in his servant Benedict.
Yes, posterity had a right to know the life and virtues of a man, whose salutary influence upon the Church and society has been so observable during the ages of the Christian era. To describe the influence exercised by the spirit of St. Benedict, we should have to transcribe the annals of all the nations of the Western Church, from the 7th century down to our own times. Benedict is the Father of Europe. By his Benedictines, numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sands of the sea-shore, he rescued the last remnants of Roman vigour from the total annihilation threatened by the invasion of Barbarians; he presided over the establishment of the public and private laws of those nations, which grew out of the ruins of the Roman Empire; he carried the Gospel and civilization into England, Germany, and the Northern countries, including Sclavonia; he taught agriculture; he put an end to slavery; and to conclude, he saved the precious deposit of the arts and sciences from the tempest which would have swept them from the world, and would have left mankind a prey to a gloomy and fatal ignorance.
And Benedict did all this by that little book, which we call his “Rule.” This admirable code of Christian perfection and prudence disciplined the countless legions of Religious, by whom the Holy Patriarch achieved all these prodigies. During the ages which preceded the promulgation of this “Rule,” so wonderful in its simple eloquence, the Monastic Life, in the Western Church, had produced some few saintly men; but there was nothing to justify the hope, that this kind of life would become, even more than it had been in the East, the principal means of the Christian regeneration and civilization of so many nations. This “Rule” once written, and all others gradually give place to it, as the stars are eclipsed when the sun has risen. The West was peopled with Monasteries; and from these Monasteries flowed upon Europe all those blessings, which have made it the privileged quarter of the globe.
An incredible number of Saints, both men and women, who look up to Benedict as their Father, purify and sanctify the world, which had not yet emerged from the state of semi-barbarism. A long series of Popes, who had once been Novices in the Benedictine Cloister, preside over the destinies of this new world, and form for it a new legislation, which, being based exclusively on the moral law, is to avert the threatening prevalence of brutal despotism. Bishops innumerable, trained in the same School of Benedict, consolidate this moral legislation in the provinces and cities over which they are appointed. The Apostles of twenty barbarous nations confront their fierce and savage tribes, and, with the Gospel in one hand, and the “Rule” of their Holy Father in the other, lead them into the fold of Christ. For many centuries, the learned men, the Doctors of the Church, and the instructors of youth, belong, almost exclusively, to the Order of the great Patriarch, who, by the labours of his children, pours forth on the people the purest beauty of light and truth. This choir of heroes in every virtue, of Popes, of Bishops, of Apostles, of holy Doctors, proclaiming themselves as his Disciples, and joining with the universal Church in glorifying that God, Whose holiness and power shine forth so brightly in the life and actions of Benedict, what a corona, what an aureola of glory for one Saint to have!
Let us now read the sketch of his life, as given us in the Liturgy.
Benedict was born of a noble family at Nursia. He was sent to Rome, that he might receive a liberal education; but not long after, he withdrew to a place called Subiaco, and there hid himself in a very deep cave, that he might give himself entirely to Jesus Christ. He passed three years in that retirement, unknown to all save to a Monk, by name Romanus, who supplied him with the necessaries of life. The devil having one day excited him to a violent temptation of impurity, he rolled himself amidst prickly brambles, and extinguished within himself the desire of carnal pleasure by the pain he thus endured. The fame of his sanctity, however, became known beyond the Iimits of his hiding-place, and certain monks put themselves under his guidance. He sharply rebuked them for their wicked lives; which rebuke so irritated them, that they resolved to put poison in his drink. Having made the sign of the Cross over the cup as they proffered it to him, it broke, and he, leaving that monastery, returned to his solitude.
But whereas many daily came to him, beseeching him to take them as his disciples, he built twelve monasteries, and drew up the most admirable rules for their government. He afterwards went to Monte Cassino, where he destroyed an image of Apollo, which was still adored in those parts; and having pulled down the altar and burnt the groves, he built a chapel, in that same place, in honour of St. Martin, and another in honour of St. John. He instructed the inhabitants in the Christian religion. Day by day did Benedict advance in the grace of God, and he also foretold, in a spirit of prophecy, what was to take place. Totila, the King of the Goths, having heard of this, and being anxious to know if it were the truth, went to visit him; but first sent his sword-bearer, who was to pretend that he was the king, and who, for this end, was dressed in royal robes and accompanied by attendants. As soon as Benedict saw him, he said: “Put, off, my son, put off this dress, for it is not thine.” But he foretold to Totila, that he would reach Rome, cross the sea, and die at the end of nine years.
Several months before he departed from this life, he foretold to his disciples the day on which he should die. Six days previous to his death, he ordered them to open the sepulchre wherein he wished to be buried. On the sixth day, he desired to be carried to the Church, and there having received the Eucharist, with his eyes raised in prayer towards heaven, and held up by his disciples, he breathed forth his soul. Two monks saw it ascending to heaven, adorned with a most precious robe, and surrounded by shining lights. They also saw a most beautiful and venerable man, who stood above the saint’s head, and they heard him thus speak: “This is the way, whereby Benedict, the beloved of the Lord, ascended to heaven.”
The Benedictine Order celebrates the praises its illustrious Patriarch in these three Hymns:
Let the Faithful give forth their songs of praise; let our Temples echo with solemn hymns: for on this day, Benedict ascended to the highest heavens.
When a boy, and in the flower of youth, he left his sweet home, and hid himself from the sight of all in a lonely cave.
He conquered the passions of youth by rolling amidst nettles and prickly thorns. After this, he wrote a beautiful Rule of a holy life.
He destroyed a brazen statue of the vile Apollo, and a grave that was sacred to Venus: and on the holy mount, he built an oratory in honour of the Baptist.
Now he dwells in the happy land above, amidst the burning Seraphim: he looks down on those that invoke him, and refreshes their hearts with a nectar of sweetness.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son that is Begotten of him! To thee, also, O Spirit of Love, co-equal with them, One God, be glory for endless ages. Amen.
All that the ancient Prophets preached, and all that the books of the Divine Law tell us of holiness, is contained in the life of the great Patriarch, which we are now extolling.
Moses was celebrated for his meekness; Abraham, for his being Father of all believers; Isaac for the beauty of his Spouse, and his obedience to the trying commands of his father.
The sublime Patriarch of our Family was richly laden with every virtue; and in his single self, represented Isaac, Moses, and Abraham.
May he have a loving care of those whom he has delivered from this stormy world, and lead them with prosperous gales to the port, where there is no fear that can ruffle Peace and repose.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son that is Begotten of him! To thee, also, O Spirit of Love, co-equal with them, One God, be glory for endless ages. Amen.
The third Hymn was composed by the celebrated Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, and friend of St. Bernard.
Amidst the Saints that glitter with the crowns they have won in the holy contest, thou, O Benedict, shinest resplendent with thy sublime merits.
Thy boyhood was graced with the holy gravity of old age; the pleasures of the worid had no hold on thee, and its flowers seemed but as withered weeds to a soul like thine, that was fixed on heavenly things.
Therefore didst thou fiee from the world, leaving thy country and thy parents, and becamest a fervent solitary. Thou didst tame the rebellion of the flesh, and by sharp mortification, thou didst bring it into subjection to Christ.
But thy fond hope of concealment was to be cut short; thy holy miracles betrayed thee, and the glorious fame of thy sanctity swiftly spread through the world.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son that is Begotten of him! To thee, also, O Spirit of Love, co-equal with them, One God, be glory for endless Amen.
O Benedict! thou Vessel of Election! thou Palm of the Wilderness! thou Angel of Earth! we offer thee the salutation of our love! What man was ever chosen to work on the earth more wonders than thou hast done! The Saviour has crowned thee as one of his principal co-operators in the work of the salvation and sanctification of men. Who could count the millions of souls, who owe their eternal happiness to thee? thy immortal Rule having sanctified them in the Cloister, and the zeal of thy Benedictines having been the means of their knowing and serving the great God, Who chose thee.
Around thee, in the realms of glory, a countless number of the Blessed acknowledge themselves indebted to thee, after God, for their eternal happiness; and, upon the earth, whole nations profess the true faith, because the Gospel was first preached to them by thy disciples.
O Father of so many people! look down upon thine inheritance, and once more bless this ungrateful Europe, which owes everything to thee, yet has almost forgotten thy name! The light, which thy Children imparted to it, has become dimmed; the warmth they imparted to the societies they founded, and civilized by the Cross, has grown cold; thorns have covered a large portion of the land into which they sowed the seed of salvation. Come and forward thine own work; and, by thy prayers, keep in its expiring life. Give firmness to what has been shaken. May a new Europe, a Catholic Europe spring up in place of that which heresy and false doctrines have formed.
O Patriarch of the Servants of God! look down from heaven on the Vineyard, which thy hand hath planted, and see into what a state of desolation it has fallen. There was a time, when thy name was honoured as that of a Father in thirty thousand Monasteries, from the shores of the Baltic to the borders of Syria, and from the green Erin to the steppes of Poland. Now, alas! few and feeble are the prayers that ascend to thee from the whole of that immense patrimony, which the faith and gratitude of the people had once consecrated to thee. The blight of heresy and the rapaciousness of avarice have robbed thee of these harvests of thy glory. The work of sacrilegious spoliation is now centuries old, and unceasingly has it been pursued; at one time, having recourse to open violence, and at another, pleading the urgency of political interests. Sainted Father of our Faith! thou hast been robbed of those thousands of sanctuaries, which, for long ages, were fountains of life and light to the people. The race of thy children has become almost extinct: watch over them that still remain, and are labouring to perpetuate thy Rule. An ancient tradition tells us how our Lord revealed to thee, that thy Order would last to the end of the world, and that thy children would console the Church of Rome and confirm the faith of many in the last great trials: deign to protect, by thy powerful intercession, the remnants of that Family, which still calls thee its Father. Raise it up again; multiply it; sanctify it: let the Spirit, which thou hast deposited in thy Holy Rule, flourish in its midst, and show, by thus blessing it, that thou art ever “Benedict,” the servant of God. Support the Holy Church by thy powerful intercession, dear Father! Assist the Apostolic See, which has been so often occupied by Disciples of thy School. Father of so many Pastors of the people! obtain for us Bishops like those sainted ones, whom thy Rule has formed. Father of so many Apostles! ask for the countries, which have no faith, preachers of the Gospel, who may convert the people by their blood and by their words, as did those who went out Missioners from thy Cloisters. Father of so many holy Doctors! pray that the science of sacred literature may revive, to aid the Church and confound error. Father of so many sublime Ascetics! rekindle the zeal for Christian perfection, which has grown so cold among the Christians of our days. Patriarch of the Religious Life in the Western Church! bless all the Religious Orders, which the Holy Spirit has given successively to the Church; they all look on thee with admiration, as their venerable predecessor: do thou pour out upon them the influence of thy fatherly love.
Lastly, O Blessed favorite of God! pray for all the Faithful of Christ, during these days which are consecrated to thoughts and works of penance. It was in the midst of the holy austerities of Lent that thou didst mount to the abode of everlasting delight; ah! help us Christians, who are, at this very time, in the same campaign of penance. Rouse our courage by thy example and precepts. Teach us to keep down the flesh, and subject it to the spirit, as thou didst. Obtain for us a little of thy blessed spirit, that turning away from this vain world, we may think on the eternal years. Pray for us, that our hearts may never love, nor our thoughts ever dwell, on joys so fleeting as are those of time.
Catholic piety invokes thee as one of the patrons, as well as one of the models, of a dying Christian. It loves to tell men of the sublime spectacle thou didst present at thy death, when standing at the foot of the Altar, leaning on the arms of thy disciples, and barely touching the earth with thy feet, thou didst give back, in submission and confidence, thy soul to its Creator. Obtain for us, dear Saint! a death courageous and sweet as was thine. Drive from us, at our last hour, the cruel enemy, who will seek to ensnare us. Visit us by thy presence, and leave us not, till we have breathed forth our soul into the bosom of the God, Who has made thee so glorious a Saint.
By the Right Rev. Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B.Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes