Solemnity of St Benedict
On this eleventh day of July, we turn our grateful eyes once again to the great founder of our order, St Benedict of Nursia. Why today? The 11th of July has been commemorated by Benedictines throughout the world for well over a thousand years as the day of the transfer of his relics to the monastery of St Benoit sur Loire in France during the time of the Norman invasion of Italy. Two years ago, some of us were privileged to go and pray and offer Mass at the altar of the relics in the basilica of that venerable monastery. The date is also significant for another reason, much closer to us. On this day in the year 1964, Pope Paul VI solemnly consecrated the rebuilt abbey church of Montecassino, bombed and transformed into a heap of rubble in the terrible war that tore the world apart and saw the loss of so many monuments of our Christian tradition. On this occasion, the Pope decided to honour our saint in a new and special way by proclaiming him patron of Europe, continent united in the Christian faith in large part due to the prayers and labours of the Sons and Daughters of St Benedict.
Here in Tasmania, so far away from Montecassino and St Benoit sur Loire, what lessons can we draw from the life of this man whom we call our holy Father St Benedict? There are many ways we can approach his life and legacy. The number of Benedictine monasteries throughout the 15 centuries and on every continent since his lifetime is impressive. After such a long time, men continue to be inspired by his example and set out, under his guidance, to become saints. What is it, we may ask, that made the young boy from Nursia into St Benedict? As often as I turn my thoughts in that direction, I find myself going back continually to the first step he took when he left the world behind. For me, that is what made St Benedict. All the rest was but the logical consequence of that resolve. So what did he really do on that day?
St Gregory tells us, in the prologue to his life of the saint: “He was born of distinguished parents in the district of Nursia and received a liberal education at Rome. But when he perceived that many of the students were rushing headlong into ruin, he withdrew his foot which he had set, as it were, upon the threshold of the world, lest, if he attained a full knowledge of it, he too might plunge into the abyss. Therefore, he discontinued the pursuit of letters and turning his back upon his home and his father’s wealth, he resolved to become a religious, being desirous to please God alone. Accordingly, he left Rome, deliberately abandoning the pursuit of human knowledge and preferring heavenly wisdom”.
He withdrew his foot which he had set upon the threshold of the world. The young Benedict had at his fingertips a life of fame and pleasure. Clearly, as the rest of the story makes clear, he was a very gifted young man. He could have, like so many others, pursued the study of the arts and been filled with the multiple satisfactions the world has to offer. But he saw that such was vanity, that it led nowhere, that it could not satisfy his innermost longings.
The gesture itself speaks more than a thousand words. He withdrew his foot. He pulled back. As he was about to plunge into a life of self-satisfaction, as he was about to abandon his soul to the pursuit of personal lusts, he stops on the edge of the precipice. Some time later, we will see the same young man in the throes of an awful temptation that once again placed him on the edge of that woeful bottomless pit. Whereas the first time, he had to renounce only the natural penchant of his ardent nature, this time it is the ancient enemy himself who brings before the mind of the young a sensual temptation so vivid, so real, a woman, a beautiful woman whom he had known, had seen, this image Satan himself brings before the mind of this man in the ardour of youthful passions, and he does so with such art that, even though now sanctified by some months of asceticism, to quote St Gregory again, “the fire of lust burning within him he was on the point of yielding to a temptation to leave his wilderness”. It’s almost the same expression: he is on the verge of a precipice. But by this time, Benedict has acquired a good habit, and he knows what to do. As he did when he left the world, he pulls back. But this time, because of the vehemence of the passionate fire in his flesh, he has recourse to an energetic and decisive counter-offensive. “Seeing a thorny shrub close at hand, he cast off his garment, threw himself into the brambles and rolled about in them till every part of his body was suffering torture. Thus by the wounds which afflicted his body the wound of his soul was healed”.
The victory is complete. The grandeur of St Benedict lies in these two scenes, for it is only by stepping back from the world and its pleasures that the gate opens to enter into the divine. Along with a love for chastity, Benedict develops a love for poverty and for obedience, the praises of both of which he will sing in the Rule. It would be a few more centuries until the scholastics would systematise the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience as being the most perfect way of following our Lord Jesus Christ which all religious are bound and privileged to do. But already it is there in St Benedict in all its perfection.
Today, Benedict continues to inspire us, and he continues to draw us. The answers he gives our age are the very same ones he gave to the Rome of his day. To a world immersed in vice to the point of making it an idol, he teaches to pull back and trust in the grace of God which makes us free. To a world drunk with the search for material prosperity, for a fortune without labour, for holidays without work, he teaches to make do with little, to consider nothing as belonging to us, setting us free from the bonds of so many distractions. To a world so enthralled with its own autonomy even against God, he teaches that it is in humble submissiveness, in bowing our head before God and man that true peace is to be found.
This morning at Matins, taking the cue from St Gregory who says that St Benedict united in himself the gifts of all the holy just men of the Old Testament, we were given to read a passage from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) in which the holy author enumerates the wonders of grace Divine Providence worked in the souls of the holy patriarchs and prophets. In my reckoning, the most important one of these, one that summarises the life of every Benedictine monk, is what was said about the royal prophet and psalmist King David: “With his whole heart he praised the Lord, and he loved the God that made him: and He gave him power against his enemies” (Sirach 47:10). Yes, it is because Benedict loved the God who made him that he found the strength to leave the world, cherished parents and a potential wife, a glorious career and fame; it is because he loved the Lord who made Him that he overcame the most violent temptations and passed unscathed through the multiple snares of the enemy; it is because he loved the Lord who made him that he sang his praises with all his heart. And so he teaches us, his sons, to spend ourselves in singing those praises day and night with all our heart.
Let us, on this glorious day, ask him cast his paternal gaze upon this little flock, tucked away in a part of the world he did not even know existed. May he deign to recognise in us men who truly desire to be counted among those who have left all things to follow Christ. As it happened for the rich young man of the Gospel, may he obtain that the gaze of Jesus may alight upon each of us and that He may love us, and call us to a deeper intimacy with Him, making us strong in those moments of temptation that none of us can avoid, when the world and its pleasures coming rushing back into our memories. May he obtain for us the grace to step back, and then step forward with renewed resolve to the holy mountain where Our Lord and His Holy Mother await us in glory. Amen.