Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western Monasticism, who's also the namesake of our present Pope, Benedict XVI. Benedict was born in Umbria, central Italy, around 480.
"As a young man Benedict was sent to Rome for studies but left after a short stay, desiring to dedicate his life to God. He went to live in an isolated place near Subiaco, not far from the ruins of Emperor Nero's summer villa, about fifty miles from Rome. Today the cave is the celebrated shrine called "Sacro Speco" (The Holy Cave) and is one of Europe's most beautiful sanctuaries. At Subiaco, Benedict lived a life of solitude and prayer for about three years with the support from a monk named Romanus. Benedict's time as a hermit was interupted for a short period when he became the superior of a group of unruly monks. Ultimately unhappy with his guidance, they tried to poison him. He then withdrew to the cave at Subiaco once again. Eventually, Benedict's sanctity attracted disciples and in time, twelve small monasteries were established around Subiaco, with Benedict as the spiritual father of them all."
"Around the year 530 Benedict left Subiaco with some of his disciples for Monte Cassino (site of former temple to Apollo), halfway between Rome and Naples, where he began a single, close-knit community on a mountain top. There he remained until his death around the year 547. Is was at Monte Cassino that Benedict completed his "Rule for Monks" ...Today, the "Rule of Saint Benedict," as it is commonly called, is considered one of the most important factors in the development of Christian Europe."
The 1953 Lives of the Saints recounts of how Benedict struggled with temptation during his time as a hermit:
"Even though he lived thus sequestered from the world, Benedict, like the Desert Fathers, had to struggle with temptations of the flesh and the devil. One of these struggles is described by Gregory. 'On a certain day when he was alone the tempter presented himself. A small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his face and came so near to him that, if he wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then followed a violent temptation of the flesh, such as he had never before experienced. The evil spirit brought before his imagination a woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it. He was almost overcome and thought of leaving his solitude. Suddenly, however, with the help of divine grace, he found the strength he needed. Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul." Never again was he troubled in the same way."
I bet! Ouchie!! I include this not because it's the most important thing about St. Benedict, but because in our modern world, these stories are no longer told. We're embarrassed by the passions and excesses of the early Christians, we only want to hear the sanitized history. But all religions have some form of mortification of the flesh, some method of the spirit transcending the body, be it lying on a bed of nails, fasting for a month in Ramadan, or sitting in a sweat lodge. We don't roll around in briar patches or put rocks in our shoes anymore, but we don't need to deny that it happened either. Later in Benedict's life, he discouraged extreme austerities that were damaging to the health.
What was the most important thing about St. Benedict was the establishment of the monasteries, which famously preserved Western cilivization by copying and saving manuscripts while Europe was overrun by "pagans and Arian barbarians." At Monte Cassino, Benedict developed the Rule of the Monastery, which prescribed a life of liturgical prayer, study and manual labor. No longer could the hermits sit around all day and pray, they had to work! Manual labor was considered to be ennobling, a way to serve the Lord. Benedict said that "Idleness of the enemy of the soul," which sounds a lot like "The idle mind is the playground of the devil." As The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living notes:
"Western monastic houses inspired by Benedict's Rule helped preserve the ancient learning that wold otherwise have disappeared from the Continent, opened schools that created Europe's educated class, developed the exquisite music we know as Gregorian Chant (whose notation led to modern musical notation), and - most importantly - created a wide variety of beers, wines and liqueurs we still enjoy today."
Some other titles for St. Benedict are "Messenger of Peace, Architect of Unity, Teacher of Culture and Civilization, Father of Western Monasticism, Herald of the Christian Faith, and Father of the Whole of Europe."