It looked to the eyes of Christians of the Roman Empire crumbling to pieces as though the end of all things were at hand. From every quarter barbarism was extending over the confines of the Empire and was breaking them down. The civilisation which had been built up through centuries, the organism of political unity, the literature and learning of two great and gifted races, the Greek and the Latin, achievements of art never to be surpassed, and Christianity, all seemed destined to go down and be trodden under foot never to reappear.
Throughout the Church there rose the wail to God – “Thine adversaries roar in the midst of Thy congregations: and set up their banners for tokens. He that hewed timber afore out of the thick trees was known to bring it to an excellent work. But now they break down all the carved work thereof with axes and hammers. They have set fire upon Thy holy places: and have defiled the dwelling-place of Thy Name, even unto the ground. Yea, they said in their hearts, Let us make havock of them altogether: thus have they burnt up all the houses of God in the land. We see not our tokens, there is not one prophet more: no, not one is there among us, that understandeth any more. O God, how long shall the adversary do this dishonour: how long shall the enemy blaspheme Thy Name, for ever?”
Confusion, corruption, despair and death, were everywhere; social dismemberment was complete. The empire that had embraced the known world was crumbling to dust under the blows of the mysterious multitudes passing out of the darkness beyond the pale. Odoacer, the chief of the Heruli, had snatched the purple of the Caesars from the shoulders of their last representative in 476, but himself disdained to wear a mantle that was stained with cowardice and dishonour. Authority, morals, laws, science, the arts, religion itself, all seemed to be sinking into the vortex of death.
Germany was wholly pagan, a breeding-place of hordes that burst forth periodically to devastate the land that had been cultivated, and to extinguish the light wherever it burned. Gaul had been overwhelmed by successive waves of barbarism. Spain was ravaged by Visigoths, Suevi, Alani, and Vandals. These latter had swept over Northern Africa, and had given it up to unpitying persecution. Britain had been invaded by the Anglo-Saxons, who had driven the Britons and their Christianity to the mountains of Strathclyde, Wales, and to the peninsula of Cornwall. Over the frozen Danube, the Goths had passed on their cumbrous waggons, and had spread from the woody shores of Dalmatia to the walls of Constantinople.
The condition of Italy, the heart and soul of the Empire that had been dissolved, was deplorable to the last degree. For centuries agriculture had decayed in it, as the farms were absorbed by the great senatorial families and worked by their slaves. The people had come to expect their grain from Egypt and Africa, and now these tributary harvests were withdrawn. War, famine, pestilence stalked over its fair plains, and mowed down such as remained of the population. Pope Gelasius affirmed, with some exaggeration, that in Aemilia, Tuscany and the adjacent provinces, the human species was almost extirpated. “The plebeians of Rome,” says Gibbon, “who were fed by the hand of their master, perished or disappeared, as soon as his liberality was suppressed; the decline of the arts reduced the industrious mechanic to idleness and want; and the senators, who might support with patience the ruin of their country, bewailed their private loss of wealth and luxury. One-third of those ample estates, to which the ruin of Italy is originally imputed, was extorted for the use of the conquerors. Injuries were aggravated by insults; the sense of actual sufferings was embittered by the fear of more dreadful evils; and as new lands were allotted to new swarms of barbarians, each senator was apprehensive lest the arbitrary surveyors should approach his favourite villa, or his most profitable farm. The least unfortunate were those who submitted without a murmur to the power which it was impossible to resist.”
The general despair produced in religious minds the conviction that the fashion of the world was passing away, there was nothing further to be hoped for in it, and that the only direction in which the eternal spring of hope could flow was in the channels of religion that led to heaven.
This was the condition of affairs in Italy, and this explains the origin and the enormous expansion of the Benedictine Order.
Saint Benedict was born along with his sister Scholastica in the year 480. They were twins, and loved each other with that tenderness which so generally exists between twins; they were of one heart and one soul.
They belonged to the noble Anician family, whose history is traceable to the second century before Christ.
Benedict and his twin sister were born at Nursia, a Sabine town, situated high up in the mountains near the source of the Nar. It was here that Vespasia Polla, mother of the Emperor Vespasian, was also born. Virgil speaks of the coldness of its climate, as the chilly cradle of the waters of Tiber and Febaris. To the east tower up the Apennines to the peak of the Monte della Sibilla. Two centuries after the death of Benedict, the vast ruins of his ancestral palace were still to be seen outside the town gates.
Doubtless it was to this Alpine retreat that the family had fled to hide themselves from the Gothic invaders who were devouring the land. Benedict and his twin sister, as their minds opened, became aware of the universal hopelessness that possessed men’s minds. The doom of the great nobles was as certainly sealed as at the French Revolution. No prospect was open to them of any work, any career in political life. They could not fly the fatherland to the colonies, for the colonies were in the throes as well.
These little children, wandering hand in hand through the empty halls of the palace, became prematurely grave, and at an early age were convinced that the only life open to them was that of religion.
Scholastica was the first to speak out what she felt, and to resolve to devote herself wholly to God. Who could think of marriage then, when there was no prospect of being able to rear a family in sufficiency and to any career? Benedict followed. Leaving his old nurse, to whom the charge of the children had been committed, and who loved them as her own soul, he plunged into the gorges of the mountains to seek for a retreat where he might discipline his body and soul. The place he found was Subiaco, twenty-six miles from Tivoli, up the valley of the Anio. Why he chose this spot we do not know. He can hardly have stumbled on it in his wanderings about Nursia, and it is probable that he went thence from some other villa and estate of his parents.
The first place where he lodged was Mentorella, and there his nurse, Cyrilla, came up with him, and insisted on furnishing him with supplies of food. But thence he soon went on to Subiaco, where he found a cave in the face of the rocks above the falls of the Anio, and there he spent three years. Every day, Romanus, a monk who dwelt amid a colony of anchorites among the ruins of Nero’s palace, near at hand, let down to him half a loaf from the top of the rock above, giving him notice of its approach by the ringing of a bell suspended to the same rope with the food.
It was an astounding mode of life for a boy growing into manhood, and we should now consider it a most unprofitable one. But it was not destined to be unprofitable – very much the contrary; and we must remember that there was absolutely no other field for the activities of a young noble open before him.
“How perfectly,” says Dean Milman, “the whole atmosphere was then impregnated with an inexhaustible yearning for the supernatural, appears from the ardour with which the monastic passions were indulged at the earliest age. Children were nursed and trained to expect at every instant more than human interferences; their young energies had ever before them examples of asceticism, to which it was the glory, the true felicity of life, to aspire. The thoughtful child had all his mind thus preoccupied. He was early, it might almost seem intuitively, trained to this course of life; wherever there was gentleness, modesty, the timidity of young passion, repugnance to vice, an imaginative temperament, a consciousness of unfitness to wrestle with the rough realities of life, the way lay invitingly open – the difficult, it is true, and painful, but direct and unerring way to heaven.”
Such a life is not needed now-a-days. What is now required is one like that of Angela, in Sir Walter Besant’s “All Sorts and Conditions of Men,” who will plunge into the sordid wretchedness of the slums of our great cities, and labour there to bring happiness to the dull lives of the toilers – who will labour to ameliorate the condition of those that are the slaves of our nineteenth-century civilisation. What we require – what God requires – are social reformers, men and women, who in place of living selfish lives of amusement and luxury, will devote themselves to helping to raise those who are down, who will seek happiness, not in pampering self, but in making others happy.
After a while crowds of disciples flocked to Benedict, and then he left Subiaco for Monte Cassino, which was thenceforth to be the capital of monastic life.
Strange it may appear, but it was true, that Benedict found the people round Cassino still pagans, offering sacrifices in a temple to Apollo on the height where he chose to plant his settlement.
“In old days,
That mountain, at whose side Cassino rests,
Was, on its height, frequented by a race
Deceived and ill-disposed; and I it was,
Who thither carried first the name of Him,
Who brought the soul-subliming truth to man,
And such a speeding grace shone over me,
That from their impious worship I reclaim’d
The dwellers round about.” – Dante, Par. xxii.
The visitor to Monte Cassino now leaves the station at San Germano, and hires donkeys for the ascent. The steep and stony path winds above the roofs of the houses of the town, and at every path opens fresh views of entrancing beauty. The silver thread of the Garigliano lies below, with towns studded on its banks; long ranges of mountains of the most beautiful outline break the horizon, billow after billow of intensest blue, crested as with a foam of snow. Little oratories by the wayside commemorate incidents in the life of Saint Benedict. First comes that of Saint Placidus, the favourite disciple of the patriarch; then that of Scholastica his sister; then one where he is supposed to have wrought a miracle; next a cross on a platform that indicates the place where brother and sister met for the last time – of which more anon. Then a grating and a cross where Saint Benedict knelt to ask God’s blessing before he laid the foundation stone of his monastery. Benedict had been thirty-six years a monk before he came to Monte Cassino, and we know nothing of his sister’s life through all these years, save that she had maintained a still and holy converse with God. It is most probable that she had never tarried very far from her brother. Now that he settled at Monte Cassino, she came and planted herself with a little community of pious women at the foot of the mountain. Scholastica was as white in soul, as earnest, as devout as was Benedict. They were alike in everything save in sex; and she became, as unawares as himself, a mighty foundress – for if from him houses for men multiplied throughout the Western world, so was she the mother spiritual of innumerable similar refuges for holy women.
At Monte Cassino, according to the expression of Pope Urban II, “the monastic life flowed from the heart of Benedict as from the fountain of Paradise,” and here it was that he composed his famous rule, that commenced with the words, “Hearken, O my sons” (Ausculta o fili).
When he drew it up, not a notion came into his head that he was doing a work that would last, a work that was absolutely needed for the times, and without which the barbarians would never have been tamed and regenerated, and a new civilisation superior to the old rise out of the ashes of that which expired.
It is quite true that there were plenty of monks and nuns already scattered about; but they were under no definite rule, under no strict obedience. We see exactly how it was among the Celtic societies. An abbot or abbess rambled over the West, now in Ireland, then in Scotland, in Britain, in Armorica, dived into the Swiss gorges, strayed about in the woods of Germany, founding houses and churches, then going farther. And just as the abbots were ever on the move, so was it with those who placed themselves under their teaching. No sooner did they think they knew enough, or no sooner did the itch of change affect them, than away they went, now to pay a brief visit to some other great master, then to be off again and found monasteries of their own. There was no stability about them, and above all no organisation. The idea of obedience never seems to have entered their heads, and, as a matter of course, a great number of vagabonds too idle to work, and loving change, assumed the tonsure and habit, and roved over the country leading scandalous lives; in fact, the Hooligans of the day postured as saints. Monachism, which should have served a high missionary purpose, for lack of organisation was becoming a discredit to Christianity.
There is a striking French tale, “Mon oncle Celestin,” by Ferdinand Faber, in which he describes the “ermites” of the Cevennes and the south of France, a set of men who pretend to lead exalted lives, wear a religious habit, are under no ecclesiastical discipline, and who – with some notable exceptions – are a scandal and source of demoralisation. Now the monks and ascetics before Saint Benedict were very much like these modern “ermites” of the Cevennes.
The great work of Saint Benedict was to coordinate all these ardent men in one body, to subject them to discipline, to insist on obedience, and then to employ their powers for the good of the Church and of humanity in general.
At that period, when nations had to be conquered, and those nations barbarian, the ordinary methods of propagating the faith did not suffice. Single priests were pretty sure to be butchered, or if not, alone they could effect very little. Besides, the barbarians had to be taught something more than Christianity; they had to be instructed in the industrial arts and in agriculture.
Now, the Benedictine monastery was not only a missionary establishment containing a great many men, but it was a school, a hospital, a poorhouse, a great workshop, and an agricultural institution.
But we must leave this interesting topic to speak of Saint Scholastica.
As already said, she had established herself at the foot of the mountain with a community of like-minded women who were under the direction of her brother. They met only once a year; and then it was that Scholastica left her cloister to seek Benedict. He, on his side, descended part way to meet her; and the place where they clasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes was on the mountain side, not very far from the gate of the monastery.
“There, at their last meeting, occurred that struggle of fraternal love with the austerity of the rule, which is the only episode in the life of Scholastica, and which has insured an imperishable remembrance to her name. They had passed the entire day in pious conversation, mingled with the praises of God. Towards evening they ate together.
“While they were still at table, and the night approached, Scholastica said to her brother, ‘I pray thee do not leave me to-night, but let us speak of the joys of heaven till the morning.’ ‘What sayest thou, my sister!’ answered Benedict; ‘on no account can I remain out of the monastery.’
“Upon the refusal of her brother, Scholastica bent her head between her clasped hands on the table, and prayed to God, shedding tears to such an extent that they ran over the table. The weather was at the time serene: there was not a cloud in the sky. But scarcely had she raised her head, when thunder was heard muttering, and a storm began. The rain, lightning, and thunder were such, that neither Benedict nor any of the brethren who accompanied him could take a step beyond the roof that sheltered them.
“Then he said to Scholastica, ‘May God pardon thee, my sister, but what hast thou done?’ ‘Ah yes!’ she answered him, ‘I prayed thee, and thou wouldst not listen to me; then I prayed God, and He heard me. Go now, if thou canst, and send me away, to return to my convent.’
“He resigned himself, against his will, to remain, and they passed the rest of the night in spiritual conversation. Saint Gregory, who has preserved this tale to us, adds that it is not to be wondered at God granting the desire of the sister rather than that of the brother, because of the two it was the sister who loved most, and that those who love most have the greatest power with God.
“In the morning they parted, to see each other no more in this life. Three days after, Benedict, being at the window of his cell, had a vision, in which he saw his sister entering heaven under the form of a dove. Overpowered with joy, his gratitude burst forth in songs and hymns to the glory of God. He immediately sent for the body of the saint, which was brought to Monte Cassino, and placed in the sepulchre he had already prepared for himself, that death might not separate those whose souls had always been united to God.
“The death of his sister was the signal of departure for himself. He survived her only forty days. A violent fever having seized him, he caused himself to be carried into the chapel of Saint John the Baptist. He had before ordered to be opened the tomb in which his sister slept. There, supported in the arms of his disciples, he received the viaticum: then, placing himself at the side of the open grave, at the foot of the altar, and with his arms extended towards heaven, he died standing, murmuring a last prayer.
“Died standing! – such a victorious death became well the great soldier of God.”
He was buried beside his sister, on the very spot where had stood the altar of Apollo which he had cast down.