Pillars of the Church – Saint Benedict, by Theodore Maynard

detail of a painting of Saint Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine rule, Herman Nieg, 1926, church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria; swiped off wikimedia CommonsWhenever an educated man of the western world thinks of a monk, he instinctively thinks of a Benedictine. He knows, of course, that monasticism existed before Saint Benedict, and he knows that there were many later developments and modifications of the monastic idea. But vague as he may be as to details, he is quite right in regarding the Benedictine Rule as the norm, the central thing to which all that went before and all that came after must be referred, and Saint Benedict as the man who set the pattern for the religious life. As Dom David Knowles puts it: “For almost six hundred years, over the whole of civilized Europe outside the Balkans, to be a religious, that is, to serve God according to the Gospel counsels, was to be a Benedictine monk.”

In later chapters I shall have occasion to touch lightly upon the rich florescence of variety that monasticism produced from the thirteenth century on. At this stage it might be worth while to trace briefly the emergence of the Benedictine idea. However great were Benedict’s innovations, they were led up to and prepared for by a long series of experiments. A life dedicated to poverty, chastity and obedience was by no means uncommon during the Apostolic age itself, though there was as yet no distinguishing name – still less any distinguishing dress – for those who already foreshadowed the monasticism that was to follow. It did not take very long to appear as such; by the end of the third century there were in Syria and Palestine groups of men and women known as ascetics; and these already constituted a closely organized social class, though they were not differentiated, except by their fervour, from the mass of contemporary Christians. They were recognized as standing apart from the world, yet they still had no rule or canonical position. Not until Saint Anthony, at the beginning of the fourth century, sought the solitude of the desert and drew to him many inflamed with an enthusiasm similar to his own, can it be said that any definite step was taken in the direction of true monasticism.

Even then its organization was of an exceedingly loose kind. Hermits grouped themselves in lodgings not too far from one another, and not too near either, but within range of a public church, and practised in a highly individualistic, often even in an extravagant and eccentric fashion such penances as might occur to them. Rufinus of Aquileia, as translated by Helen Waddell in The Desert Fathers, described how, “There is another place in the inner desert, about nine miles distant: and this place, by reason of the multitude of cells dispersed through the desert, they call Cellia, The Cells. To this place those who have had their first initiation and who desire to live a remoter life, stripped of all its trappings, withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space, that none is within sight of his neighbour, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them: only on the Saturday and the Sunday do they come together to church, and there they see each other face to face as folk restored in heaven.” Not until the time of Saint Pachomius can community life, as we understand it today, really said to have begun. But though individualism was somewhat curbed, it was far from being at an end. The Pachomian concept was that the monastery was a kind of novitiate for the hermitage, to which the monk would be permitted to withdraw as soon as he was judged capable of it. Egypt, and to a less extent Asia Minor, had its solitary places filled with monks and hermits of this sort.

The popular idea of these desert solitaries is that of grim, emaciated, and forbidding figures. And indeed it must be admitted that the austerities of some of them strike the modem Catholic, no less than the man of the world, as being in the nature of “stunts.” One of the most notable Benedictines of our time, Abbot Butler, writes: “The favourite name to describe any of the prominent monks was ‘great athlete.’ And they were athletes, and filled with the spirit of the modem athlete. They loved to ‘make a record’ in austerities, and to contend with one another in mortifications; and they would freely boast of their spiritual achievements.” Yet the somewhat frantic emphasis they laid upon a merely physical discipline is understandable enough when we remember that they thought of the world as so desperately evil that the only remedy seemed to be flight, and the only means of blotting out all memory of its evil that of furious penances. Nor must we forget that these men were for the most part Orientals and had minds tinged with the pessimism of the East. It was in the lands from which they came that the devastating heresies of despair arose.

This, however, is only one side of the picture, and not its truest side. Grimness and pessimism were certainly to be found, but more often it was merely a question of fussiness. Pelagius the Deacon tells of how the Abbot Arsenius came to a place where there was a bed of reeds, and the reeds were shaken by the wind. “And the old man said to the brethren, ‘What is this rustling?’ And they said, ‘It is the reeds.’ The old man said to them, ‘Verily, if a man sits in quiet and hears the voice of a bird, he hath not the same quiet in his heart: how much more shall it be with you, that hear the sound of these reeds?'” Yet Pelagius also reports the Abbot Anthony as having said, “There be some that wear out their bodies with abstinence: but because they have no discretion, they be a great way from God.”

As against this Miss Waddell’s charming anthology is full of stories that might have come out of the Fioretti. Here are two of them: “There were two old men living together in one cell, and never had there arisen even the paltriest contention between them. So the one said to the other, ‘Let us have one quarrel the way other men do.’ But the other said, ‘I do not know how one makes a quarrel.’ The first said, ‘Look, I set a tile between us and say, “That is mine,” and do thou say, “It is not thine, it is mine.” And thence arises contention and squabble.’ So they set the tile between them, and the first one said, ‘That is mine,’ and the second made reply, ‘I hope that it is mine.’ And the first said, ‘It is not thine, it is mine.’ To which the second made answer, ‘If it is thine, take it.’ After which they could find no way of quarrelling.”

Even more delightful is this: “They tell that once a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius: but he who for love’s sake thought not on his own things but on the thin gs of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks to God for the kindness of his brother, but he too thinking more of his neighbour than of himself, brought it to another, and so that same bunch of grapes was carried round all the cells, scattered as they were far over the desert, and no one knowing who had first sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver.” From these it is clear that the desert was not so sandy as one might suppose. The hermits who lived on the tops of pillars were not the only Pillars of the Church.

The trend had been away from individualistic practices and eccentric austerities for some time before Saint Benedict legislated for monks. What his Rule did was definitely to discourage monks from going in for, I will not say merely extravagant penances, but for all penances not indicated in the Rule itself. The Seventh Chapter of the Regula lays it down that “the monk should do nothing except what the common rule of the monastery and the example of superiors exhorts.” And the Forty-ninth Chapter, on the keeping of Lent, adds that even during that season no special mortification should be performed without the approval of the Abbot. The last chapter but one even has Saint Benedict saying, “As there is, a harsh and evil zeal which separateth from God and leadeth to hell, so there is a virtuous zeal which separateth from vice and leadeth to God and life everlasting.” The Rule, in short, did not wish to quench zeal but to control it and, by controlling it, to make it more effectual.

During the fourth and fifth centuries the Pachomian type of monasticism – that of a community governed by law – was introduced into the Western Church by the writings of Rufinus, Cassian, Palladius and Jerome. Meanwhile in the East Saint Basil wrote his two rules – admonitions rather than rules proper – and Saint Augustine organized his diocesan clergy upon a monastic basis. These rules had as their central idea that of establishing a moderate level of austerity binding upon all monks, while strongly encouraging each monk to go beyond this minimum, in so far as he was able to do so. The spirit remained that of the Desert, even while a rein was put upon it.

This was true also of early Irish monasticism, whose origins are somewhat shrouded in obscurity, and of the monasticism promoted by Saint Martin of Tours, who died in 397. In Gaul illustrious monasteries were being founded, including those of Lerins, Marmoutier and Liguge. But in them was a type of mo nas ticism that was soon to be made obsolete by the Rule of Saint Benedict. Even the rule written by Saint Columban (543-615) for his Irish monks in Gaul, when it met the Rule of Saint Benedict in the monasteries of central Europe, was supplanted by it. Until then, monastic practice had emulated the fasts and vigils and macerations of Egypt and Syria.

So much for early monasticism. Let us turn to Saint Benedict himself.

We know very little about the details of his life except what Saint Gregory the Great has told us in his Dialogues and what we can infer from the Rule itself. Saint Gregory has the point of view about biography of many men of his time and so generally omits the historical background, as a matter of little interest. And, as Abbot Herwegen remarks, “As far as our knowledge of the great Father of Monks is concerned [the Dialogues] are rather a delicately woven veil.” What Gregory does tell us a great deal about are Saint Benedict’s miracles – much to the distress of many moderns who, even when they theoretically admit the miraculous, are inclined to be somewhat embarrassed by it. I do not think we need to be embarrassed, even those of us who do not fully accept Abbot Chapman’s thesis that the Saint obtained his prestige as a monastic legislator because of his previous prestige as a wonder-worker par excellence. What ‘we must say of Saint Gregory is that he was able to consult several men who had known Saint Benedict and that he must be allowed to be – within the limits he set himself – an accurate biographer as well as a charming writer.

If Benedict was born in 480 – the usually accepted date – then it was only four years after the Western Empire had ceased to exist as such. Society was in chaos, and Western Europe shortly afterwards was almost wholly under pagan or Arian ascendency. Only in the northwest of Gaul and in Ireland and Western Britain did completely Catholic districts exist. Benedict appeared, in other words, very much at the psychological moment.

He was of a good family of Nursia, and some say at the age of fourteen – though others (and I am one of them) think that it was more probably at the age of eighteen – he went to Rome to study. The tradition is that his studies were of the usual rhetorical sort. This may be so, though his Rule shows small traces of his having been touched by the over-elaborate literariness which was then the mode. His Latin is such exceedingly low Latin that, on the supposition of literary studies, he must have deliberately turned away from the prevailing fashion in favour of the more popular and readily comprehensible Latin then emerging. One is disposed to deduce from the terse and laconic language of the Rule that his studies in Rome must rather have been that of law – another reason for believing that he went to Rome later than early tradition has it. Be that as it may, he was appalled by the moral conditions among the students and so, actuated at the outset by the same impulse that drove the first ascetics into the desert, decided after three years to retire to seclusion and solitude.

There was a short stay – just how long we do not know at Enfide, which is the present Affile, about thirty-five miles from Rome. The young Benedict was accompanied there by a woman named Cyrilla who is described as his nurse, and whom we may suppose to have been an old retainer of his family in Nursia deputed to look after him. At Enfide, Saint Gregory tells us, “they were detained by the charity of many good people, and abode awhile in the Church of the Apostle Saint Peter.” This Dorn Justin McCann thinks means either that they stayed at some annex or dependency of the church or that Benedict began there his pastoral studies. The second surmise, however, would seem to be unlikely in view of the fact that Benedict never proceeded to the priesthood.

Now occurred the first of the miracles recorded by Saint Gregory. Cyrilla had borrowed an earthenware sieve and accidentally broke it. “But Benedict, pious and loving youth that he was, when he saw his nurse weeping, had pity on her sorrow, and taking with him the two pieces of the sieve set himself to earnest prayer. When he arose from his knees the sieve beside him was whole and entire, nor was there any mark to show that it had been broken.” That sieve, Gregory goes on to say, was hung up in the porch of the church and remained there until the time of the Lombards.

The immediate result was that every woman with a broken pot came pestering Saint Benedict to mend it. Seeing that he would find no peace there, he fled – this time alone – to Subiaco to begin his career.

At Subiaco he led a strictly eremitical life for three years. There, according to Pliny, an artificial lake had been made by the Emperor Claudius which had taken the work of 30,000 men for eleven years. And by it were;he ruins of one of Nero’s palaces. In a grotto, halfway down a precipice, Benedict lodged in a cave, fed only by a local monk named Romanus who let down daily a small portion of bread, announcing its coming by ringing a little bell. Though he was deliberately to turn his back upon this manner of life, he had no quarrel with those who preferred it, so long as they did not carry it to the point of extravagance. Years later, when he encountered near Monte Cassino a hermit named Martin who had riveted himself to a rock by an iron chain, Benedict’s only remark was, “If thou art truly the servant of Christ, do not bind yourself by a chain of iron but by the chain of Christ.” Upon this Martin took off his chain but never went further from his rock than when he was bound.

During this period in the cave at Subiaco came the great temptation, to which had Benedict yielded we should never have heard of him again. The image of a woman he had once seen so assailed him that he was almost on the point of leaving his hermitage and going to find her. Instead he threw himself naked into a thorn-bush nearby – a heroic remedy which proved so efficacious that never again was he troubled by the allurements of the flesh. Concerning this incident Abbot Cabrol has written: “The question has naturally arisen: who was this woman whose memory after so many years of penance still haunted the mind of Benedict? All that can be discovered is unworthy of mention. What does it matter, after all? The woman is simply Woman; she is the temptation which tormented a Saint Anthony, and after him every solitary who, each in his turn, went through the critical hour in which his virtue was proved.” Centuries later, according to Luke Wadding, the Franciscan annalist, Saint Francis visited Benedict’s cave. There he blessed the thorn-bush – and instantly it flowered with roses.

In this cave Benedict was discovered by some shepherds whom he converted and made his first disciples. His reputation was growing so rapidly that when the monastery at Vicovaro – about eighteen miles from Subiaco on the road to Tivoli – lost its abbot, the monks begged Benedict to take his place. He consented, though very reluctantly, because he saw from the start that the plan would not work. Plainly enough he told them that their way of life and his would not agree, but they insisted, and then, when he attempted to introduce discipline – for like most monasteries of the time, its only rule was the will of the abbot – these strange monks made an attempt to poison him. If you are amazed by that, let me remind you that a thousand years later Saint Teresa’s Discalced Carmelites had to guard against being poisoned by their Calced brethren. At least some of them thought it advisable to take precautions against that happening.

One would have supposed that after this experiment Benedict would have returned permanently to his cave. He did indeed live again for a short period as a hermit, but he soon made another experiment in monasticism, for though his rule at Vicovaro had failed, his time there had served to suggest ideas to him. Now he founded twelve monasteries, each consisting of twelve monks and a prior, all governed by himself, and all following – so Abbot Tosti conjectures – the Rule of Saint Basil. It was not an absolutely new concept – that o f a cluster of monasteries – and it was one that he was eventually to abandon. But the concept was at least a further stage on the road to his mature and rounded plans.

The actual occasion for Benedict’s leaving Subiaco was that he incurred the hostility of a priest named Florentius. Again there was an attempt at poison. Florentius sent him an elogium, one of the loaves then blessed at the Offertory at Mass. But Benedict realized the malice behind this and ordered a raven which he fed daily to take the loaf and cast it in some place where it could never be found.

As he had not succeeded with poison, Florentius managed to smuggle six depraved women into one of the monasteries in the hope of seducing the young monks. This was a bit too much. Saint Benedict had long been thinking of another type of monastery, and even the death of Florentius shortly afterwards would not take him back to Subiaco. Off he went immediately to Monte Cassino with his followers to put Benedictinism into practice. Saint Gregory explains the hatred of Florentius: “He himself would have liked to enjoy the same reputation, though he took the greatest care not to live the same life.” Perhaps this was the reason why Saint Benedict wrote in the Fourth Chapter of the Rule: “Do not wish to be called a saint before you are one, so that later it may be said with greater truth.”

The establishment at Monte Cassino was made in 529, or near that date. It was there that the Rule was written and a fully developed Benedictinism given to Benedict’s monks and eventually to the world.

Monte Cassino had long been a spot famous in pagan religion. It had a sacred wood and temples to Jupiter and Apollo, and perhaps the rites of Mithra had also been celebrated there, for these had been popular among the Roman legions which had once had an acropolis on the summit of the mountain. That Benedict was able to remove the vestiges of paganism suggests that he had been given absolute possession of the place – it has been surmised through the influence of Tertullus, the father of the boy-monk Saint Placid. Official authorization was, after all, at that time still necessary for what Benedict did. However this may be, it is certainly the fact that Benedictinism reached perfect flower at Monte Cassino – not until then.

This came about through the Rule – a rule written for Benedict’s own monks but with an eye to its possible adoption by other monasteries. Abbot Chapman even argues that it was produced at the direct instance of the Pope with a view to codifying the whole monastic system. But its slow diffusion and its subsequent existence side by side with other monastic rules would seem to indicate that though, in the end, standardization did result, this came about because of the merits of the Rule itself and not because it was officially imposed. It supplanted all other rules by virtue of its being so reasonable, so well fitted to the European temperament, so well fitted (one might add) to the nature of man.

Montes Benedictus amabat, says the famous distich that attributes to Bernard a preference for valleys, to Francis the towns, and to Dominic the great cities. Yet though Benedict located monasteries on mountains, the more arduous heights of asceticism were avoided by him. Before his time monasticism was still very largely oriental in tone, even when it had degenerated into a merely formal austerity. Almost every monastery was somewhat eclectic, choosing, according to the taste of its abbot, from this or that rule specific provisions, but often enough without much consideration of their suitability to the temperament of those asked to obey them. The result was that a particular abbot might have a good deal of influence during his lifetime, and that his community would fall into a state of hopeless confusion after his death. On the one hand there was excessive rigour, on the other there was appalling laxity. The vagabond monk was becoming a religious and even a social problem.

Benedict begins by saying, “We are therefore about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.” He ends by saying that what he has written is only a “beginning” of the monastic life. He does not profess any penitential purpose but instead assumes that those joining him have never been guilty of malice but only wish to purge themselves of “the sloth of disobedience.” He is not providing a place where the notorious sinner may expiate his sins, but is rather writing for the ordinary man of good will. Not poverty but frugality is his concept of the monastic life, and though the life for which he legislates is, after all, ascetic, its asceticism is very mild when compared with the extravagance that had prevailed, and was sometimes to prevail again. The Benedictine Rule was to be interpreted in a rigid sense by Saint Bernard, and still more so by the “Thundering Abbot” of La Trappe, Armand de Ranee, yet its keynote is moderation or, as Saint Gregory put it, discretion.

An instance of this appears in the regulations regarding the Opus Dei. Though nothing was to be preferred to this, the distinctive function of monks, Saint Benedict ordered that the Ninety-fourth Psalm at Matins was to be dragged out so as to give time for loiterers to find their places in choir; and again at Lauds the Fiftieth Psalm was similarly to be said slowly. This shows, comments Abbot Butler in his great book Benedictine Monachism, “that the kind of discipline Saint Benedict expected to secure and aimed at securing was not the discipline of a regiment, where everybody has to be punctual to the minute . . . but the freer discipline of a well-regulated family life.” He continues, “If there should be a Benedictine monastery wherein no one ever was late for anything, no one ever broke the rule of silence or the other rules, no one ever gossiped or went to sleep when he ought to be reading or working, – well, such a monastery might be, to use Palladius’ favourite word of the Egyptian monks, OavpAcriov, wonderful; but it would not be Benedictine.” Indeed, though the primitive monastic schedule, as worked out by Abbot Butler, may strike us as exacting, he points out that when the time-table is analyzed, it is seen to allow ample time for sleep and imposed hardly more external hardship than that to which the monks had been accustomed before they entered the monastery. It is really a reaction against austerity. The Thirty-ninth Chapter, which legislates concerning food, says that a monk should not eat to excess, lest he get indigestion, and the Fortieth Chapter says that he should not drink too much. One hemina. (a pint) of wine a day, Saint Benedict thinks, ought to be enough for any man, appending, “Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety but sparingly.” “I wonder,” comments Abbot Butler, “is there any other religious rule in which such a sentence can be found! ” The whole emphasis on mortification is laid in the famous Seventh Chapter on humility.

Abbot Butler, who governed Downside so long with genial wisdom, makes much of the elasticity of the Rule. “This,” he says, “is a very good term. What is elastic allows itself to be modified by the presence of external forces; but elastic, unless it be worn out, ever tends, as the pressure of such forces wanes, to return to its original condition, and when the forces cease to operate, it does reassume its native form. It is in this property that elasticity lies, and that elastic differs from putty.” From this he argues that the spacious interpretation given to the Rule at Downside, and indeed generally given to it by Black Benedictines, is in closer consonance with the Benedictine spirit than would be a literal application of all the Rule’s provisions. Yet it is still open to such communities as wish to carry out the Rule with precise archaic fidelity to do so.

The moderation of the Rule – which Saint Benedict sometimes almost seems to be apologizing for – is what makes it so original. For though he had undoubtedly studied the regulations of Saint Basil and Saint Pachomius, as well as those of other monastic legislators – especially Cassian – he usually gives something very different. What he wrote is at once impersonal and revealing; so much so, that as Abbot Cabrol puts it, “Certain chapters of his Rule are equal to so many pages of an autobiography.” Benedict’s own life was so sunk in his Rule that it is the mirror of his fife. Saint Gregory says with truth, “This holy man could not teach otherwise than he had lived.”

What cannot be stressed enough is that Benedict never thought of himself as founding a religious order. Even today the Benedictines do not constitute a religious order in the sense that the Jesuits or the Dominicans are such. At Subiaco there was what may be called a religious order, at any rate in germ. The Cluniac reform created a religious order – but only by departing, in its centralization, from Saint Benedict’s own idea. And Leo XIII, in creating an Abbot Primate, probably intended that he should be a General. But Leo’s plans were not fully carried out, so that Abbot Butler is able to be thankful that, after fifty years of primacy, no signs of centralization have as yet occurred, even though he fears that, “human affairs being what they are,” an ambitious primate will sooner or later arise who will try to aggrandize his position into that of a generalship. Meanwhile Benedictinism remains what it always was, a loose association of autonomous abbeys, so that Abbot Ford points out that “a Benedictine may more truly be said to enter or join a particular household than to join an order”; and Dom David Knowles concludes that the Benedictines are not an order but a way of life.

Another of Benedict’s leading ideas was the vow of stability. This was of course always inherent in monasticism but had not been greatly insisted upon, with the result that there was much wandering about, and the vagabond monk appeared. Now a man entered an abbey with the express intention of living and dying there. No centralized novitiate existed, though’ young monks might be sent for a while to a house of study outside his own monastery. This stability was, and always will be, an essential feature of Benedictinism. The friars of the thirteenth century needed a greater mobility than the Benedictines possessed; anything like a vow of stability would have only hampered them in their work. And this was even more true of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious orders. But the Benedictine life would have been impossible except under stability, which has been defined by Archbishop Ullathome as the binding of the monk “to an irrevocable life in the community that has witnessed his profession.” Yet though the later orders found that they could do their best work in small units, or even through isolated men sent out as pioneers, it was a distinct advantage to them that the abbeys remained as a stabilizing and balancing force. To be able to think of the community as a family was a consolation to men who knew that they would have to pass most of their days separated from the family circle. Here as in other respects the Rule of Saint Benedict continued to be the norm of the religious life.

It is very much of a question whether early monasticism universally insisted upon formal vows, though everywhere a man who had entered the monastic state and then left it was regarded as an apostate. Even the Basilian rule only demanded the profession of celibacy. For that matter Saint Benedict’s Rule does not, in so many words, call for what has come to be regarded as the marks of the religious state – the promise of poverty, chastity and obedience. What it asked instead was that the monk should vow to accept the monastic manner of life, stability, and obedience to the Rule. During the eighth century, in fact, only obedience and stability were promised, on the ground that the others were implied in them. And though all this is now sometimes made more explicit by the taking of the three ordinary vows as well, as these had always been sufficiently covered by the Rule itself, the Benedictine monk or nun from the beginning took what was the equivalent of five vows.

The Rule itself, however, exacts only the acceptance of the monastic state, conversatio morum, regarding this as the end, and stability and obedience as the means to that end. Abbot Tosti sums it all up by saying, “The scope of the Rule of Saint Benedict is to bring back the monk, by the labour of obedience, to God, from whom he had departed by the sloth of disobedience.” Everything therefore is comprised in obedience, as the Rule makes clear just what is expected of those who take upon themselves the monastic mode of life.

Abbot Butler would appear to be asserting too much when he calls all later monastic developments a revulsion against Saint Benedict and even a reversion to the individualism of the Desert. A Jesuit might well smile at the following passage, though none can deny that it contains a good deal of truth. “These medieval and modem orders, be they offshoots from the Benedictine trunk, or modem congregations of clerks regular, or what not, have all been characterized by the emphasis laid in varying degrees on the practice of corporal austerity in manner of life, and of self-inflicted bodily mortifications; and by a shifting of the center of gravity of the spiritual life from the canonical office to the cultivation of private mental prayer. And all the subjectivity of modern spirituality, with its self-introspection, its hankering after self-inflicted austerities, its analysis of motives, its methods of meditation, its marking progress in virtue, its conscious ad- vancement in perfection, even its daily charts of defects and acts of virtue and mortification, and its preference of private over common prayer, – what is it all, but a reversion to the individualism of the earlier monachism of Egypt, from the objective concrete monastic life symbolized by Saint Benedict in calling his monastery a school, not of perfection, but of God’s service?” Dom Justin McCann feels obliged to insert a footnote on Abbot Butler in his own Saint Benedict: “Abbot Butler’s book is charged with all the force of his own vigorous personality, and . . . this, while adding greatly to its power and interest, detracts from its objective value and even makes it misleading for the unwary reader. His personal convictions tend to dominate the argument and determine its course, so that his conclusions must be received with a measure of caution.” It can hardly be denied, however, that with the abandonment of the choral Office on the part of recent orders there arrived the tendency to introspection that colours so much of modern spirituality. But an increase in physical austerity – no, it has not meant that; quite conspicuously it has not meant that.

What is true is that there has been a lessening of the corporate life. Saint Benedict aimed at bringing men into a family circle in which they might seek and praise God in cooperation, under a direction that would be firm but not severe. The abbot was not to break the vessel in removing its rust. He had to remember, however, that he would be called upon to give an account to God of his stewardship, and that his sole duty was that of leading his brethren to Christ. Moreover, his authority was not dictatorial. In all important matters he had to consult the assembled community, and the Rule carefully laid it down that he was to listen to the views of even the youngest monk, “because the Lord often revealeth to the youngest what is best.” The system was comprehensive, without being too minutely detailed or restrictive, and it proved to be really workable. The good sense and practicality of his Rule was Benedict’s most notable achievement. The fire of the Desert soon burnt itself out, whereas the cheerful and companionable glow of the monastic hearth would last for ever. It was in this way that Saint Benedict brought what may be called a quiet revolution tp Church and society.

Perhaps the most striking instance of Benedictine development lies in the fact that the early communities consisted almost wholly of brothers, whereas all the later communities consisted of priests, except for the special class of lay-brothers. It was of course necessary that for the saying of Mass and the administration of the sacraments a priest should be available. But there is nothing in the Rule to show that Mass was said every day in the monastery, or that its chaplain was always a member of the community. The main duty of the monks was the solemn performance of the Opus Dei, and for this monks who were laymen, presided over by an abbot who was a layman, sufficed. Changing circumstances made it necessary – though only by degrees – that all the choir monks should be either priests or clerics being trained for the priesthood; but these circumstances, it was discovered, called for no change in the original Rule. Even in a matter of such moment as this it proved its flexibility. Just as the Rule was only the more perfectly carried out when Benedictine monks became missionaries and teachers, so the Opus Dei was given a grandeur and solemnity that had not been possible under primitive conditions. Benedictines accordingly grew not less but more Benedictine as a consequence.

The social effect was enormous, extending even to that teaching of good manners to the barbarians which Abbot Cabrol and others have indicated. The Middle Ages were called by Cardinal Newman the Benedictine Centuries. A world that appeared to be on the point of dissolving into chaos with the breakdown of the old Roman order, was remodelled and blessed by Benedict’s sons. Yet any specific social intention was probably not in Benedict’s mind at all. Canon Hannay remarks: “The Benedictine Rule aimed at making good men and left the question of their usefulness to God. It is, perhaps, just because they denied themselves the satisfaction of aiming at usefulness that they were so greatly used.”

The elasticity and adaptability of the Rule made it perfectly in keeping with almost any work, the engaging in almost any functions. As to that Abbot Butler writes: “There was a Europe to be converted, christianized, civilized anew; law and order to be restored; the fabric of society to be rebuilt; the dignity of labour to be reasserted; agriculture, commerce, education, the arts of peace to be revived; civil and political life to be renewed; in short, a Europe to be remade.” In this the Benedictine order was the most powerful of all the instruments at the disposal of the Church, and this was very largely for the reason that it did not establish parishes but monasteries – because, in short, it was based upon the vow of stability. The monastery was the centre of everything, and at a time when the world was in flux such settled centres were more than ever needed. And though monks were sometimes sent out in smaller groups for special missionary efforts – as for that matter, free-lance Benedictines during the past century in the United States did much valuable work, not to be done otherwise – a monastery was always set up as soon as possible. Stability is still the distinguishing feature of Benedictinism.

About the social effect of the monastic institution nobody has ever spoken better than Newman: “Saint 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, 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 world 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 deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that ‘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.” And again all this reposed upon stability and could not have been brought about without it.

Corporateness, not individual efforts, however brilliant, is the mark of the Order. But though this is obviously indispensable to the proper performance of the liturgy, it does not form part of Benedictine life solely for that reason. Saint Benedict’s abbey is a family, ruled by its father, the abbot, and the family operates as a single entity. But it was only to be expected that Benedictines, starting with Prosper Gueranger of Solesmes, and extending through Maria Laach and other Benedictine centres, should now be the leaders in what promises to be the most fruitful of all means for the elevation of Catholic life from the mediocre spirituality which has plagued us since the Reformation to the liturgical prayer which is at the very heart of true Catholic piety. The liturgical revival is not distinctively – still less is it exclusively – Benedictine, and no Benedictine would want it to be considered as such. But that it was not completely lost sight of during the “age of devotions” has been due to Benedictine life, to that more than to anything else.

This, of course, must not be understood as implying that private prayer is neglected by Benedictinism. That Saint Benedict himself was a mystic, and a mystic of a high order, comes out in the experience related of him by Saint Gregory the Great – his vision of “the whole world collected under a single sunbeam.” Saint Bernard took this to mean that Benedict was momentarily raised to the manner of the knowledge of the angels, who see God face to face, contemplate His wisdom clearly in itself, and know creatures in God. And Saint Gregory, so far from thinking of contemplation as beyond the reach of all but an exceptionally endowed few, held on the contrary, “It is not the case that the grace of contemplation is given to the highest and not given to the lowest; but often the highest, and often the most lowly . . . and sometimes also those who are married receive it. If therefore there is no state of life of the faithful from which the grace of contemplation can be excluded, anyone who keeps his heart within him may also be illuminated by this light of contemplation.” It has been a great pity that some later systems have sometimes tended to create the impression that this is a thing reserved to specialists and experts. If they have not quite succeeded we have largely to thank the Benedictine insistence upon the Catholic truth that the whole body of believers make up the Mystical Body of Christ and may realize their part in it through the liturgy of the Church.

We get one indication of Saint Benedict’s sanity of outlook from the fact that he loved to pray in the open air. Another is in the maxim ora et labora. Though the Benedictine never set out to be a “pure” contemplative, his was nevertheless a contemplative life and one that did not professedly seek that balance of activity and contemplation which Saint Thomas Aquinas, speaking for his Order, defined as the explicit Dominican aim. This was contemplata aliis tradere. Though Benedictine monks, as individuals, did much in the way of imparting to others the fruits of their own contemplation, this was not their professed object. If it comes to that, perhaps only a hermit can be a contemplative and nothing else, and the hermit himself can attain to undistracted contemplation only intermittently. The Abbot Silvanus of Mount Sinai once remarked to his disciple Zachary: “Martha is necessary to Mary, for because of Martha is Mary praised.” Cynics have suggested that Mary was able to sit at the Master’s feet because Martha was willing to do Mary’s share of the housework as well as her own. The truth, however, is that well-ordered monastic life contrives to unite Mary and Martha, and though the degree to which this is brought about varies from order to order, and also in individual cases, too sharp a distinction drawn between contemplation and activity is usually misleading. It certainly has little meaning if applied to the Benedictine concept of religion. The question is merely one of proportion and degree.

The end of the Saint has the same human quality that marked it throughout. Once a year, we are told by Saint Gregory, he used to spend a day with his twin sister Saint Scholastica. At their last meeting she begged her brother not to leave her that night but to speak until morning of the joys of heaven. His answer was, “You must not ask me this, my sister, for on no account must I remain outside of the monastery at night.” It was a beautiful evening, but Scholastica changed all that. Putting her hands upon the table, and her head upon her hands, she prayed; upon which so tremendous a storm arose that Benedict and those with him could not think of leaving their shelter. Then Benedict said, “May Almighty God forgive you, my sister. What is this that you have done?” To which Scholastica replied serenely, “I asked you to remain and you would not listen to me; so I asked my Lord and he has answered me. Now go, if you can; leave me and go back to your monastery.”

Three days later Scholastica died and Benedict, looking from the window of his cell had a vision of her soul flying in the form of a dove to heaven. Her body was buried in his monastery in the grave he had prepared as his own.

He was not long in following her there. Six days before he died he had her grave reopened for him. Then, feeling death upon him, he had himself carried into the church and received the Body and Blood of Christ. Then standing erect, tall, white-bearded, more spare of frame than ever, and upheld only by the hands of the brethren, he breathed his last amid words of prayer. Saint Gregory continues with: “On that same day two of his monks, one in his monastery, the other far away, saw the selfsame vision. They saw a path strewn with rich coverings and flashing with innumerable lamps, stretching eastwards from his monastery to the sky. And beside it above stood a man in venerable garments who asked them whose path it was that they saw. When they confessed that they knew not: ‘This,’ said he, ‘is the path by which Benedict, the beloved of the Lord, ascended to heaven.’ ” He was laid to rest by the side of Scholastica at the very spot where seventeen years before he had destroyed the altar to Apollo.

In 1581 the Lombards sacked Monte Cassino and the monks fled to Rome. Cut down, the abbey grew again, as cut down once more only recently, it will surely grow again. The first destruction helped to spread out Benedictinism from Rome as a centre, and until 717 Monte Cassino was utterly deserted. Meanwhile Saint Gregory, Benedict’s biographer, unable to go to England as a missionary, owing to his election as Pope, sent Saint Augustine to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. This is the first certain record we have of the establishment of the Order beyond the borders of Italy, though we hear of Saint Maurus, who had been one of Saint Benedict’s beloved boy-monks, being sent to France not long before Benedict died.

Expeditions were sent from Benedictine houses in France in 673 to find the grave of Benedict and Scholastica. After some difficulty this was located, and the bones of the Saints were taken to France – those of Benedict to Fleury-sur-Loire (now Fleury-Saint-Benoit) and those of Scholastica to Le Mans. This pious theft – of a kind not uncommon at the time – aroused such protests that in 750 Pope Zachary wrote to the French bishops asking that the bones be returned. But there were evasions, and though some relics were given, the bones were kept. Only the ashes of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica are at Monte Cassino. And despite the destruction of the abbey, the gorgeous tomb that covered them is still intact.