St Benedict lived at a crossroads in the history of Europe, at the beginning of the so-called dark ages, yet shines as a light for our faith and for European culture over a thousand years later. This saint has had a profound impact on the religious and monastic life in the west like no other, and consequently on the whole culture of our continent.
Pope Paul VI declared St Benedict to be a principal patron of Europe in a beautiful apostolic letter in which he wrote:
When darkness seemed to be spreading over Europe after the fall of the Roman empire, he brought the light of dawn to shine upon this continent. For with the cross, the book and the plow, Christian civilisation was carried, principally through him and his disciples, to the peoples who lived in those lands which stretch from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, and from Ireland to Poland.
We have the details of the saints lifted from the biography written by St Gregory the Great (who was himself a monk and managed to interview some of St Benedict’s disciples). St Benedict was born in the Italian town of Nursia in or around 480AD. When he was old enough he was sent to Rome to further his studies. The young and pious St Benedict was horrified by the lack of morals and faith among the Roman students of his day. Therefore he fled the city. Eventually he found his way to the desert of Subiaco where he began to live the life of a hermit, having received the religious habit from the hands of a monk of a neighbouring monastery. He led an exemplary religious life and this drew the attention of many other young men seeking Christ. He acted as their spiritual father, investing many in the habit.
The period in Subiaco, a time of solitude with God, was a time of maturation for Benedict. It was here that he bore and overcame the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the centre, the temptation of sensuality and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge. In fact, Benedict was convinced that only after overcoming these temptations would he be able to say a useful word to others about their own situations of neediness.
When we see a statue or painting of St Benedict he is usually depicted holding the abbots crozier and a cup of wine with a snake crawling out. The cup of wine refers to an incident related by St Gregory. The neighbouring monastery of Vicavaro chose St Benedict as their abbot after having heard of his holiness. They were not prepared, however, for his reforming efforts in the monastery. The monks began to plot against him and eventually settled that the best course of action would be to poison him. At the time it was well known how to concoct a poison that would undetectable. So while at table, as was the custom, the server for the day presented St Benedict his cup of wine while asking for a blessing. When St Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the cup it shattered, revealing that it was poisoned, and showing God’s providential care for this saint who was to be so important in the future of the Church. After this event St Benedict left the monastery and returned to Subiaco.
The pastoral staff St Benedict holds in paintings is a symbol of his office as abbot, the superior of a monastery. He founded many monasteries in his time, almost establishing what one might call a “monastic city” of 12 monasteries at Subiaco. However his most famous foundation is that of Monte Cassino. It was established high on a mountain top, in an area in which paganism was still rampant. St Benedict and his monks brought the light of the Gospel to shine from that hill top over the surrounding countryside, and eventually over all Europe. The dark ages were no longer dark where the monks of St Benedict made their home. His monasteries were to become centres of great learning, and of the arts. Their schools were to become the origin of our modern universities. Their almshouses, infirmaries and guest houses provided support for the poor, the sick and the traveller long before the welfare state was ever thought of.
Sometimes St Benedict is also pictured holding a small book, his holy rule, which has formed the basis of most monastic orders in the west from his time until today. His rule brings the Roman genius of order and balance to bear on the monastic life. He built on the traditions of eastern monasticism, and the Rule of the Master in the west, giving them a form that would prove to be a foundation of modern Europe.
His rule establishes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service” centred around the “opus Dei” of the “work of God”, the Hours of the breviary which send praise to heaven throughout the day and sanctify each moment of the monks life.
St Benedict predicted his death beforehand, asking his grave to be opened six days before his death. After contracting a fever he was carried into the abbey church where he received the Body and Blood of Our Lord for the last time. He died on Saturday 21st of March 543 having spent 14 years in his famous monastery of Monte Cassino and leaving a spiritual and cultural legacy that reaches even into the 21stcentury.