The word “saint” simply means holy or pure.
Before they became holy, saints were just like you and I. Take a look at the painting below of the man named Benedict, born in the mid-5th century when the Roman Empire was crumbling. His face shows well the wear and tear of our human living and suffering. This is how One Hundred Saints describes Benedict’s times:
“Overrun by pagan and Arian tribes, the civilized world seemed during the closing years of the fifth century to be rapidly lapsing into barbarism: the Church was rent by schisms, town and country were desolated by war and pillage, shameful sins were rampant amongst Christians as well as heathens, and it was noted that there was not a sovereign or a ruler who was not an atheist, a pagan or a heretic.”
A perfect description of the troubled times we live in, isn’t it? For, like Benedict, we too are living in a time when a great empire — the American — is waning and crumbling. May we find solace and inspiration in Benedict’s life, teachings, and example!
“Pray and Work” - St. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480-547)
We do not have a contemporaneous biographical account of Benedict, despite his historical importance as the founder of Western monasticism. The little we know about his earlier life comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory, published 46 years after Benedict’s death.
Born in 480, four years after the abdication of the last Roman emperor, in the town of Nursia (the modern Norcia) in today’s central Italy, Benedict was the son of a Roman noble. Sent by his father to Rome to study, Benedict was revolted by the licentiousness of his classmates. Fearing he might be contaminated by their example, Benedict left Rome and became a hermit in a wild and rocky place now known as Subiaco. There, he lived alone for three years in a cave, in contemplation and prayer. He succeeded in overcoming three demonic temptations — those of putting himself as the center of his life, that is, narcissism; sensuality and worldliness; and anger and revenge.
Soon, the word spread of this wise and holy man. Many people began visiting Benedict, bringing him food and receiving from him instruction and advice. Among his visitors were a community of monks who, having lost their abbot by death, asked Benedict to take his place. But Benedict’s strict notions of monastic discipline did not suit them. So the monks tried to get rid of him by poisoning his wine! But their diabolical plot was foiled when the jug of wine broke in pieces as Benedict made the sign of the cross over it. Benedict rebuked the monks but forgave them. He then left them to return to Subiaco.
There, attracted by his holiness and miraculous powers, disciples began flocking to Benedict. Overcome with envy, a priest called Florentius sought to destroy Benedict by spreading lies and even tried to kill Benedict with a poisoned loaf. According to St. Gregory, Benedict’s life once again was saved when a raven seized the loaf and flew away with it.
Eventually, Benedict collected the worthy from among his disciples and founded twelve monasteries, each with 12 monks and its own prior, with Benedict as director.
In 529, Benedict left Subiaco and settled in hilly Monte Cassino, where he overthrew a pagan temple dedicated to Apollo and built two chapels in its stead. In time, the chapels and their surroundings grew into the Abbey of Monte Cassino — the most famous abbey the world has ever known and the source of the Benedictine Order.
It is believed that during this period of time, Benedict composed his Rule — a book of precepts. Though it was primarily intended for the monks at Monte Cassino, Benedict’s Rule has become the leading guide in Western Christianity for monastic living in community, especially Benedictines. More than that, the Rule is addressed to all of us who renounce our own will to take upon us “the strong and bright armor of obedience to fight under the Lord Christ, our true king.”
So what is the Rule of St. Benedict?
Benedict described his Rule as “minimal, just an initial outline.” St. Gregory put it best when he characterized the Rule as Benedict’s teaching by example — “as he himself lived.”
Briefly, the two main tenets of St. Benedict’s Rule are Humility and Ora et Labora (pray and work):
1. Pray and Work: St. Benedict believed that being a follower of Christ requires both faith and works. Faith without works is a dead faith. One must pray to become close to God, as well as work through daily deeds in order to be fruitful as a branch on the Vine of Christ. Indeed, Benedict had founded the Benedictine Order precisely based on this precept of ora et labora — prayer and manual labor. And, true to his teaching by example, Benedict did not confine his ministries to just the Abbey and the monks who lived there, but went out into the communities, curing the sick, relieving the distressed, giving alms, money, food and supplies to the poor.
2. Humility: As St. Gregory describes it, “the Abbot must . . . serve rather than to rule in order to show them all what is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words” and “illustrate the divine precepts by his example.” The Abbot “must also be a person who listens to the brethren’s views, as “the Lord often reveals to the youngest what is best.”
Pope Benedict XVI calls Benedict’s Rule, written 15 centuries ago, “surprisingly modern” in its prescription that “a man with public responsibility even in small circles must always be a man who can listen and learn from what he hears.” In a speech in 1990, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emphasized the importance of St. Benedict for Europe in our post-modern times when “man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which … in 20th-century Europe … has caused ‘a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity’…. Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St. Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.”
It is, therefore, not without reason and import that when he was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II on April 19, 20o5, Ratzinger chose Benedict as his pontifical name.
In closing, I want to address a Sacramental associated with this saint which is used by exorcists during the Rite of Exorcism as an external sign of the saving Power of Jesus. It is the medal or Crucifix of St. Benedict, which both Dr. Eowyn and I wear on a small chain necklace. Here’s a description:
“The origin of the medal of St. Benedict is very ancient. It was certainly suggested by the efficacious use that the patriarch made the sign of the cross against the assaults of the Demon narrated by St. Gregory. Pope Benedict XIV established the design of this medal. On one side it carries the image of St. Benedict holding a cross in his hand and on the other side there is a larger cross with Latin initials. Due to the fact that the cross represented is an essential element of this medal, it is called the Medal-Crucifix of St. Benedict.
On the back there is the effigy of the Saint, holding the cross in his right hand and the Rules in his left hand; on his right there is a cup from which a serpent is escaping (a recollection of the poisonous wine from which he miraculously escaped); on the left we have a crow taking away the poisoned bread.”
Inscribed on the medal and cross are Latin words, including “May the Holy Cross be my light”, “Get behind me Satan!,” “You won’t persuade me to do evil,” and “PAX” (Peace).
St. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe and, fittingly, of victims of poisoning. His feast day is today, July 11.
- One Hundred Saints, Bulfinch Press
- Lives of the Saints, edited by Michael Walsh
- “Saint Benedict of Norcia,” General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, Wednesday, April 9, 2008, by Pope Benedict XVI
For the raison d’être of FOTM’s new series on “Angels and Saints,” please see Dr. Eowyn’s explanatory post, “Calling on the Army of Angels and Saints.”