Today is the feast of St Benedict (480-543), founder of the Order of St Benedict, pictured in the fresco above from the Church of his birthplace, Norcia, with his twin sister St Scholastica to the right of the Virgin and child.
Pope Paul VI named St Benedict patron of Europe in 1964, saying that: “It is much appropriate that we celebrate St. Benedict, the abbot, as the announcer of peace, creator of unity, teacher of social traditions, and especially, herald of the Christian faith, and the founder of the monastic lifestyle in the West.”
And more recently, Pope Benedict XVI chose his own name in part because:
"The name "Benedict" also calls to mind the extraordinary figure of the great "Patriarch of Western Monasticism", St Benedict of Norcia, Co-Patron of Europe...The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order that he founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across the Continent. St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace; he is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization.
We are familiar with the recommendation that this Father of Western Monasticism left to his monks in his Rule: "Prefer nothing to the love of Christ" (Rule 72: 11; cf. 4: 21). At the beginning of my service as Successor of Peter, I ask St Benedict to help us keep Christ firmly at the heart of our lives."
The death of St Benedict
Over the last several days, to mark the Novena leading up to the feast day, I've been running a series on the Life of the Saint, drawn from St Gregory's Life of St Benedict (Dialogues Book II). Today I want to conclude with St Gregory's description of the saint's holy death and birth into heaven, which gives rise to the feast that we celebrate today.
St Benedict was granted the privilege of knowing when he was going to die:
"The same year in which he departed this life, he told the day of his holy death to his monks, some of which did live daily with him, and some dwelt far off, willing those that were present to keep it secret, and telling them that were absent by what token they should know that he was dead. Six days before he left this world, he gave order to have his sepulchre opened, and forthwith falling into an ague, he began with burning heat to wax faint..."
And so arranged to be taken to the monastery chapel to receive viaticum, and to be held up in prayer by his monks for his final hour (picture above by Br Stephen O. Cist from the hood of the Fort Augustus Cope):
"and when as the sickness daily increased, upon the sixth day he commanded his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he did arm himself with receiving the body and blood of our Saviour Christ; and having his weak body holden up betwixt the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own lifted up to heaven, and as he was in that manner praying, he gave up the ghost."
A vision of his path to heaven
St Gregory also records that two monks were granted a vision of St Benedict's passing into heaven:
"Upon which day two monks, one being in his cell, and the other far distant, had concerning him one and the self-same vision: for they saw all the way from the holy man's cell, towards the east even up to heaven, hung and adorned with tapestry, and shining with an infinite number of lamps, at the top whereof a man, reverently attired, stood and demanded if they knew who passed that way, to whom they answered saying, that they knew not.
Then he spake thus unto them: "This is the way," quoth he, "by which the beloved servant of God, Benedict, is ascended up to heaven."
And by this means, as his monks that were present knew of the death of the holy man, so likewise they which were absent, by the token which he foretold them, had intelligence of the same thing."
Burial at Montecassino
St Gregory records that the saint was buried at Montecassino:
"Buried he was in the oratory of St. John Baptist which himself built, when he overthrew the altar of Apollo; who also in that cave in which he first dwelled, even to this very time, worketh miracles, if the faith of them that pray requireth the same."
The quotations from the Life I've been using come from the edition by Edmund G. Gardner (1911), originally transcribed for the St Pachomius Orthodox Library and made available by CCEL. And you can download a copy of the Latin here.
Happy feast day!
Commemoration of the Lent feria
The Lent day Gospel alluded to in the commemorations at Lauds and Vespers is John 8:21-29, Our Lord foretells his coming death.