Novena to St Benedict Day 8: The construction of a monastery

Yesterday's post dealt with St Benedict's providential decision to move to Monte Cassino.  Today I want to look at some of what St Gregory's tells us of the physical and spiritual construction of the monastery there.

 The importance of Monte Cassino

Pius XII, in the Encyclical Letter Fulgens Radiator notes in relation to Monte Cassino that:

"It was here that Benedict brought the monastic life to that degree of perfection to which he had long aspired by prayer, meditation and practice.

The special and chief task that seemed to have been given to him in the designs of God's providence was not so much to impose on the West the manner of life of the monks of the East, as to adapt that life and accommodate it to the genius, needs and conditions of Italy and the rest of Europe.

Thus to the placid asceticism which flowered so well in the monasteries of the East, he added laborious and tireless activity which allows the monks "to give to others the fruit of contemplation", and not only to produce crops from uncultivated land, but also to cultivate spiritual fruit through their exhausting apostolate."

The task of constructing the monastery was challenging.

The evangelization of Monte Cassino

St Benedict first had to convert the locals from paganism (the temple of Apollo right is a reconstruction of the temple of Delphi in Athens):

"For the town, which is called Cassino, standeth upon the side of an high mountain, which containeth, as it were in the lap thereof, the foresaid town, and afterward so riseth in height the space of three miles, that the top thereof seemeth to touch the very heavens: in this place there was an ancient chapel in which the foolish and simple country people, according to the custom of the old gentiles, worshipped the god Apollo. Round about it likewise upon all sides, there were woods for the service of the devils, in which even to that very time, the mad multitude of infidels did offer most wicked sacrifice."

St Gregory records - and archaeological excavations undertaken at Monte Cassino after World War II confirm - that the saint took as his patrons two saints who had both combined periods of the strictly contemplative life and periods of active evangelization in their lives, namely St John the Baptist and the great missionary-monk-bishop St Martin of Tours.

And St Benedict evidently adopted St Martin's very un-PC tactic - of replacing old pagan temples with monasteries and churches - as his own:

"The man of God coming thither, beat in pieces the idol, overthrew the altar, set fire to the woods, and in the temple of Apollo, he built the oratory of St. Martin, and where the altar of the same Apollo was, he made an oratory of St. John: and by his continual preaching, he brought the people dwelling in those parts to embrace the faith of Christ."

The physical building

The second challenge was the building of the new monastery.  St Gregory reports that the devil was so angered by the success of the saint that he appeared in person to go head to head with him.  The devil's shouts were so loud that the brethren could hear, though not see, him too.

The devil also sought to obstruct the building process, preventing the monks from moving a large rock, until the saint countered the attack with his prayers.  When they dug below the rock on St Benedict's instructions, they found a bronze idol underneath which created an illusion that the kitchen was on fire until St Benedict countered it. 

But the most serious incident involved the (temporary) death of one of the young monks, brought back to life miraculously by the saint (illustration below by Don Lorenzo Monaco):

"Again, as the monks were making of a certain wall somewhat higher, because that was requisite, the man of God in the meantime was in his cell at his prayers. To whom the old enemy appeared in an insulting manner, telling him, that he was now going to his monks, that were a-working: whereof the man of God, in all haste, gave them warning, wishing them to look unto themselves, because the devil was at that time coming amongst them.

The message was scarce delivered, when as the wicked spirit overthrew the new wall which they were a building, and with the fall slew a little young child, a monk, who was the son of a certain courtier. At which pitiful chance all were passing sorry and exceedingly grieved, not so much for the loss of the wall, as for the death of their brother: and in all haste they sent this heavy news to the venerable man Benedict; who commanded them to bring unto him the young boy, mangled and maimed as he was, which they did, but yet they could not carry him any otherwise than in a sack: for the stones of the wall had not only broken his limbs, but also his very bones.

Being in that manner brought unto the man of God, he bad them to lay him in his cell, and in that place upon which he used to pray; and then, putting them all forth, he shut the door, and fell more instantly to his prayers than he used at other times. And O strange miracle! for the very same hour he made him sound, and as lively as ever he was before; and sent him again to his former work, that he also might help the monks to make an end of that wall, of whose death the old serpent thought he should have insulted over Benedict, and greatly triumphed."


Spiritual construction of the monastery

The Life of St Benedict also narrates a series of events that illustrate the spiritual growth of the monastery and its influence through the charisms granted to St Benedict.  Many of the stories relate St Benedict's ability to know miraculously what his monks were doing - particularly in cases of infractions of the Rule!  But these incidents also paint a picture of a monastery deeply integrated in the life of the society of the time.  There are stories involving visiting monks; of the monks acting as chaplains to nearby nuns; of aiding individuals and the local community for example.

But given that it is currently Lent, it is perhaps appropriate to end today's post with a story that should surely inspire modern day Oblates to greater fervour when it comes to our Lenten fast!:

"A brother also of Valentinian the monk, of whom I made mention before, was a layman, but devout and religious: who used every year, as well to desire the prayers of God's servant, as also to visit his natural brother, to travel from his own house to the Abbey: and his manner was, not to eat anything all that day before he came thither.

Being therefore upon a time in his journey, he lighted into the company of another that carried meat about him to eat by the way: who, after the day was well spent, spake unto him in this manner: "Come, brother," quoth he, "let us refresh ourselves, that we faint not in our journey": to whom he answered: "God forbid: for eat I will not by any means, seeing I am now going to the venerable father Benedict, and my custom is to fast until I see him."

The other, upon this answer, said no more for the space of an hour. But afterward, having travelled a little further again he was in hand with him to eat something: yet then likewise he utterly refused, because he meant to go through fasting as he was.

His companion was content, and so went forward with him, without taking anything himself. But when they had now gone very far, and were well wearied with long travelling, at length they came unto a meadow, where there was a fountain, and all such other pleasant things as use to refresh men's bodies.

Then his companion said to him again: "Behold here is water, a green meadow, and a very sweet place, in which we may refresh ourselves and rest a little, that we may be the better able to dispatch the rest of our journey." Which kind words bewitching his ears, and the pleasant place flattering his eyes, content he was to yield unto the motion, and so they fell to their meat together: and coming afterward in the evening to the Abbey, they brought him to the venerable father Benedict, of whom he desired his blessing.

Then the holy man objected against him what he had done in the way, speaking to him in this manner: "How fell it out, brother," quoth he, "that the devil talking to you, by means of your companion, could not at the first nor second time persuade you: but yet he did at the third, and made you do what best pleased him?" The good man, hearing these words, fell down at his feet, confessing the fault of his frailty; was grieved, and so much the more ashamed of his sin, because he perceived that though he were absent, that yet he did offend in the sight of that venerable father."

More tomorrow.  And of course, don't forget to say the Novena prayer...

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