Novena to St Benedict Day 9: The spread of Benedictine monasticism

Yesterday's post focused on the construction of Monte Cassino; today I want to look at some of the incidents that relate to the spread of Benedictine monasticism.  And tomorrow on the feast itself I will conclude the series with the section of the Life on the death of St Benedict.

St Benedict's monastic foundations (1) - Subiaco

 We have already seen that St Benedict left behind one group of monasteries at Subiaco.  We know that the monasteries there survived, providing a source of Benedictine continuity near to Rome until attacks by the Saracens in 828-829 and 876-877 (through it was restored again after that).  Indeed, St Gregory says that the current abbot of Subiaco was one of his sources for the Life, and also relates that miracles continued to occur at Subiaco:

"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. For the thing which I mean now to rehearse fell out lately. A certain woman falling mad, lost the use of reason so far, that she walked up and down, day and night, in mountains and valleys, in woods and fields, and rested only in that place where extreme weariness enforced her to stay. Upon a day it so fell out, that albeit she wandered at random, yet she missed not the right way: for she came to the cave of the blessed man Benedict: and not knowing anything, in she went, and reposed herself there that night, and rising up in the morning, she departed as sound in sense and well in her wits, as though she had never been distracted in her whole life, and so continued always after, even to her dying day."

St Benedict's foundations (2) - Gaul



Tradition also holds that St Benedict made several other foundations within his life time.  St Maurus (in the painting above by Hans Memling with SS Christopher and Giles), of whom the Life records several incidents, and describes him as something of a co-adjutor to St Benedict, was originally left behind at Subiaco.  But St Maurus seems to have eventually moved to Montecassino, and from there, according to a tradition subsequently recorded in the Life of St Maurus, was sent to found the monastery of Glanfeuil in France not long before St Benedict died.  While the claim is disputed by modern historians, it certainly explains the otherwise puzzling spread of Benedictine monasticism in Gaul in the seventh century, to monasteries such as Altaripa in the diocese of Albi (circa 627), Fleury (circa 640) and the conversion of the Monastery of Lerins to Benedictine spirituality some time before 665, when the Englishman Benedict Biscop studied there.

Monastic foundations (3) - The destruction of Monte Cassino


Monte Cassino itself was to have a rather more tumultuous fate: over its history, it has been razed to the ground several times (the picture above shows it after World War II), but each time eventually rebuilt. 

In the Life, St Gregory records that St Benedict had a vision of its first destruction:

"A certain noble man called Theoprobus was by the good counsel of holy Benedict converted: who, for his virtue and merit of life, was very intrinsical and familiar with him. This man upon a day, coming into his cell, found him weeping very bitterly. And having expected a good while, and yet not seeing him to make an end (for the man of God used not in his prayers to weep, but rather to be sad), he demanded the cause of that his so great heaviness, to whom he answered straightway, saying: "All this Abbey which I have built, and all such things as I have made ready for my brethren, are by the judgment of almighty God delivered to the gentiles, to be spoiled and overthrown: and scarce could I obtain of God to have their lives spared, that should then live in it."

And indeed, thirty three years after the death of St Benedict, Montecassino was destroyed by the invading Lombards.  The monks though, as St Benedict had been promised, survived unscathed:

"His words Theoprobus then heard, but we see them to be proved most true, who know that very Abbey to be now suppressed by the Lombards. For not long since, in the night time, when the monks were asleep, they entered in, and spoiled all things, but yet not one man could they retain there, and so almighty God fulfilled what he promised to his faithful servant: for though he gave them the house and all the goods, yet did he preserve their lives. In which thing I see that Benedict imitated St. Paul: whose ship though it lost all the goods, yet, for his comfort, he had the lives of all that were in his company bestowed upon him, so that no one man was cast away."

Monastic Foundations (4)  - St John's Lateran

The destruction of Montecassino was, of course, to prove providential for the spread of the Order, a case of God bringing good out of evil.  St Benedict's monks moved to Rome, ending up at St John's Lateran.  And there, they met the young St Gregory, and thus provided the main sources for his Life of St Benedict:

"All the notable things and acts of his life I could not learn; but those few, which I mind now to report, I had by the relation of four of his disciples: to wit, of Constantinus, a most rare and reverent man, who was next Abbot after him; of Valentinianus, who many years had the charge of the Lateran Abbey; of Simplicius, who was the third General of his order; and lastly of Honoratus, who is now Abbot of that monastery in which he first began his holy life [ie Subiaco]."

The traditional view is that it was this interaction that prompted St Gregory around this time to turn his family home into a monastery and become a monk.  Subsequently, as Pope, St Gregory was to prove a vigorous promoter of the monastic life, not least through his authorship of the Life and dispatch of monks to evangelize England, and who in turn led the Benedictine re-evangelization of France and Germany. No wonder then, that St Gregory is often regarded as a second founder of the Benedictine Order.

Still, it is the Rule of St Benedict above all, as St Gregory relates, that has been so critical to the shape of Western monasticism:

"...yet I would not have you to be ignorant, but that the man of God amongst so many miracles, for which he was so famous in the world, was also sufficiently learned in divinity: for he wrote a rule for his monks, both excellent for discretion and also eloquent for the style. Of whose life and conversation, if any be curious to know further, he may in the institution of that rule understand all his manner of life and discipline: for the holy man could not otherwise teach, than himself lived."

St Benedict's monastic foundations (5) - Terracina

It seems appropriate to end this novena series, however, with one last monastic foundation story from St Gregory's Life of St Benedict, relating to the Monastery of Terracina.  There are several dimensions to this story which one might meditate on: the role of a layman in making the monastery possible; and the importance of the physical infrastructure of the monastery for example.  But the most important, I think, is the suggestion that the saint's physical presence was not needed to guide a new foundation: all that is needed is for his spiritual sons and daughters to be open to his vision, as he himself was to God:

"At another time he was desired by a certain virtuous man, to build an Abbey for his monks upon his ground, not far from the city of Taracina. The holy man was content, and appointed an Abbot and Prior, with divers monks under them: and when they were departing, he promised that, upon such a day, he would come and shew them in what place the oratory should be made, and where the refectory should stand, and all the other necessary rooms: and so they, taking his blessing, went their way; and against the day appointed, which they greatly expected, they made all such things ready as were necessary to entertain him, and those that should come in his company.

But the very night before, the man of God in sleep appeared to the Abbot and the Prior, and particularly described unto them where each place and office was to be builded. And when they were both risen, they conferred together what either of them had seen in their sleep: but yet not giving full credit to that vision, they expected the man of God himself in person, according to his promise.

But when they saw that he came not, they returned back unto him very sorrowfully, saying: "We expected, father, that you should have come according to promise, and told us where each place should have been built, which yet you did not." To whom he answered: "Why say you so, good brethren? Did not I come as I promised you?" And when they asked at what time it was: "Why," quoth he, "did not I appear to either of you in your sleep, and appointed how and where every place was to be builded? Go your way, and according to that platform which you then saw, build up the abbey." At which word they much marvelled, and returning back, they caused it to be builded in such sort as they had been taught of him by revelation."



And of course, don't forget to say the Novena Prayer.

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