St Benedict Novena Day 5: St Benedict as a monastic reformer, Part I

Yesterday in this series on the Life of St Benedict in honour of the Novena leading up to his feastday, I wrote about St Benedict's time as a hermit at Subiaco (the modern town and surviving medieval monastery is pictured at the bottom of this post).

Today, I want to focus on his early efforts as a monastic reformer, which illustrate all too well the proposition that it is far easier to start afresh, and make an altogether new monastic foundation than to attempt to turn around an existing monastery!

St Benedict's fame spreads

After the saint's discovery by a priest on Easter day, St Gregory relates that the fame and influence of the hermit quickly spread:

"About the same time likewise, certain shepherds found him in that same cave: and at the first, when they espied him through the bushes, and saw his apparel made of skins, they verily thought that it had been some beast: but after they were acquainted with the servant of God, many of them were by his means converted from their beastly life to grace, piety, and devotion. And thus his name in the country there about became famous, and many after this went to visit him, and for corporal meat which they brought him, they carried away spiritual food for their souls."

St Benedict overcame severe temptations, which only encouraged more to join him:

"Upon a certain day being alone, the tempter was at hand: for a little black bird, commonly called a merle or an ousel, began to fly about his face, and that so near as the holy man, if he would, might have taken it with his hand: but after he had blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the bird flew away: and forthwith the holy man was assaulted with such a terrible temptation of the flesh, as he never felt the like in all his life.

A certain woman there was which some time he had seen, the memory of which the wicked spirit put into his mind, and by the representation of her did so mightily inflame with concupiscence the soul of God's servant, which did so increase that, almost overcome with pleasure, he was of mind to have forsaken the wilderness. But, suddenly assisted with God's grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and nettle bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them,5 and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, did inwardly burn in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin, because he made a change of the fire.

From which time forward, as himself did afterward report unto his disciples, he found all temptation of pleasure so subdued, that he never felt any such thing. Many after this began to abandon the world, and to become his scholars...When this great temptation was thus overcome, the man of God, like unto a piece of ground well tilled and weeded, of the seed of virtue brought forth plentiful store of fruit: and by reason of the great report of his wonderful holy life, his name became very famous."

Abbot of Vicovaro



Indeed, so much had his prestige grown, that when the abbot of a nearby monastery (thought to be Vicovaro; the modern church of St Peter's, Vicovaro there is pictured above) died, the monks approached him to become their abbot:

"Not far from the place where he remained there was a monastery, the Abbot whereof was dead: whereupon the whole Convent came unto the venerable man Benedict, entreating him very earnestly that he would vouchsafe to take upon him the charge and government of their Abbey: long time he denied them, saying that their manners were divers from his, and therefore that they should never agree together: yet at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent."

The idea of a hermit becoming the abbot of a monastery was not without precedent, but rather more puzzling is why monks with a rather laxer attitude to monastic life might have so insisted on St Benedict becoming their abbot.  Presumably, the idea of reform sounded better in theory than it proved in practice:

"Having now taken upon him the charge of the Abbey, he took order that regular life should be observed, so that none of them could, as before they used, through unlawful acts decline from the path of holy conversation, either on the one side or on the other: which the monks perceiving, they fell into a great rage, accusing themselves that ever they desired him to be their Abbot, seeing their crooked conditions could not endure his virtuous kind of government: and therefore when they saw that under him they could not live in unlawful sort, and were loath to leave their former conversation, and found it hard to be enforced with old minds to meditate and think upon new things: and because the life of virtuous men is always grievous to those that be of wicked conditions, some of them began to devise, how they might rid him out of the way.."

The 'martyrdom of opposition'

Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, recently gave in a talk in Australia in which he proposes the idea of the "martyrdom of opposition" that confronts those who try to make real change.  Cardinal Burke makes the same point as St Gregory, namely that as Scripture and the history of the Church attest over and over again, the godless persecute the virtuous, even seeking to assassinate them as they did Our Lord, because they are "a standing rebuke to them".

The problem is that promoting change makes people appear dangerous to vested interests.  As one modern leadership textbook, Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy puts it: leaders are a threat when they question the values, beliefs and the habits of a lifetime; when they tell what others need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.

Heifetz actually devotes an entire section of his book Leadership Without Easy Answers to the challenge of "Staying Alive" and avoiding assassination (although generally of the metaphorical kind!).  He is not entirely convinced however that it is actually always possible, and in St Benedict's case only divine intervention prevented the assassination attempt actually succeeding:

"...and therefore, taking counsel together, they agreed to poison his wine: which being done, and the glass wherein that wine was, according to the custom, offered to the Abbot to bless, he, putting forth his hand, made the sign of the cross, and straightway the glass, that was holden far off, brake in pieces, as though the sign of the cross had been a stone thrown against it: upon which accident the man of God by and by perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death, which could not endure the sign of life: and therefore rising up, with a mild countenance and quiet mind, he called the monks together, and spake thus unto them: "Almighty God have mercy upon you, and forgive you: why have you used me in this manner? Did not I tell you before hand, that our manner of living could never agree together? Go your ways, and seek ye out some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you." When he had thus discharged himself, he returned back to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholdeth the hearts of all men."

On rigidity and being 'pastoral'

This story is a shocking one on several levels.  Firstly, no wonder "Thou shalt not kill", which one might have hoped to be redundant for monks, appears in his tools of good work in the Rule!

But more fundamentally, how sad that he was unable to persuade the monks to reform. 

Some modern commentators on the Life, such as Dom Adalbert de Vogue and Fr Terrence Kardong, see this story as evidence of St Benedict's early excessive rigidity, a failure to be sufficiently 'pastoral', and thus view the chapter as constituting a learning experience for the saint (and perhaps as saying a lot more about St Gregory than St Benedict!). 

But St Gregory's own discussion of the incident focuses mainly on whether or not St Benedict's abandonment of the community was justified.  And he alludes to the numerous biblical parallels of the failure of whole towns and cities to repent, and the situation of various Old and New Testament saints, pointing particularly to St Peter's narrow escape from persecutors at Damascus.

Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out that we live in a time when to live in accordance with the teachings of our faith is viewed as extremism.  But, as Cardinal Burke has pointed out, Christians alive in Christ are called to be a sign of contradiction to the world's way of thinking. 

Nor are those within the Church - whether in St Benedict's time, as St Gregory makes clear, or in our own - immune from infection by the world's ways!

No wonder a church leader such as St Gregory might have pondered this story at some length and drawn comfort and inspiration from it....and so too should we.

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