April 1: Friday in the third week of Lent

Duccio di Buoninsegna 1308-11

Today’s Gospel is John 4:5-42, Jesus and the Samaritan woman:

"So he came to a city of Samar'ia, called Sy'char, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samar'ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar'ia?" For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?" Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."

Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly." The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things." Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am he." Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, "What do you wish?" or, "Why are you talking with her?" So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" They went out of the city and were coming to him.

Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, "Rabbi, eat." But he said to them, "I have food to eat of which you do not know." So the disciples said to one another, "Has any one brought him food?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, `There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world."

March 31: Thursday in the Third week of Lent; stational church of SS Cosmas and Damian


Meister des Hitda-Evangeliars
c1020
The Gospel today is Luke 4:38-44, Jesus heals St Peter's mother-in-law:

"And he arose and left the synagogue, and entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they besought him for her. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her; and immediately she rose and served them.

Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.

And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them; but he said to them, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea."

March 30: St John Climacus


Today the Roman Martyrology celebrates the death of St John Climacus (c525-606) and Orthodox monk who was a near contemporary of St Benedict, and wrote an important and influential work of spiritual instruction, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

You can read a nice article on his life over at the excellent Catholic Herald.

March 30: Wednesday in the Third week of Lent

Gustave Dore

The Gospel today is Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus disputes with the Pharisees and scribes over the priority of the law:

"Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat."

He answered them, "And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, `Honor your father and your mother,' and, `He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.' But you say, `If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.' So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: `This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"

And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?" He answered, "Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."

But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us." And he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."

March 29: Tuesday in the third week of Lent



Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)
 The Gospel today is Matthew 18:15-22, on forgiving sins and agreement in prayer:

'"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."'

Lent Office hymns - Vespers: Audi benigne conditor

March 28: Monday in the third week of Lent


The Gospel for today is Luke 4:23-30, Christ preaches at Capernaum (picture above by Maurycy Gottleib, 1856-1879) a prophet is not accepted in his own country:

"And he said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, `Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Caper'na-um, do here also in your own country.'" And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Eli'jah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Eli'jah was sent to none of them but only to Zar'ephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Eli'sha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na'aman the Syrian."

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away."

Third Sunday of Lent, Class I



Today's Gospel is Luke 11:14-28, Our Lord casts out demons:

'Now he was casting out a demon that was dumb; when the demon had gone out, the dumb man spoke, and the people marveled.

But some of them said, "He casts out demons by Be-el'zebul, the prince of demons"; while others, to test him, sought from him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Be-el'zebul. And if I cast out demons by Be-el'zebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil.

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest; and finding none he says, `I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first."

As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!" But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"'


Picture: Workshop of David Gerard, circa 1450-1523

March 26: Saturday in the first week of Lent


Today's Gospel is Luke 15: 11-32, the parable of the prodigal son:

"And he said, "There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.' And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.

And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, `How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father.

But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'  But the father said to his servants, `Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, `Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.' But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, `Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!' And he said to him, `Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

March 25: The Feast of the Annunciation, Class I


The Gospel of the Lent feria is Matthew 21: 33-46 - a man left his vineyard in the care of tenants, but when he sent his servants to collect the fruit, they killed them, and the son of the vineyard owner.

March 24: Thursday in the second week of Lent


The Gospel today is Luke 16: 19-31, the story of Dives and Lazarus:

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.   And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz'arus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz'arus in his bosom.

And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz'arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz'arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'

And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'"

March 23: Wednesday in the second week of Lent




Today's Gospel is Matthew 20:17-28, Jesus foretells his coming Passion and Resurrection; places in the kingdom of heaven:

"And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death,  and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day."

Then the mother of the sons of Zeb'edee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able."

He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.

But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

March 22: Tuesday in the Second week of Lent


Today's Gospel is Matthew 23:1-12, the true observance of the law, and the salvation of the gentiles:

"Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;  so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

March 21: Feast of St Benedict, Class I


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.

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.

Second Sunday of Lent, Class I


The Gospel this Sunday is Matthew 17: 1-17, the Transfiguration of Our Lord:

"And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Eli'jah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah." He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead."

Why this text for the second Sunday of Lent?

You can find a very interesting discussion of why it was Moses and Elijah who appeared and not other Old Testament figures, as well as links to discussions of other aspects of the Transfiguration, over at New Theological Movement.

The conventional explanation of the text is that the Transfiguration was intended to strengthen the apostles (and thus us) to help them remember Our Lord's divinity as they went through the dark times to come.  The two figures symbolise the law and the prophets that he both fulfills and transforms. 

But Reginaldus points out that the figures of Moses and Elijah also serve a darker function, foreshadowing the horror of the cross.  Well worth a read.

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...

March 19: St Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Class I


Saturday is a class I feast, so the Lenten day is only commemorated. 

Novena to St Benedict Day 7: Monte Cassino


My last post on the Life of St Benedict focused on the persecution of the saint by a neighbouring priest, Florentius.

The decision to leave Subiaco

When the priest shifted his efforts from attacking the saint personally, to tactics that endangered the souls of his monks, St Benedict, after first reorganizing his fledgling congregation to take account of his absence, decided to leave Subiaco, ostensibly in the interests of protecting his monks:

"...fearing the danger which thereby might ensue to his younger monks, and considering that all this was done only for the persecuting of himself, he gave place to envy; and therefore, after he had for those abbeys and oratories which he had there built appointed governors, and left some under their charge, himself, in the company of a few monks, removed to another place."

Shortly after the saint set off however, the envious Fr Florentius suddenly died:

"And thus the man of God, upon humility, gave place to the other's malice; but yet almighty God of justice did severely punish [Florentius'] wickedness. For when the foresaid Priest, being in his chamber, understood of the departure of holy Benedict, and was very glad of that news, behold (the whole house besides continuing safe and sound) that chamber alone in which he was, fell down, and so killed him..."

St Maurus, who had been left behind at Subiaco at this stage, sought to recall St Benedict, but the saint refused to return, appalled at St Maurus' attitude to the death of his enemy:

"...which strange accident the holy man's disciple Maurus understanding, straightways sent him word, he being as yet scarce ten miles off, desiring him to return again, because the Priest that did persecute him was slain; which thing when Benedict heard, he was passing sorrowful, and lamented much: both because his enemy died in such sort, and also for that one of his monks rejoiced thereat; and therefore he gave him penance, for that, sending such news, he presumed to rejoice at his enemy's death."

A providential move to Monte Cassino

So St Benedict proceeded on to Montecassino (the modern monastery is pictured above), some 80 miles from Rome and Subiaco.  The engraving below shows the Monastery as it would have appeared to Dom Mabillon and his companions when they visited the monastery in 1685. 


Pope Benedict XVI, in a General Audience, has explained that the decision to move to Monte Cassino clearly had a providential dimension, reflecting God's plan for the spread of the Order:

"In the year 529, Benedict left Subiaco and settled in Monte Cassino. Some have explained this move as an escape from the intrigues of an envious local cleric.

However, this attempt at an explanation hardly proved convincing since the latter's sudden death did not induce Benedict to return (II Dialogues, 8). In fact, this decision was called for because he had entered a new phase of inner maturity and monastic experience.

According to Gregory the Great, Benedict's exodus from the remote Valley of the Anio to Monte Cassio - a plateau dominating the vast surrounding plain which can be seen from afar - has a symbolic character: a hidden monastic life has its own raison d'ĂȘtre but a monastery also has its public purpose in the life of the Church and of society, and it must give visibility to the faith as a force of life. 

Indeed, when Benedict's earthly life ended on 21 March 547, he bequeathed with his Rule and the Benedictine family he founded a heritage that bore fruit in the passing centuries and is still bearing fruit throughout the world."


Don't forget to say the novena prayer to be found with the first post of this series on the life of St Benedict.  And you can find the next post in the series here.

March 18: St Cyril of Jerusalem, Memorial


St Cyril (313-386) was bishop of Jerusalem and is a doctor of the Church.  He suffered numerous exiles in the face of the debilitating debates of the Arian heresy.  Today he is best known for his Catechetical lectures.

Pope Benedict XVI gave a General Audience on the saint in 2007:

"Our attention today is focused on St Cyril of Jerusalem. His life is woven of two dimensions: on the one hand, pastoral care, and on the other, his involvement, in spite of himself, in the heated controversies that were then tormenting the Church of the East.

Cyril was born at or near Jerusalem in 315 A.D. He received an excellent literary education which formed the basis of his ecclesiastical culture, centred on study of the Bible. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Maximus.

When this Bishop died or was deposed in 348, Cyril was ordained a Bishop by Acacius, the influential Metropolitan of Caesarea in Palestine, a philo-Arian who must have been under the impression that in Cyril he had an ally; so as a result Cyril was suspected of having obtained his episcopal appointment by making concessions to Arianism.

Actually, Cyril very soon came into conflict with Acacius, not only in the field of doctrine but also in that of jurisdiction, because he claimed his own See to be autonomous from the Metropolitan See of Caesarea.

Cyril was exiled three times within the course of approximately 20 years: the first time was in 357, after being deposed by a Synod of Jerusalem; followed by a second exile in 360, instigated by Acacius; and finally, in 367, by a third exile - his longest, which lasted 11 years - by the philo-Arian Emperor Valens.

It was only in 378, after the Emperor's death, that Cyril could definitively resume possession of his See and restore unity and peace to his faithful.

Some sources of that time cast doubt on his orthodoxy, whereas other equally ancient sources come out strongly in his favour. The most authoritative of them is the Synodal Letter of 382 that followed the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381), in which Cyril had played an important part.

In this Letter addressed to the Roman Pontiff, the Eastern Bishops officially recognized Cyril's flawless orthodoxy, the legitimacy of his episcopal ordination and the merits of his pastoral service, which ended with his death in 387.

Of Cyril's writings, 24 famous catecheses have been preserved, which he delivered as Bishop in about 350.

Introduced by a Procatechesis of welcome, the first 18 of these are addressed to catechumens or candidates for illumination (photizomenoi) [candidates for Baptism]; they were delivered in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Each of the first ones (nn. 1-5) respectively treat the prerequisites for Baptism, conversion from pagan morals, the Sacrament of Baptism, the 10 dogmatic truths contained in the Creed or Symbol of the faith.

The next catecheses (nn. 6-18) form an "ongoing catechesis" on the Jerusalem Creed in anti-Arian tones.

Of the last five so-called "mystagogical catecheses", the first two develop a commentary on the rites of Baptism and the last three focus on the Chrism, the Body and Blood of Christ and the Eucharistic Liturgy. They include an explanation of the Our Father (Oratio dominica).

This forms the basis of a process of initiation to prayer which develops on a par with the initiation to the three Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.

The basis of his instruction on the Christian faith also served to play a polemic role against pagans, Judaeo Christians and Manicheans. The argument was based on the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises, in a language rich in imagery.

Catechesis marked an important moment in the broader context of the whole life - particularly liturgical - of the Christian community, in whose maternal womb the gestation of the future faithful took place, accompanied by prayer and the witness of the brethren.

Taken as a whole, Cyril's homilies form a systematic catechesis on the Christian's rebirth through Baptism.

He tells the catechumen: "You have been caught in the nets of the Church (cf. Mt 13: 47). Be taken alive, therefore; do not escape for it is Jesus who is fishing for you, not in order to kill you but to resurrect you after death. Indeed, you must die and rise again (cf. Rom 6: 11, 14).... Die to your sins and live to righteousness from this very day" (Procatechesis, 5).

From the doctrinal viewpoint, Cyril commented on the Jerusalem Creed with recourse to the typology of the Scriptures in a "symphonic" relationship between the two Testaments, arriving at Christ, the centre of the universe.

The typology was to be described decisively by Augustine of Hippo: "In the Old Testament there is a veiling of the New, and in the New Testament there is a revealing of the Old" (De catechizandis rudibus 4, 8).

As for the moral catechesis, it is anchored in deep unity to the doctrinal catechesis: the dogma progressively descends in souls who are thus urged to transform their pagan behaviour on the basis of new life in Christ, a gift of Baptism.

The "mystagogical" catechesis, lastly, marked the summit of the instruction that Cyril imparted, no longer to catechumens but to the newly baptized or neophytes during Easter week. He led them to discover the mysteries still hidden in the baptismal rites of the Easter Vigil.

Enlightened by the light of a deeper faith by virtue of Baptism, the neophytes were at last able to understand these mysteries better, having celebrated their rites.

Especially with neophytes of Greek origin, Cyril made use of the faculty of sight which they found congenial. It was the passage from the rite to the mystery that made the most of the psychological effect of amazement, as well as the experience of Easter night.

Here is a text that explains the mystery of Baptism: "You descended three times into the water, and ascended again, suggesting by a symbol the three days burial of Christ, imitating Our Saviour who spent three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (cf. Mt 12: 40). Celebrating the first emersion in water you recall the first day passed by Christ in the sepulchre; with the first immersion you confessed the first night passed in the sepulchre: for as he who is in the night no longer sees, but he who is in the day remains in the light, so in the descent, as in the night, you saw nothing, but in ascending again you were as in the day. And at the self-same moment you were both dying and being born; and that water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother.... For you... the time to die goes hand in hand with the time to be born: one and the same time effected both of these events" (cf. Second Mystagogical Catechesis, n. 4).

The mystery to be understood is God's plan, which is brought about through Christ's saving actions in the Church.

In turn, the mystagogical dimension is accompanied by the dimension of symbols which express the spiritual experience they "explode". Thus, Cyril's catechesis, on the basis of the three elements described - doctrinal, moral and lastly, mystagogical - proves to be a global catechesis in the Spirit.

The mystagogical dimension brings about the synthesis of the two former dimensions, orienting them to the sacramental celebration in which the salvation of the whole human person takes place.

In short, this is an integral catechesis which, involving body, soul and spirit - remains emblematic for the catechetical formation of Christians today."

March 18: Ember Friday in Lent


Today's Gospel is John 5:1-15 - Our Lord heals the paralytic at the healing pond of Bethesda (aka Probatica) in Jerusalem:

"After these things was a festival day of the Jews: and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is at Jerusalem a pond, called Probatica, which in Hebrew is named Bethsaida, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered: waiting for the moving of the water.

4 And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pond after the motion of the water was made whole of whatsoever infirmity he lay under.

5 And there was a certain man there that had been thirty-eight years under his infirmity. 6 When Jesus had seen him lying, and knew that he had been now a long time, he said to him: Will you be made whole? 7 The infirm man answered him: Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pond. For whilst I am coming, another goes down before me.

8 Jesus said to him: Arise, take up your bed and walk. 9 And immediately the man was made whole: and he took up his bed and walked. And it was the sabbath that day.

10 The Jews therefore said to him that was healed: It is the sabbath. It is not lawful for you to take up your bed. 11 He answered them: He that made me whole, he said to me: Take up your bed and walk. 12 They asked him therefore: Who is that man who said to you: Take up your bed and walk? 13 But he who was healed knew not who it was: for Jesus went aside from the multitude standing in the place.

14 Afterwards, Jesus finds him in the temple and said to him: Behold you are made whole: sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to you. 15 The man went his way and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him whole."

Novena to St Benedict Day 6: A Monastic Reformer Part 2

Yesterday's post focused on St Benedict's failed attempt to reform an existing monastery. 

His failure however did nothing to damage his reputation it seems, and today's section of the Life of St Benedict by St Gregory the Great deals with the saint's second, rather more successful attempt at running a monastic community, which resulted in him founding thirteen monasteries at Subiaco (picture of St Scholastica's, Subiaco below by Sue Orchison).


The establishment of a religious order

St Gregory relates:

"When as God's servant daily increased in virtue, and became continually more famous for miracles, many were by him in the same place drawn to the service of almighty God, so that by Christ's assistance he built there twelve Abbeys; over which he appointed governors, and in each of them placed twelve monks, and a few he kept with himself, namely, such as he thought would more profit, and be better instructed by his own presence. At that time also many noble and religious men of Rome came unto him, and committed their children to be brought up under him, for the service of God."

The governance structure of this group of monasteries, though not referred to in the Rule which deals only with what happens inside individual houses, seems to have been essentially that adopted by many modern Benedictine congregations, namely a group of semi-autonomous houses with an Abbot-President (originally St Benedict himself) playing an overall supervisory role and helping solve problems.  St Gregory tells for example, of St Benedict being called upon to rectify the lack of an accessible water supply, and to help with a monk distracted at prayer.

The monk distracted by a demon


The story of a demon distracting a monk from his prayers nicely illustrates the saint's role in relation to the monasteries he had founded:

"In one of the monasteries which he had built in those parts, a monk there was, which could not continue at prayers; for when the other monks knelt down to serve God, his manner was to go forth, and there with wandering mind to busy himself about some earthly and transitory things.

And when he had been often by his Abbot admonished of this fault without any amendment, at length he was sent to the man of God, who did likewise very much rebuke him for his folly; yet notwithstanding, returning back again, he did scarce two days follow the holy man's admonition; for, upon the third day, he fell again to his old custom, and would not abide within at the time of prayer: word whereof being once more sent to the man of God, by the father of the Abbey whom he had there appointed, he returned him answer that he would come himself, and reform what was amiss, which he did accordingly: and it fell so out, that when the singing of psalms was ended, and the hour come in which the monks betook themselves to prayer, the holy man perceived that the monk, which used at that time to go forth, was by a little black boy drawn out by the skirt of his garment; upon which sight, he spake secretly to Pompeianus, father of the Abbey, and also to Maurus saying Do you not see who it is, that draweth this monk from his prayers?" and they answered him, that they did not. "Then let us pray," quoth he, "unto God, that you also may behold whom this monk doth follow": and after two days Maurus did see him, but Pompeianus could not.

Upon another day, when the man of God had ended his devotions, he went out of the oratory, where he found the foresaid monk standing idle, whom for the blindness of his heart he strake with a little wand, and from that day forward he was so freed from all allurement of the little black boy, that he remained quietly at his prayers, as other of the monks did: for the old enemy was so terrified, that he durst not any more suggest any such cogitations: as though by that blow, not the monk, but himself had been strooken."

Growth of the community attracts envy...

The success of the new order, however, as has been the case for so many monastic founders including Australia's own St Mary of the Cross, attracted the malicious attention of a local cleric.

St Gregory relates that the priest Florentius waged a three-stage battle against the saint.

First Fr Florentius attempted to smear St Benedict's name, and prevent visitors reaching his monastery:

"When as the foresaid monasteries were zealous in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and their fame dispersed far and near, and many gave over the secular life, and subdued the passions of their soul, under the light yoke of our Saviour: then (as the manner of wicked people is, to envy at that virtue which themselves desire not to follow) one Florentius, Priest of a church hardby, and grandfather to Florentius our sub-deacon, possessed with diabolical malice, began to envy the holy man's virtues, to back-bite his manner of living, and to withdraw as many as he could from going to visit him..."


When his smear campaign had exactly the opposite effect to that intended, Fr Florentius then attempted to assassinate the saint!  Fortunately this too was thwarted:

"...so far did he wade in that sin, that he poisoned a loaf and sent it to the servant of almighty God, as it were for an holy present. The man of God received it with great thanks, yet not ignorant of that which was hidden within.

At dinner time, a crow daily used to come unto him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands; coming that day after his manner, the man of God threw him the loaf which the Priest had sent him, giving him this charge: "In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it."

Then the crow, opening his mouth, and lifting up his wings, began to hop up and down about the loaf, and after his manner to cry out, as though he would have said that he was willing to obey, and yet could not do what he was commanded. The man of God again and again bade him, saying: "Take it up without fear, and throw it where no man may find it." At length, with much ado, the crow took it up, and flew away, and after three hours, having dispatched the loaf, he returned back again, and received his usual allowance from the man of God. But the venerable father, perceiving the Priest so wickedly bent against his life, was far more sorry for him than grieved for himself."

Florentius then attempted to subvert the monks with naked young women dancing (suggestive of a pagan ritual perhaps) outside the monastery at night:

"And Florentius, seeing that he could not kill the body of the master, laboureth now what he can, to destroy the souls of his disciples; and for that purpose he sent into the yard of the Abbey before their eyes seven naked young women, which did there take hands together, play and dance a long time before them, to the end that, by this means, they might inflame their minds to sinful lust: which damnable sight the holy man beholding out of his cell..."

At this point, St Benedict decided that enough was enough, and made the fateful decision to move to Monte Cassino, of which I will speak in the next post of this series.

Meanwhile you can find the Novena prayer with the first part of this series.

March 17: Feast of St Patrick (Class I in some places)



Depending on what country you live in, today may be a first class feast, and thus a day off Lenten discipline! 

The saint being honoured is, of course, St Patrick (c387-493).

St Patrick was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16, and forced to work as a slave.  After several years, he managed to escape and return home.  He then entered the Church and became a missionary bishop to the land in which he had been held captive.

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.

March 16: Ember Wednesday



Today is an Ember Day.  The Gospel is Matthew 12:38-50 - a wicked generation seeks a sign, ignoring the ones they have already been given:

"38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying: Master, we would see a sign from you. 39 Who answering said to them: An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40 For as Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. 41 The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonah. And behold a greater than Jonah here. 42 The queen of the south shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold a greater than Solomon here. 43 And when an unclean spirit has gone out of a man he walks through dry places seeking rest, and finds none. 44 Then he says: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he finds it empty, swept, and garnished. 45 Then he goes, and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation."