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:

" 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.

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