So continuing from the last part of my series on the Life of St Benedict (you can find the first part with the novena prayer ...
Some modern Benedictine commentators have difficulty reconciling St Benedict's comments in his Rule on the importance of undertaking an apprenticeship in a monastery before trying the life of a hermit ,with the saint's actual life history.
Elsewhere in the Dialogues, St Gregory discusses this problem in relation to some other holy men whose lives he recounts, concluding in essence that although apprenticeship in monastic life before becoming a hermit is the norm, God does sometimes lead people to be the exceptions.
The ascetic community of Affile
That he does not suggest this in the case of St Benedict perhaps points to an alternative explanation, namely that the saint in fact did serve his apprenticeship, in the ascetic community based at Affile that he went to after he left Rome. Affile is around 50 miles from Rome - the Church of St Peter, which dates from the sixth century though later remodelled, there is pictured below. St Gregory comments:
"Benedict having now given over the school, with a resolute mind to lead his life in the wilderness: his nurse alone, which did tenderly love him, would not by any means give him over. Coming, therefore, to a place called Enfide [Affile] and remaining there in the church of St. Peter, in the company of other virtuous men, which for charity lived in that place...."
The town of Affile seems to have been a much more significant community at this time then now, but nothing is known of the particular group of ascetics St Benedict joined. However it is clear that Italy at the time was full of monastic communities of all kinds. Not all followed strict Rules; nor was the presence of servants uncommon.
The Rule, in chapter one, provides a thoroughly disparaging commentary on the state of many of these monastic communities; St Gregory on the other hand suggests in Book I of the Dialogues that "there be many such holy men now living; for though they work not the like miracles, yet for all that, may they be as virtuous and as holy."
Though St Gregory goes on to say that holiness does not necessarily reside in the performance of miracles, nonetheless, St Benedict's own first recorded miracle - performed, like Our Lord's first miracle at Cana in response to the desire to avoid someone else being publicly shamed - perhaps presents to us a proof of his acquisition of a high degree of virtue even at this relatively early stage in his life:
"...it fell so out that his nurse borrowed of the neighbours a sieve to make clean wheat, which being left negligently upon the table, by chance it was broken in two pieces: whereupon she fell pitifully a-weeping, because she had borrowed it. The devout and religious youth Benedict, seeing his nurse so lamenting, moved with compassion, took away with him both the pieces of the sieve, and with tears fell to his prayers; and after he had done, rising up he found it so whole, that the place could not be seen where before it was broken; and coming straight to his nurse, and comforting her with good words, he delivered her the sieve safe and sound: which miracle was known to all the inhabitants thereabout, and so much admired, that the townsmen, for a perpetual memory, did hang it up at the church door, to the end that not only men then living, but also their posterity might understand, how greatly God's grace did work with him upon his first renouncing of the world. The sieve continued there many years after, even to these very troubles of the Lombards, where it did hang over the church door."
And to read the next part of this series, go here.