St Benedict Novena Day 4: A hermit of Subiaco

You can find the novena prayer to St Benedict and first part of this series on his life here.

And continuing on from  on the life of St Benedict, drawn from St Gregory the Great's Dialogues Book II....

Fear of fame - the flight to Subiaco

Yesterday, I related the story of St Benedict's first miracle, performed as a member of the ascetic community based at Affile.  The miracle brought him much acclaim - but fearing the sin of pride, St Benedict fled the scene, ending up in the wilds of Subiaco a few miles away from Affile:

"But Benedict, desiring rather the miseries of the world than the praises of men: rather to be wearied with labour for God's sake, than to be exalted with transitory commendation: fled privily from his nurse, and went into a desert place called Sublacum, distant almost forty miles from Rome: in which there was a fountain springing forth cool and clear water; the abundance whereof doth first in a broad place make a lake, and afterward running forward, cometh to be a river."

Clothed in the habit

On the way there, however, he met a monk of a nearby monastery named Romanus, who clothed him in the habit, and thereafter managed to keep the saint from starvation by lowering down a portion of his own allocation of bread each day:

"As he was travelling to this place, a certain monk called Romanus met him, and demanded whither he went, and understanding his purpose, he both kept it close, furthered him what he might, vested him with the habit of holy conversation, and as he could, did minister and serve him. The man of God, Benedict, coming to this foresaid place, lived there in a strait cave, where he continued three years unknown to all men, except to Romanus..."

St Gregory then goes on to relate how, as a hermit St Benedict suffered and eventually overcame many temptations and trials (photo of St Benedict's cave below, by Holly Hayes).

Historical value of the Life

At the beginning of the Life, St Gregory makes it clear that the Life is based on eyewitness accounts, including those of St Benedict's successor abbots from Monte Cassino, and monks who had fled the Lombard invasion to Rome.  And he gives collaborating details throughout - the sieve St Benedict miraculously mended still hung above the door of the church at Affile for example.

But one of the strongest factors attesting to its historicity is surely the confronting strangeness of some of the incidents included in the Life.

Why did St Benedict not simply join this nearby community for example, particularly if he was still new to the ascetic life?  He must have been utterly convinced  - and able to convince another - that it was too the heremitic life that God was directing him at this time.  Though perhaps, given the provisions of his Rule and his later strictness with his own monks, providence also guided through necessity: a community where a monk could sneak out regularly to feed a hermit unbenownst to his abbot was surely a little too novus ordo in flavour for St Benedict!

Discovery of the hermit

And then there is this story, strange surely, even to contemporary ears, albeit reminiscent of some of the Desert Fathers, of his re-entry into the broader community ready to play a more active role, a symbolic resurrection after three hidden years without even the solace of the sacraments:

"At length when almighty God was determined to ease Romanus of his pains, and to have Benedict's life for an example known to the world, that such a candle, set upon a candlestick, might shine and give light to the Church of God, our Lord vouchsafed to appear unto a certain Priest dwelling a good way off, who had made ready his dinner for Easter day, and spake thus unto him: "Thou hast provided good cheer for thyself, and my servant in such a place is afflicted with hunger": who, hearing this forthwith rose up, and upon Easter day itself, with such meat as he had prepared, went to the place, where he sought for the man of God amongst the steep hills, the low valleys and hollow pits, and at length found him in his cave: where, after they had prayed together, and sitting down had given God thanks, and had much spiritual talk, then the Priest said unto him: "Rise up, brother, and let us dine, because today is the feast of Easter."

To whom the man of God answered, and said: "I know that it is Easter with me and a great feast, having found so much favour at God's hands as this day to enjoy your company" (for by reason of his long absence from men, he knew not that it was the great solemnity of Easter). But the reverent Priest again did assure him, saying: "Verily, to-day is the feast of our Lord's Resurrection, and therefore meet it is not that you should keep abstinence, and besides I am sent to that end, that we might eat together of such provision as God's goodness hath sent us." Whereupon they said grace, and fell to their meat, and after they had dined, and bestowed some time in talking, the Priest returned to his church."

And on to Day 5.

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