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§ 43. Benedict of Nursia.
Gregorius M.: Dialogorum, l. iv. (composed about 594; lib. ii. contains the biography of St. Benedict according to the communications of four abbots and disciples of the saint, Constantine, Honoratus, Valentinian, and Simplicius, but full of surprising miracles). Mabillon and other writers of the Benedictine congregation of St. Maurus: Acta Sanctorum ordinis S. Benedicti in saeculorum classes distributa, fol. Par. 1668–1701, 9 vols. (to the year 1100), and Annales ordinis S. Bened. Par. 1703–’39, 6 vols. fol. (to 1157). Dom (Domnus) Jos. De Mège: Vie de St. Benoit, Par. 1690. The Acta Sanctorum, and Butler, sub Mart. 21. Montalembert: The Monks of the West, vol. ii. book iv.
Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the celebrated order which bears his name, gave to the Western monasticism a fixed and permanent form, and thus carried it far above the Eastern with its imperfect attempts at organization, and made it exceedingly profitable to the practical, and, incidentally, also to the literary interests of the Catholic Church. He holds, therefore, the dignity of patriarch of the Western monks. He has furnished a remarkable instance of the incalculable influence which a simple but judicious moral rule of life may exercise on many centuries.
Benedict was born of the illustrious house of Anicius, at Nursia (now Norcia) in Umbria, about the year 480, at the time when the political and social state of Europe was distracted and dismembered, and literature, morals, and religion seemed to be doomed to irremediable ruin. He studied in Rome, but so early as his fifteenth year he fled from the corrupt society of his fellow students, and spent three years in seclusion in a dark, narrow, and inaccessible grotto at Subiaco.374374 In Latin Sublaqueum, or Sublacum, in the States of the Church, over thirty English miles (Butler says “near forty,” Montalembert, ii. 7, “fifty miles”) east of Rome, on the Teverone. Butler describes the place as “a barren, hideous chain of rocks, with a river and lake in the valley.” A neighboring monk, Romanus, furnished him from time to time his scanty food, letting it down by a cord, with a little bell, the sound of which announced to him the loaf of bread. He there passed through the usual anchoretic battles with demons, and by prayer and ascetic exercises attained a rare power over nature. At one time, Pope Gregory tells us, the allurements of voluptuousness so strongly tempted his imagination that he was on the point of leaving his retreat in pursuit of a beautiful woman of previous acquaintance; but summoning up his courage, he took off his vestment of skins and rolled himself naked on thorns and briers, near his cave, until the impure fire of sensual passion was forever extinguished. Seven centuries later, St. Francis of Assisi planted on that spiritual battle field two rose trees, which grew and survived the Benedictine thorns and briers. He gradually became known, and was at first taken for a wild beast by the surrounding shepherds, but afterward reverenced as a saint.
After this period of hermit life he began his labors in behalf of the monastery proper. In that mountainous region he established in succession twelve cloisters, each with twelve monks and a superior, himself holding the oversight of all. The persecution of an unworthy priest caused him, however, to leave Subiaco and retire to a wild but picturesque mountain district in the Neapolitan province, upon the boundaries of Samnium and Campania. There he destroyed the remnants of idolatry, converted many of the pagan inhabitants to Christianity by his preaching and miracles, and in the year 529, under many difficulties, founded upon the ruins of a temple of Apollo the renowned cloister of Monte Cassino,375375 Monasterium Cassinense. It was destroyed, indeed, by the Lombards, as early as 583, as Benedictis said to have predicted it would be, but was rebuilt in 731, consecrated in 748, again destroyed by the Saracens in 857, rebuilt about 950, and more completely, after many other calamities, in 1649, consecrated for the third time by BenedictXIII. in 1727, enriched and increased under the patronage of the emperors and popes, but in modern times despoiled of its enormous income (which at the end of the sixteenth century was reckoned at 500,000 ducats), and has stood through all vicissitudes to this day. In the days of its splendor, when the abbot was first baron of the kingdom of Naples, and commanded over four hundred towns and villages, it numbered several hundred monks, but in 1843 only twenty. It has a considerable library. Montalembert (l.c. ii. 19) calls Monte Cassino “the most powerful and celebrated monastery in the Catholic universe; celebrated especially because there Benedictwrote his rule and formed the type which was to serve as a model to innumerable communities submitted to that sovereign code.” He also quotes the poetic description from Dante’s Paradiso. Dom Luigi Tosti published at Naples, in 1842, a full history of this convent, in three volumes. the alma mater and capital of his order. Here he labored fourteen years, till his death. Although never ordained to the priesthood, his life there was rather that of a missionary and apostle than of a solitary. He cultivated the soil, fed the poor, healed the sick, preached to the neighboring population, directed the young monks, who in increasing numbers flocked to him, and organized the monastic life upon a fixed method or rule, which he himself conscientiously observed. His power over the hearts, and the veneration in which he was held, is illustrated by the visit of Totila, in 542, the barbarian king, the victor of the Romans and master of Italy, who threw himself on his face before the saint, accepted his reproof and exhortations, asked his blessing, and left a better man, but fell after ten years’ reign, as Benedict had predicted, in a great battle with the Graeco-Roman army under Narses. Benedict died, after partaking of the holy communion, praying, in standing posture, at the foot of the altar, on the 21st of March, 543, and was buried by the side of his sister, Scholastica, who had established, a nunnery near Monte Cassino and died a few weeks before him. They met only once a year, on the side of the mountain, for prayer and pious conversation. On the day of his departure, two monks saw in a vision a shining pathway of stars leading from Monte Cassino to heaven, and heard a voice, that by this road Benedict, the well beloved of God, had ascended to heaven.
His credulous biographer, Pope Gregory I., in the second book of his Dialogues, ascribes to him miraculous prophecies and healings, and even a raising of the dead.376376 Gregor. Dial. ii. 37. With reference to his want of secular culture and his spiritual knowledge, he calls him a learned ignorant and an unlettered sage.377377 “Scienter nesciens, et sapienter indoctus.” At all events he possessed the genius of a lawgiver, and holds the first place among the founders of monastic orders, though his person and life are much less interesting than those of a Bernard of Clairvaux, a Francis of Assisi, and an Ignatius of Loyola.378378 Butler, l.c., compares him even with Moses and Elijah. “Being chosen by God, like another Moses, to conduct faithful souls into the true promised land, the kingdom of heaven, he was enriched with eminent supernatural gifts, even those of miracles and prophecy. He seemed, like another Eliseus, endued by God with an extraordinary power, commanding all nature, and, like the ancient prophets, foreseeing future events. He often raised the sinking courage of his monks, and baffled the various artifices of the devil with the sign of the cross, rendered the heaviest stone light, in building his monastery, by a short prayer, and, in presence of a multitude of people, raised to life a novice who had been crushed by the fall of a wall at Monte Cassino.” Montalembert omits the more extraordinary miracles, except the deliverance of Placidus from the whirlpool, which he relates in the language of Bossuet, ii. 15.
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