General Audience, Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI devoted his catechesis during his general audience on April 9 to St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, patron saint of Europe, and the patron saint of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. When he died in 547, St. Benedict left behind a thriving spiritual family and a rule that invites us to seek God in prayer, obedience and humility while attending to those in need.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and the patron saint of my pontificate.
I would like to begin with a quote from St. Gregory the Great, who wrote the following regarding St. Benedict: “This man of God, who shone on this earth with so many miracles, did not shine any less for the eloquence with which he knew how to present his teachings” (Dial. II, 36).
Pope Gregory the Great wrote these words in the year 592. Even though the saintly monk had died barely 50 years before, he was still alive in people’s memories and especially in the flourishing religious order he had founded. St. Benedict of Nursia exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European culture and civilization through his life and through his works.
The most important source of information on his life is the second book of St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. It is not a biography in the classic sense of the word. As was common at the time, he wanted to use the example of a real person — in this case, St. Benedict — to illustrate man’s ascent to the heights of contemplation, which one is able to achieve by abandoning oneself into God’s hands.
Thus, he offers us the model of a life lived as an ascent to the summit of perfection. St. Gregory the Great also recounts in this book of his Dialogues many miracles that the saint performed. In this case also, he intends not simply to recount a series of strange events, but to show how God intervenes in the concrete situations of man’s life by admonishing him, helping him and even punishing him.
He wants to show that God is not a distant hypothesis posited at the origin of the world, but is present in the life of man — every man.
A Shining Star
The “biographer’s” perspective is explained in light of the general context of his time. Between the fifth and sixth centuries, the world was convulsed by a tremendous crisis of values and institutions as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the invasion of new peoples, and the decadence of morals.
By presenting St. Benedict as a “shining star,” Gregory wanted to point out amid this terrible situation — right here in this city of Rome — the way out of this “dark night of history” (see John Paul II, Insegnamenti, II/1, 1979, p. 1158).
Indeed, it turned out that St. Benedict’s work and, in particular, his Rule, contributed a genuine spiritual leaven which, over the course of the centuries and well beyond the confines of his homeland and his time, transformed the face of Europe by creating, after the collapse of the political unity that the Roman Empire had established, a new spiritual and cultural unity based on the Christian faith shared by the peoples of the continent.
Thus emerged the reality we call “Europe.”
The Early Years
St. Benedict was born around the year 480. St. Gregory tells us that he came from the region of Nursia — ex provincia Nursiae. His parents, who were well-off, sent him to Rome for his studies. He did not, however, stay long in the Eternal City.
As a totally plausible explanation, Gregory alludes to the fact that young Benedict, disgusted by the lifestyle of many of his fellow students who led a dissolute life, did not want to fall into the same mistakes. He wanted to please God alone: “soli Deo placere desiderans” (II Dialoghi, Prologue 1).
So, before he even finished his studies, Benedict left Rome and withdrew to the solitude of the mountains east of Rome.
After first staying in the village of Effide (known today as Affile), where he joined a “religious community” of monks for a while, he became a hermit in nearby Subiaco. He spent three years living completely alone in a grotto there.
Since the High Middle Ages, this cave has constituted the “heart” of a Benedictine monastery known as Sacro Speco [Holy Grotto].
Benedict’s time in Subiaco, a time of solitude with God, was also a time of interior growth.
There he had to endure and overcome the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation to self-affirmation and self-centeredness, the temptation to sensuality and lastly, the temptation to anger and revenge.
It was Benedict’s conviction that only after having overcome these temptations could he speak to others a useful word for their situations of need. Having pacified his own soul, he was capable of fully controlling the impulses of the self so as to be a creator of peace around him.
Only then did he decide to found his first monasteries in the Anio Valley near Subiaco.
In the year 529, Benedict left Subiaco and settled at Monte Cassino. Some people explained this move as an escape from the intrigues of a local cleric who was envious of him. This explanation, however, does not appear to be very convincing, given that the cleric’s unexpected death did not lead Benedict to go back (see II Dial. 8).
In reality, the decision was inevitable because he had entered a new phase of his interior growth and of his monastic experience.
According to Gregory the Great, the exodus from the remote Anio Valley to Monte Cassino — a height that dominates the vast plane surrounding it and is visible from afar — is symbolic:
Hidden monastic life has its raison d’être, but a monastery also serves a public purpose in the life of the Church and of society, and must give visibility to faith as a force in life.
When Benedict’s life on earth came to an end on March 21, 547, his Rule and the Benedictine family that he founded remained as a legacy that has borne fruit throughout the centuries and continues to bear fruit even to this day everywhere in the world.
Throughout the second book of his Dialogues, Gregory shows us how Benedict’s life was immersed in an atmosphere of prayer, which was the foundation that undergirded his life.
Without prayer there is no experience of God. But Benedict’s spirituality was not some interior spirituality cut off from reality.
Amid the turmoil and confusion of his time, he lived under God’s gaze, and so he never lost sight of the duties of daily life or of his fellow man with his concrete needs. Seeing God, he understood the reality of man and of his mission.
In his Rule, he describes monastic life as “a school of the Lord’s service” (Prol. 45) and asked his monks to “let nothing be preferred to the Work of God [that is, the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours]” (Prol. 43,3).
He emphasizes, however, that prayer is, first of all, listening (Prol. 9-11), which must then be translated into concrete action. “Every day the Lord expects us to respond to his holy teaching with deeds,” he said (see Prol. 35).
Thus, the life of a monk is a fruitful symbiosis of action and contemplation “so that God may be glorified in everything” (see Prol. 57,9).
In contrast to an egocentric and easy self-fulfillment that is often extolled today, the first and irrenounceable duty of a disciple of St. Benedict is to sincerely seek God (see Prol. 58,7) on the path marked out by Christ, who is humble and obedient (see Prol. 5,13).
He should not allow anything to stand in the way of Christ’s love (4,21; 72,11). It is through serving others he becomes a man of service and peace.
Through an obedience that is practiced with a faith driven by love (5,2), a monk acquires humility (5,1), to which the Rule dedicates a whole chapter (7).
In this way, man grows more like Christ and attains true self-fulfillment as a creature in the image and likeness of God.
The Role of the Abbot
The obedience of the disciple was to be matched by the wisdom of the abbot, who “takes the place of Christ” (2,2; 63,13) in a monastery. His role, which, for the most part, is outlined in the second chapter of the Rule as something of spiritual beauty and as a demanding commitment, can be considered a self-portrait of Benedict, since, as Gregory the Great writes, “the saint could not in any way teach differently than how he lived” (Dial. II, 36).
The abbot must be both a tender father, a strict teacher (2,24), a true educator. He must be inflexible when it comes to opposing vices, yet he is called above all to imitate the tenderness of the Good Shepherd (27,8), to “assist rather than dominate” (64,8), to “point out more with actions than words all that is good and holy,” and to “illustrate God’s commandments by setting an example” (2,12).
In order to be capable of making responsible decisions, the abbot must also be someone who listens to “the advice of his brothers” (3,2), because “God often reveals the most apt solution to the youngest person” (3,3).
This approach makes the Rule, which was written almost 15 centuries ago, surprisingly modern!
Those who have public responsibilities, even within small circles, must always be people who know how to listen and learn from what they hear.
A Saint for Today
Benedict describes the Rule as “minimal, just an initial outline” (73,8).
In reality, though, it offers useful advice not only to monks but to all those looking for guidance on their journey to God. Through its moderation, its humaneness, and its sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in the spiritual life, the Rule continues to be a guiding force even to this day.
When Paul VI proclaimed St. Benedict the patron saint of Europe on Oct. 24, 1964, it was his intention to recognize the wonderful work that this saint accomplished through his Rule in forming the civilization and culture of Europe.
Today, Europe — deeply wounded during the last century by two world wars and the collapse of great ideologies that turned out to be tragic utopias — is searching for its own identity.
In order to create a new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical measures are important, but it is also necessary to generate an ethical and spiritual renewal that draws on the continent’s Christian roots, otherwise we cannot build a new Europe.
Without this vital lifeblood, man remains exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking redemption by himself — a utopia which in 20th century Europe caused in various ways, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, “a regression without precedent in the anguished history of mankind” (Insegnamenti, XIII/1, 1990, p. 58).
In the search for true progress, let us listen to St. Benedict’s Rule even today and see it as a guiding light for our journey.
This great monk truly remains a teacher in whose school we can learn the art of living a true humanism.