St. Peter Damian: Monk and Reformer

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience September 9, 2009

During his general audience on Sept. 9, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Peter Damian, a writer and Latin scholar from the 11th century.

St. Peter Damian embraced the monastic life, combining it with the life of a hermit. He was fascinated by the cross of Christ and promoted a form of monasticism noted for its austerity. He was an outstanding theologian, yet he offered practical advice for living the Christian life.

In 1057 St. Peter Damian interrupted his life as a monk and accepted the office of cardinal bishop of Ostia in order to assist the pope in the reform of the Church of his time. He returned to his monastery 10 years later, where he continued to serve the Church through his prayer and his work until his death in 1072.

Dear brothers and sisters,

During these Wednesday catecheses, I have been speaking about some of the great figures in the life of the Church from her very beginnings. Today, I wish to offer some reflections on St. Peter Damian, one of the most significant personalities from the 11th century, who was a monk, a lover of solitude, and, overall, a very courageous man who was directly involved in the reforms of the Church undertaken by the popes of his time.

His Young Years

He was born in Ravenna in 1007 within a noble but poor family. He was left an orphan when both of his parents died.

Even though his sister, Roselinda, took it upon herself to be a mother to him and his older brother, Damiano, adopted him as his son (that is why he came to be known as Peter Damian), his childhood was not without deprivation and suffering.

He was educated first in Faenza and then in Parma, where at the age of 25 he became a teacher.

Besides becoming competent in the field of law, he acquired skillful expertise in the art of composition — ars scribendi — and thanks to his knowledge of the great Latin classics, he became “one of the best Latin scholars of his time and one of the greatest writers of the Latin Middle Ages” (J. Leclercq, Pierre Damien, ermite et homme d’Église, Roma 1960, p. 172).

He distinguished himself in various literary genres, ranging from letters to sermons, biographies of the saints to prayers, and poems to epigrams. His sensitivity to beauty led him to contemplate the world in poetic terms.

Peter Damian perceived the universe as an inexhaustible “parable,” an expanse of symbols from which a person could interpret interior life as well as divine and supernatural realities.

His Life as a Monk

With this perspective in mind, his contemplation of God’s absoluteness led him to progressively detach himself from the world and its ephemeral realities and, around the year 1034, retire to the monastery of Fonte Avellana, which had only been founded a few decades before yet was already famous for its austere lifestyle.

He wrote a biography of its founder, St. Romuald of Ravenna, for the edification of the monks there and, at the same time, made a commitment to acquire a deeper knowledge of spirituality by explaining his ideal of a hermetical monasticism.

There is one detail that we should emphasize right away. The hermitage of Fonte Avellana was dedicated to the holy cross, and of all the Christian mysteries the cross would be the one that most fascinated Peter Damian. “Whoever does not love the cross does not love Christ,” he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117).

He described himself as Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus (Peter, servant of the servants of the cross of Christ) (Ep, 9, 1).

Peter Damian dedicated several beautiful prayers to the cross, in which he reveals a vision of this mystery with cosmic dimensions, embracing the entire history of salvation: “O blessed cross!” he exclaimed. “The faith of the patriarchs, the prophecies of the prophets, the judgments of the apostles, the victorious army of the martyrs and the ranks of all the saints venerate you, preach you, and honor you” (Sermo XLVIII, 14, p. 304).

My dear brothers and sisters, may St. Peter Damian’s example encourage us to always look at the cross as the supreme act of God’s love for mankind by granting us salvation!

Nourished by God’s Word

As an aid in the development of a hermetical lifestyle, this great monk prepared a rule in which he placed great emphasis on the “rigors of the hermitage.”

In the silence of the cloister, the monk is called on to live a life of prayer both day and night, with prolonged and severe fasts. He must exercise generous fraternal charity as well as obedience to his prior — an obedience that is ready and always willing.

In study and daily meditation of sacred Scripture, Peter Damian discovered the mystical significance of God’s word, finding nourishment there for his spiritual life. In this regard, he described the monk’s cell as a “parlor where God converses with men.”

For him, the hermit’s life was the apex of Christian life and “the highest state of life” because the monk, free from ties to the world and to his own self, receives “the pledge of the Holy Spirit and his soul happily joins its heavenly spouse” (Ep 18, 17; see Ep 28, 43 ff.).

Today, even if we are not monks, it is important to know how to create silence within ourselves in order to listen to God’s voice; to seek, so to speak, a “parlor” where God can speak to us; and to learn God’s word in prayer and meditation is the path of life.

Astute Theologian

St. Peter Damian, who was essentially a man of prayer, meditation and contemplation, was also an accomplished theologian. His reflections on various doctrinal subjects led him to some important conclusions about life.

For example, from his knowledge of biblical and patristic texts, he explains with clarity and liveliness the doctrine of the Trinity, using processio, relatio and persona — the three fundamental terms that would later become definitive for Western philosophy (see Opusc. XXXVIII: PL CXLV, 633-642; and Opusc. II e III: ibid, 41ff and 58ff).

Since his theological analysis of the Trinity led him to contemplate the intimate life of God and the inexpressible dialogue of love among the three divine persons, he drew some ascetic conclusions for living in community from this analysis as well as some conclusions for relationships between Latin and Greek Christians, who were divided on this issue.

His meditation on Christ included some significant practical reflections as well, since all of Scripture is centered on Christ.

“The Jewish people,” he noted, “have virtually carried Christ on their shoulders through the pages of the holy Scripture” (Sermo XLVI, 15).

Thus, he adds, Christ should be at the center of a monk’s life: “Christ should be heard in our speech; Christ should be seen in our life; Christ should be perceived in our hearts” (Sermo VIII, 5).

Intimate union with Christ involves not only monks, but all who have been baptized. Here we find a strong exhortation not to allow ourselves to be totally absorbed by the activities, problems and concerns of everyday life, forgetting that Jesus should really be the center of our life.

Communion with Christ creates a unity of love among Christians.

In his Letter 28, which is a brilliant treatise on ecclesiology, Peter Damian developed a profound theology of the Church as communion.

“The Church of Christ,” he wrote, “is united by the bond of charity to such a point that, since it is one in many members, mystically it is entirely present in each single member. That is why the entire universal Church is rightly called the one spouse of Christ — in the singular — and each soul, chosen by virtue of the sacramental mystery, must be considered as fully the Church.”

This is important. Not only is the entire universal Church united, but in each of us, the Church must be present in its totality. Thus, service to the individual becomes “an expression of universality” (Ep 28, 9-23).

Valiant Church Reformer

Yet, as Peter Damian well knew, this ideal image of the “holy Church” that he portrayed did not correspond to the reality of his time.

For this reason, he was not afraid to denounce the state of corruption that existed in monasteries and among the clergy due, above all, to the practice of the civil authorities conferring investiture to ecclesiastical offices.

Thus, many bishops and abbots acted as though they were governors of subjects rather than pastors of souls. Often their moral life left much to be desired.

For this reason, with great sorrow and pain, Peter Damian left the monastery to accept an appointment as the cardinal bishop of Ostia in order to collaborate fully with the popes in the difficult task of reforming the Church.

He saw that it was not enough to contemplate; he had to renounce the beauty of contemplation in order to make his own contribution to the work of renewing the Church. Thus, he renounced the beauty of a hermit’s life and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.

Given his love for monastic life, he obtained permission 10 years later in 1067 to return to Fonte Avellana, giving up the Diocese of Ostia. But the quiet he longed for was short-lived.

Two years later, he was sent to Frankfurt in an attempt to prevent the divorce of Henry IV from his wife Bertha. Two years after that, in 1071, he went to Montecassino for the consecration of the abbey’s church, and at the beginning of 1072, he went to Ravenna to re-establish peace with the local archbishop who had supported an anti-pope, leading to an interdict on the city.

On his return trip to his hermitage, an unexpected illness forced him to stop in Faenza at the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria Vecchia Fuori Porta, where he died on the night of Feb. 22-23, 1072.

My dear brothers and sisters, it is a great grace for the life of the Church that the Lord inspired such an exuberant, rich and complex personality like St. Peter Damian, and it is not very common to find works of theology and spirituality as insightful and lively as those of the hermit from Fonte Avellana. He was a monk par excellence, practicing forms of austerity that we might find excessive today.

In this way, though, he made monastic life an eloquent testimony to God’s primacy and a call for everyone to progress towards holiness, free of any compromise with evil.

He expended himself with lucid coherence and great severity for the reform of the Church of his time.

He dedicated all his spiritual and physical energy to Christ and to the Church, always remaining, as he liked to describe himself, “Petrus ultimus monachorum servus” (Peter, the ultimate servant of monks).

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