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Ben There, Done That

How wonderful that the feast of St. Benedict arrives so close on the heels of my Cassiodorus post. Hubertus Drobner, author of an outstanding (forthcoming) patristics manual, links Cassiodorus and Benedict with a third man, Boethius, as a “threesome, preserving the three most important parts of ancient education and culture in a complementary way. Those three parts are philosophy (Boethius); language and literature (Cassiodorus); and study (Benedict). And the greatest of those men, Drobner says, is Benedict.

These men built up an intellectual and institutional retaining wall for Western civilization at the onset of the dark ages. And it worked remarkably well when many other governmental, military, and economic systems were breaking down. In honor of Benedict’s contribution, the Church gave him the unusual title “Father of the West.”

Many commentators bring up precisely these achievements of old Abbot Benedict when they ponder the reasons why the current pope took the name Benedict upon election.

If that were the only reason, it would be reason enough for us to study the life of St. Benedict of Nursia. But there are many other pleasant reasons – for example, St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., which is one of my favorite places on earth. Set in rolling hills, built on medieval models, the place exudes peace, as do its monks, like Father Thomas Acklin, whose books I highly recommend, and Father Mark Gruber, whose name comes up often on this blog. The rector at St. Vincent Seminary is an outstanding scholar of patristics and liturgy, Father Kurt Belsole, and the archabbot, Douglas Nowicki, is a wise and holy man who was a close friend and confidant of Mister Rogers. If you know men who feel the tug toward monastic life, put them in touch with St. Vincent. My colleague Scott Hahn teaches at the seminary, so we spend a lot of time there. The archabbey was also, last month, the site of the St. Paul Center‘s first-ever clergy conference.

Last month’s events take us far beyond the era of the Fathers, but I think Benedict would approve of these accomplishments of his sons today.

One of the popular patristics textbooks in the early twentieth century was by a German Benedictine, Father Bernard Schmid. It bore the simple and functional title Manual of Patrology. I give Father Schmid the final word on St. Benedict as we celebrate the feast of his founder. The following passage comes from the third English edition (1911) of Schmid’s manual (German, 1899).

St. Benedict was born of a distinguished family at Nursia, in the year 480. For his higher education he was sent to Rome. But the example and life of his school-fellows was such as to inspire him with horror and with fear for the salvation of his soul. For this reason, whatever other attractions for learning and piety the great capital of the world may have exercised upon his youth, he sacrificed them all. His soul yearned after God, and to His divine service he wished to consecrate himself and his life. In his twentieth year, he bade farewell to the city and retired to a wild and deserted spot at Subiaco, where, after the manner of the Egyptian hermits, he spent three years in prayer, mortification, and waging war with the powers of darkness. His retreat, however, was discovered by shepherds, and the fame of his sanctity soon spread abroad. In consequence, he was chosen superior of the monastery of Vicovaro. But finding the monks there quite incorrigible and even hostile, he soon abandoned the post and returned to his solitude. But it was solitude no longer. Men from everywhere, seeking his spiritual guidance, flocked to him in such numbers that in a short time he was able to establish and fill twelve monasteries.

For thirty-five years St. Benedict lived and labored at Subiaco, laying the first foundations of that wonderful Order and rearing that extraordinary race of men and women hwich is known in the history of the church and civilization as “the Benedictines.”

Owing to the senseless enmity and vexation of a neighboring priest, the Saint at last left Subiaco and went with a few of his companions to Monte Cassino, with its temple and grove of Apollo. The latter he destroyed and built in its place the famous monastery, which was ever after looked upon as the real cradle of his Order, because here he is said to have drawn up the Rule in its present form. Having converted the people of the neighborhood to the faith of Christ, he ended a life, grand in its moral beauty adn rich in divine favors and blessings, on March 21, 543, in his 63rd year. He was not a priest, but was, as Mabillon states, according to a constant Benedictine tradition, a deacon.

I’ll be talking about St. Benedict on Spirit Morning Show on KVSS Radio. The show runs from 7 to 9 a.m., central time. Eventually, KVSS will post the segment on their Mike Aquilina audio page with my other interviews. I’ll let you know when it’s up.