Saint Benedict of Nursia

Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, born in c. 480; in a small town near Spoleto, died at Monte Cassino, 543. He is a twin if Saint Scholastica. His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he lived with his parents and attended the schools until he had reached his higher studies. Then “giving over his books, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose; and in this sort he departed [from Rome], instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom” (Dial. St. Greg., II, Introd. in Migne, P.L. LXVI).

He was not yet twenty when he decided to go away from Rome to live in some remote spot. No one knew of his plan except an aged family servant, who loyally insisted on accompanying him to serve his wants. Benedict and this old woman made their way to a village called Enfide, in the Sabine Mountains, some thirty miles from Rome.

While staying in the village, Benedict miraculously mended an earthen sieve which his servant had broken. Wishing to escape the notice and the talk which this brought upon him, he soon started out alone in search of complete solitude. Up among the hills he found a place known as Subiaco or Sublacum (beneath the lake), so named from an artificial lake created there some five centuries earlier. It was near the ruins of one of Nero’s palaces. He made the acquaintance of a monk called Romanus, and to him Benedict revealed his desire to become a hermit. Romanus, who lived in a monastery not far away, gave the young man a monastic habit made of skins and led him up to an isolated cave, where he might live completely undisturbed. The roof of the cave was an overhanging rock over which descent was impossible, and it was approached from below with difficulty In this desolate cavern Benedict passed the next three years, unknown to all but his friend Romanus, who each day saved for him a part of his own portion of bread and let it down from above in a basket by a rope.

During these three years of solitude, broken only by occasional communications with the outer world and by the visits of Romanus, he matured both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man, and at the same time he became not merely known to, but secured the respect of, those about him; so much so that on the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighbourhood (identified by some with Vicovaro), the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot.

Even though he lived thus sequestered from the world, Benedict, like the Desert Fathers, had to struggle with temptations of the flesh and the devil. One of these struggles is described by Gregory. “On a certain day when he was alone the tempter presented himself. A small dark bird, commonly called a blackbird, began to fly around his face and came so near him that, if he had wished, he could have seized it with his hand. But on his making the sign of the cross, the bird flew away. Then followed a violent temptation of the flesh, such as he had never before experienced. The evil spirit brought before his imagination a woman whom he had formerly seen, and inflamed his heart with such vehement desire at the memory of her that he had very great difficulty in repressing it. He was almost overcome and thought of leaving his solitude. Suddenly, however, with the help of divine grace, he found the strength he needed. Seeing near at hand a thick growth of briars and nettles, he stripped off his habit and cast himself into the midst of them and plunged and tossed about until his whole body was lacerated. Thus, through those bodily wounds, he cured the wounds of his soul.” Never again was he troubled in the same way.

Benedict was acquainted with the life and discipline of the monastery, and knew that “their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent” (ibid., 3). The experiment failed; the monks tried to poison him, and he returned to his cave. From this time his miracles seem to have become frequent, and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance. For them he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with “a few, such as he thought would more profit and be better instructed by his own presence” (ibid., 3). He remained, however, the father or abbot of all. With the establishment of these monasteries began the schools for children; and amongst the first to be brought were Maurus and Placid.

He died of a fever at Monte Cassino not long after his sister, Saint Scholastica, and was buried in the same place as his sister. According to tradition, this occurred on 21 March 543 or 547. He was named patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius.

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