Orthodox America


  St. Benedict


480-1980

This year marks the l500th anniversary of the birth of one of the great Orthodox monastic fathers of the West

In the year 480 a twin boy and girl were. born into a noble Roman family in southern Italy. Sharing the same womb, they were also destined to share the struggle for virtue and, at the end, their bodies were to share the same tomb while their souls dwelt together in Paradise. Of their infancy little is known, but even as youths St. Benedict and St. Scholastica began to turn their backs on the amusements of the world.

At the age of 14 his parents sent Benedict to Rome to be educated in the fine arts. In the capital the boy discovered that most of his peers had given themselves up to lives of silliness, vanity, and vice. The shallowness of this frightened him, and so he left Rome, vowing to seek his salvation in solitude.

About 40 miles from Rome, in a remote desert-like place called Subiaeo. he was sent by a monk, St. Romanus, who understood his longing for salvation and offered to help him. He encouraged the boy to settle in a nearby cave where, for three years, he lived in complete anonymity, solitude, and silence. On certain days the monks would lower a loaf of bread on a rope, but otherwise St. Benedict had no contact with the outside world.

Eventually, shepherds discovered him. Seeing that he was a servant of the true God, many of them converted to Christianity. According to the Saint's life, "by this means his life began to be famous in the country, and many did resort unto him, bringing with them necessaries for his body, while they received from his lips the food of life."

But true victory does not come without struggle and warfare, and soon the enemy of our salvation drew close to St. Benedict, tempting him more strongly than anything he had ever before experienced: "For the remembrance of a woman he had once seen was presented to his fancy by the Wicked Spirit, and so strongly was he inflamed with lustful desires that, nearly overcome, he was about to leave the wilderness. Suddenly, through God's grace, he came to himself and, seeing nearby a thicket of nettles and briars, he threw off his garments and cast himself naked into the midst of those sharp thorns, where he roiled himself so long that, when he rose up, his body was pitifully torn. Thus, by means of wounds in his flesh be cured the wounds of his soul. From that time forth, as he himself told his followers, he was free of this temptation. Henceforth, many began to leave the world and place themselves under his direction. Being now free from vice, he worthily deserved to be made a master of: virtue."

In time, St. Benedict established no fewer than 12 monasteries, the most famous of which is Mount Cassino. Here, a temple to the pagan god Apollo had stood. A multitude of heathen offered sacrifice until the Saint approached, threw down the idol, and built a chapel. On Mount Cassino, through continual preaching and prayer, he was able to bring many people to Christ.

Not only was St. Benedict a great missionary, man of prayer, and spiritual director of souls, but God also vouchsafed him the grace of wonderworking. Thus, he was able to cast out demons from those possessed, had the gift of prophecy, could read human hearts and thoughts, cure the sick, and miraculously provide money for the poor, but most wonderful of all, he also raised the dead! However, one miracle performed by his sister St. Scholastica should be related in full, as it demonstrates the simplicity and single mindedness of these twin saints:

"His sister Scholastica, who was consecrated to God from her very childhood, used to come once a year to see him, unto whom the Saint would go to a house not far from the gate. She came one day, according to her custom, and her venerable brother likewise came, with his disciples. After they had spent the whole day in the praise of God and pious conversation, the night drawing on they took their meal together. As they were yet sitting at table, his sister entreated him saying, I beseech you, leave me not this night, that we may talk until morning of the joys of the heavenly life.' To this he answered, 'What is this you say, sister? By no means can I stay out of my monastery.'

"At this moment the sky was calm, and not a cloud was to be seen. The holy woman, therefore, hearing her brother's refusal, clasped her hands together upon the table and, bowing her head upon them, she prayed to Almighty God. As she raised up her head from the table there began such a violent lightning and thunder, with such abundant rain, that neither venerable Benedict nor his brethren could put foot out of doors...

"Then the man of God... was sad and began to say, 'God Almighty forgive you, sister; what is this you have done?” She answered, “I prayed you to stay and you would not hear me; I prayed to Almighty God and He heard me. Now, therefore, if you can, go forth to the monastery and leave me.' But he, not able to go forth, was forced to stay. Thus it happened that they spent the night in vigil and were content with spiritual conversation about heavenly matters.

"The next day the venerable woman returned to her cloister and the man of God to his monastery. Three days later, while standing in his cell, he saw the soul of his sister depart out of her body and, in the form of a dove, ascend and enter into the celestial mansions. Rejoicing to see her great glory, he gave thanks to God in hymns and praises and announced her death to the brethren. He sent them to bring her body to the monastery and caused it to be buried in the same tomb that he had prepared for himself. By means of this it happened that, as their minds were always one in God, so also their bodies were not separated in their burial."

St. Benedict, the great patriarch of Western monks, reposed on March 21, 543. Six days earlier he foretold his death and asked that his grave be prepared. On the sixth day he asked to be carried into the chapel "where he armed himself for his going forth by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord." Then, showing the power of his soul over his body, even at the last moment, "he stood up, his hands lifted towards heaven, and with words of prayer at last breathed forth his soul."

That same day, two monks at different places saw a path stretching from the Saint's cell towards heaven, and shining with innumerable lights. A beautiful man (apparently an angel) stood above and said to them: "This is the path by which the beloved of the Lord, Benedict, ascended to heaven."

St. Benedict was a brilliant light to the world not only because of his miracles and the asceticism of his life, but also because of his teachings. He wrote a rule for monks "which is distinguished for its wonderful discretion and clearness of thought." The purpose of this "Rule" was to order the spiritual and physical activities of a monk so that he might be a true soldier of Christ. But in addition, the "Rule" describes twelve degrees or "steps" to humility. Those familiar with the ascetic writings of Eastern saints and Fathers--particularly the “Ladder” of St. John--will naturally find this quite familiar. But St. Benedict's "ladder" should be briefly outlined here because of its suitability for all true Christian men and women, regardless of their station, for all Christians wish to ascend the ladder of salvation to Christ.

  1. The first step towards humility is fear of God and remembrance of Him in all things that we do.

  2. Secondly, the struggler must not love to do his own will, but follow instead the example of the Saviour: "I have come not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me."

  3. We must be obedient to God and His Church, in all things great and small.

  4. The struggler must be patient, enduring everything that comes to him.

  5. We must not hide our sins, but eagerly confess them.

  6. One who seeks humility must be content with the poorest and worst of everything,

  7. We must consider ourselves as lower than anyone else.

  8. We should not seek to be "different" from others; we should do only what is needful, following the example of the saints.

  9. The humble man learns to restrain his tongue.

  10. We must be serious-minded, not frivolous or silly.

  11. Our words to others should be few, and covered with gentleness.

  12. Real humility appears first in the heart; then it shows itself in our outward behaviour, whether we are working or resting. 

Among Orthodox Christians there was never any need to use the "Rule" of St. Benedict, for the teachings of this "Rule" were always alive in the monastic tradition of the East, from where, indeed, they originally came to St. Benedict. Therefore, one may say that St. Benedict's Rule was preserved in spirit in the Orthodox east, just as was the memory of the Saint himself, whose feast is still kept by the Orthodox on March 14. The ideal of a hidden life of labor and solitude remained continually alive in the Orthodox Church, blossoming like a flower in the desert. In this same spirit, St. Benedict's Rule, with its emphasis on virtue and repentance rather than organization, contained the very essence of Christ's teachings about other-worldliness.

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33).

St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, recorded the life of St. Benedict from which we have quoted above. St. Benedict reposed when St. Gregory was only three years old, but the monastic Saint's successor. Abbot Constantine, as well as three other abbots. all of them disciples of Bt. Benedict, shared their eyewitness accounts with St. Grocery.

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