Had we not been observing today the 5th Sunday of Lent we would probably have been celebrating the feast known as the Transitus of St Benedict. We might loosely translate this as the day of his death, but perhaps more precisely we should note that it is his true dies natalis – his birth day! – when he passes (hence, transitus) from this earthly life to the heavenly inheritance which God has prepared for him.
Let’s listen to the account which St Gregory the Great gives us in his Dialogue on the life of St Benedict:
“Now in the same year when he was to die, the Man of God (St Benedict) announced the day of his most holy death to certain disciples who lived with him. And he did the same for some who lived at a distance. He insisted that those who were present not broadcast what they had heard. And he told those absent by what sort of sign they would know his soul was leaving his body.
“Six days before his death, he commanded that his grave be opened. Soon he was seized with fever, and he was exhausted by its burning heat. He became weaker as the days went by, and on the sixth day he had his disciples carry him into the oratory. There he fortified himself for death by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. Then, with his weak body held up by his disciples, he stood with his hands raised toward heaven and breathed forth his last as he prayed.
“Now, on that same day an identical vision was granted to two of the brothers, one of whom was staying in the monastery and the other at a distance. They saw a carpeted street brilliant with countless lamps. It led from the east side of his monastery straight up to heaven. Standing on it was an old man in shining garments who asked them if they knew whose path it was they were looking at. But they told him they did not know. He said to them: ‘This is the path on which Benedict, beloved of the Lord, is going up to heaven’. Thus they who were absent understood from the sign given them that the holy man had died. They did so just as the disciples who were present saw it with their own eyes.
He was buried in the oratory of Blessed John the Baptizer, which he himself had constructed on the destroyed altar of Apollo.” (Gregory the Great, Dialogues Bk II)
And, of course, that tomb is still to be venerated, beneath the high altar in the monastery at Monte Cassino, having survived, miraculously, an allied bomb hitting it during the assault on the abbey during the Second World War.
Benedict, as the Rule Giver and our leader in this life, as it were, has been held up as exemplar and guide by the Cistercians from the beginning of the reform, needless to say. All the Cistercian Fathers in some way speak about him. We listen to St Aelred of Rievaulx first:
“So today our Father has passed from earth to heaven, from prison to the kingdom, from death to life, from misery to glory. From this life which can quite appropriately be called death, he has happily passed over into the land of the living. Deservedly do I say he has passed on to the land of the living because this life is not of the living but of the dying. Since we know where Benedict passed from and to, let us see now how he passed. For it would be of no profit to those wishing to follow him if they knew only where he passed from and to, unless they also know how he passed. Truly he went through Christ to Christ. Through faith in Jesus Christ, which worked in him through love, he passed to the vision and contemplation of Jesus Christ by which is satisfied the desire for all that is good. His way therefore was Christ who said of him in the Gospel: I am the way, the truth, and the life. Through him he passed to him because he who is the way is life itself.
“When he found the way narrow, what did he do? Did he ever depart from it? Instead he kept to it and manfully stood his ground. First he did what later he taught, so he could teach us, his followers, what he had done himself. For as Pope Saint Gregory said of him: Just as he lived, so he taught. He could not teach other than he lived.”
Then Guerric of Igny, taking up a theme which is common amongst the Cistercians, likens Moses, the great lawgiver of Exodus, to Benedict, the new lawgiver, who gives a Gospel way of life in his Holy Rule:
“He sanctified him through his faith and meekness. Moses is the real subject of this verse, but today I think it can be applied very well to St Benedict. Filled as he was with the spirit of all the saints, he must be considered much more to have not a little of the spirit of Moses. Moses was the leader of those making their way out of Egypt; Benedict of those turning their backs on the world. They have both given a law. But the one was the minister of the letter that kills, the other, of the spirit that gives life. Moses owing to the hardness of the hearts of the Jews, apart from a few guides to behaviour, left no prescriptions adequate to the task of justification; Benedict however has handed on the unique purity of the Gospel teaching and the simplicity of its way of life. So many of the things about which Moses writes are difficult to understand, impossible or useless to perform. Benedict on the other hand wrote a most excellent Rule of life remarkable both for the lucidity of its style and for its discretion. Finally, although Moses was the leader of the children of Israel when they left the land of Egypt he did not lead them into their promised resting-place; whereas our leader, like the standard bearer of the army of monks, has today gone before us along the straight path, the path stretching eastwards, into the kingdom of heaven.
“It is of these two virtues, faith and meekness, that he is our teacher; he could never have lived otherwise than as he taught”.
Today we pray that St Benedict will be our guide and our leader still, interceding for religious men and women the world over, guiding new vocations to our Cistercian monasteries, and perhaps especially in these difficult times, that the pure religion which he himself practised and passed on will flourish once again in a darkened Europe, a Europe which has all too quickly forgotten its Christian heritage and vocation. St Benedict, Man of God and teacher of the way to God, pray for us!