As we celebrate the solemnity of St Benedict today, we present for your consideration a series of thumbnail readings from the celebrated life of St Benedict found in Book II of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. This short work, a skilful blend of hagiography and history, is the only writing which attempts to supply some sort of biographical sketch of Our Holy Father, St Benedict, and is valuable on many levels, not least in that it offers Gregory’s own personal reflection of the life and works of a man whose memory in that time was still fresh, and whose influence on monasticism, christendom and the Europe to come could not be imagined. We hope these little snippets encourage you to read the entire work, but also to come to know Benedict both as a reader and interpreter of the Gospel and one who has invited countless to follow him and so follow Christ, and continues to offer this invitation to you and me.
Benedict takes leaves of his parents and begins his journey
There was a man whose name was Benedict, blessed (the Latin is Benedictus) in both grace and name. Born of free parents in the region of Nursia, he was sent to Rome for a liberal education. But when he saw that some of his classmates were plunging into vice, he withdrew his foot that he had just placed on the threshold of the world. He was afraid that worldly knowledge might cause him to fall into the depths of hell. So, abandoning his literary studies, and leaving his family home and inheritance, he sought to please God alone. He went looking for a monastic habit so that he could lead a holy life. Thus he left Rome learnedly ignorant and wisely uninstructed.
Benedict battles temptation
One day, when Benedict was alone, the Tempter put in an appearance as a little blackbird which fluttered about his face. He made the sign of the cross and the bird flew away. Then the holy man experienced a temptation such as he had never experienced before. Some time before, he had seen a certain woman, and now the Tempter brought that to his mind’s eye. At this vision, such a flame seared the mind of the servant of God that he could scarcely endure the fire of lust in his breast. A victim of lust, he almost decided to desert the hermitage.
Suddenly, favoured by grace, he came to his senses. Seeing a thicket of briars and nettles growing close at hand, he stripped naked and threw himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. He rolled in them for a long time and as a result was scratched from head to toe. The physical wounds on his skin removed the wound of his mind, for it converted lust into sorrow.
An attempt on Benedict’s life
(Having been invited by a monastery of very undisciplined monks to be their superior, which they regretted)
When Benedict looked to the regular life of that monastery, and would not allow them to deviate to the right or the left of the monastic path as before, the monks under his rule grew furious. So they tried to figure out a way to kill him.
After some plotting, they poisoned his wine. When the glass vessel carrying the poisoned drink was brought according to monastic custom to the seated Father for his blessing, he extended his hand and made the sign of life. He broke the vessel with this sign, and it was so shattered that it was as if he had thrown a stone at that vessel of death instead of the sign of the cross. Instantly the man of God knew that the drink was poisoned, because it could not bear the sign of the cross. He arose at once, and with a calm face and a tranquil mind said to the gathered brothers: “Brothers, may almighty God have mercy on you! Why have you wished to do this to me? Did I not tell you that our ways do not mesh? Go find yourselves a superior according to your own thinking, for after this you cannot have me”.
Then he returned to his beloved place of solitude, where he lived alone with himself but under the gaze of the Heavenly Spectator.
The Monastery at Monte Cassino
Now the citadel called Cassino is located on the side of a high mountain. The mountain shelters this citadel on a broad bench. Then it rises three miles above it as if its peak tended towards heaven. There was an ancient temple there in which Apollo used to be worshipped according to the old pagan rite by the foolish local farmers. Around it had grown up a grove dedicated to demon worship, where even at that time a wild crowd still devoted themselves to unholy sacrifices.
When the man of God arrived, he smashed the idol, overturned the altar and cut down the grove of trees. He built a chapel dedicated to St Martin in the temple of Apollo and another to St John where the altar of Apollo had stood. And he summoned the people of the district to the faith by his unceasing preaching.
A lesson in humility
One day when the venerable Benedict was taking his evening meal, one of his monks, the son of a knight, was holding the lamp by his table. The lamp bearer, moved by the spirit of pride, began to brood. “Who is this, whom I serve while he eats? Here I am, holding the lamp like a slave”. The man of God immediately turned to him and began to rebuke him, saying: “Sign your heart, brother! What are you saying? Sign your heart!”. And he quickly called the brothers and told them to take the lamp from him, and that he should go and sit quietly alone.
When asked what he had in his heart, the young man told the brothers how he was puffed up with pride, and told them the words he had spoken against Benedict in his mind. Then it was crystal clear to all that even the words of one’s thoughts were audible to Benedict.
The prayers of Scholastica
His sister, Scholastica, a nun, used to come to see him once a year. The man of God would come down to see her in a house owned by the monastery not far from the gate. On this one occasion they spent the whole day in praise of God and pious conversation. When night shadows were already falling, they took a meal together. The hour grew late and they still sat conversing of holy things. Then his sister, the nun, said: “I beg you, do not leave me tonight. Let us speak til morning of the joys of the heavenly life!” “What are you saying, sister,” he replied, “There is no way I can remain outside the monastery!”
When the nun heard her brother’s refusal, she put her hands on the table with the fingers intertwined. Then she put her head on her hands to pray to almighty God. When she raised her head from the table, there was such thunder and lightning and such a downpour of rain that neither venerable Benedict nor the brothers who were with him could set foot outdoors.
When the man of God saw that he could not return to the monastery because of the thunder and lightning and cloudburst, he was dismayed and said: “God, forgive you sister! What have you done?” She answered: “Look, I asked you and you wouldn’t listen, so I asked my Lord and he listened”. So it happened that they stayed up all night, and they satisfied each other with holy discourse on the spiritual life.
The vision of the sun ray
When the time for sleep came, Benedict went to the upper storey of the tower. When the brothers were still asleep, the man of God got up to watch in prayer before the time for the Night Office. Standing at the window and praying to almighty God in the middle of the night, he suddenly saw a light pour down that routed all the shadows. It shone with such splendour that it surpassed daylight, even though it was shining in the darkness. A wonderful thing followed in this vision, for as Benedict later reported, the whole world was brought before his eyes as if collected in a single ray of sunlight.A person who could see a fiery ball and angels mounting to heaven, that one certainly must have been seeing the light of God. So why is it surprising that he saw the whole world concentrated before him if he himself was lifted out of the world in the light of the spirit. When it is said that the whole world was collected before his eyes, this does not mean that heaven and earth were shrunk, but that the soul was expanded. Thus to that light which lights things for the exterior eyes, there corresponds an interior light to the mind. When it has raised the soul on high, it shows her how narrow are all things below.
Benedict takes his final leave
Six days before his death, Benedict 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 of him 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 the 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 John the Baptizer, which he himself had constructed on the destroyed altar of Apollo.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-