Today, all those religious who follow the Rule of St Benedict as a principle tool for their way of life – and that includes, of course, Cistercians – celebrate the Transitus of St Benedict, literally, his crossing over, or rather more plainly, the day of his death. We might also, using the very beautiful patristic term, speak about his dies natalis, St Benedict’s birthday, intending that this is the day upon which he was born to true life, the life of the kingdom, sharing in the life of the Trinity, to which he aimed, and to which he encourages us to aim.
To celebrate today’s feast we listen to St Gregory the Great’s account of Holy Benedict’s death as he relates it for us in his life of St Benedict:
Now in the same year when he was to die, he announced the day of his 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 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. Them 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 his monastery straight up to heaven. Standing on it was an old man in shining garments whom 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 oath 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 Baptiser, which he himself had constructed on the destroyed altar of Apollo.
Strictly speaking, Gregory the Great’s short work is not a biography, nor is it really intended to be so. Rather, it offers the view that Benedict was one among a number of holy people in a struggling Italian peninsula who, by their life, works and teaching, gave witness against a turbulent and unsettled age and culture, and continued to hold fast to orthodox teaching and the truth of the Gospel and the Church’s preaching of the kingdom. Benedict is, in many respects, then, intended to an Everyman, but one whose example few will be able to follow entirely. Nevertheless, his focus on God, his openness to God’s presence in his life, his acknowledgement that we, frail though we are, can, by grace, cooperate in God’s work of salvation; his recognition that we overwhelmingly need the support and environment of community life to become ourselves and to correct us when we become forgetful of our fundamental human and Christian vocation; his insistence that Christ must again and again be placed at the centre of all we do, or we do nothing truly without him – all of these facts, and more, suggest that he is a model for Christian living.
No less the death which he experienced. As a vocational witness he speaks volumes. In the first instance, Benedict is seen living here his teaching in the Tools for Good Works (RB4.44-48):
“Live in fear of judgement day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour, keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be”.
This is far from being what at first sight it seems to be – living with an unacceptable degree of morbid dread of one’s end. It is, in fact, a very frank recognition of reality: some day I too am going to die. This is a fact which is incontrovertible and so is ignored, really, at one’s peril. In some sense St Benedict is saying: just as you would prepare for any other great event in your life, which you know is coming, so prepare for this singular great event, a one off (for most of us!), which will be utterly defining. It may very well come calling at the least expected hour; nevertheless, some kind of good preparation can always be made. I wouldn’t go out in the car without the equipment to repair a punctured tyre, but I might drive for many years without needing to use it.
Of course, this is where a faith context has to kick in. Death will be a pointless experience, moment or event in the future if we have little connection with Christ’s death. Hence, Benedict can preface that keeping daily the thought of death in our mind with the attitude of a holy desire for everlasting life. Now he’s speaking about that long term goal which John Cassian holds up for the serious Christian who wants to do the work of a serious life here and now – we’re aiming for the kingdom of God, everlasting life, what the Greeks called theosis and the Latins deification. We’re aiming to take hold of the opportunity made for us by the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, of being drawn into the life of the Trinity for eternity. For this, we have to place the Christ event, and especially the Paschal event of Christ’s death and resurrection, at the centre.
This, of course, is the Benedictine-Cistercian vocation: Christ, preferred above all, preferred to all, placed at the centre of all. There would be, indeed, should be, no other overriding reason for this life and the feeling that this life is my life. It’s the serious question to ask one who comes searching: Ad quid venisti, Benedict asks the visiting priest, in Chapter 60 of the Rule: Friend, what have you come for? And this underpins the quite long Chapter 58, On Receiving Brethren, which treats of the reception of those who come seeking to join the monastic community:
“The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God (si revera quaerit Deum, says the Latin) and whether he shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials. The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.”
If one is serious about seeking God, then the door to this life lies open. And we often forget – even monks and nuns tend to omit the words when quoting this part of the Rule! – Benedict speaks about the hardships and difficulties which will lead to God, and not simply the hardships and difficulties of the life! (Praedicentur ei omnia dura et aspera per quae itur ad Deum).
And in case we get ahead of ourselves, or begin to preen ourselves over our sufferings: all lives, taken seriously, will have their share of the dura et aspera, the hard and difficult things. Not all of these, of course, will necessarily lead to God.
Benedict finds, in these tough moments when death begins to take hold, and drives a wedge between him and this earthly life, that he needs the men in his community even more than ever. It’s a very moving image which Gregory the Great gives us: the founder, teacher, abbot, shepherd, wonder worker, and indefatigable foe of the devil, now leans on his own disciples, more clearly shown in these lines as his brothers. All Benedict’s not insubstantial strengths are taken away and even physically his brothers become his support. They carry him, lift up his arms in prayer – an unmistakable side glance to that other great lawgiver, Moses, as he had his arms raised up during the battle of Israel with the Amelikites, with Aaron and Hur supporting him (Exodus 17:12). At the bottom of everything, Benedict remains a monk, one who is as much subject to his own Rule, and the Rule of the Gospel, as anyone else.
But also in this brief scene other supports are clearly given for our consideration. This is Benedict the man of ceaseless prayer, who finds solace and refuge in that standing before God and in God’s presence, with his whole self turned toward God in these moments. And this, again, is a miniature of the life that he invites his followers to lead: a life characterised by continuous prayer, whether it be the formal prayer in community of the Work of God, or prayer undertaken privately and with tears and compunction, or holy reading. Benedict shows here in this moment that prayer will be, should be, the tool which, above all, accompanies us, and to the end. Nothing epitomises this more than the observation by Gregory that St Benedict “breathed forth his last as he prayed”: living, breathing, dying had all become a single aspect synchronised with the Abbot’s heart prayer – prayer came as naturally to him now as breathing, and with that degree of perfect prayer he needed nothing more from this earthly life.
For most of us, prayer is an aspect of our lives which never stops demanding, and we feel that we are poor in this regard. Sometimes it becomes a struggle because our sense of failure is overwhelming. I’m not sure we should always be in the camp of those who discourage us by letting us know how very difficult prayer is. It is testing, since it asks us to move aside those thoughts which jostle for our attention and so rob us of a single hearted movement toward God and an undivided awareness of God. The Russian monk and mystic Theophan the Recluse teaches:
“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.” (The Art of Prayer)
And then by way of encouragement for us when we feel that our prayer is stale:
“You must never regard any spiritual work as firmly established, and this is especially true of prayer; but always pray as if beginning for the first time. When we do a thing for the first time, we come to it fresh and with a new-born enthusiasm. If, when starting to pray, you always approach it as though you had never yet prayed properly, and only now for the first time wished to do so, you will always pray with a fresh and lively zeal. And all will go well. If you are not successful in your prayer, do not expect success in anything. It is the root of all”. (The Art of Prayer)
Pray as if beginning for the first time! No moment of prayer is ever the same, no encounter with God is ever the same, no sense of his presence within us and around us is ever the same! But like many things we have to learn, little by little, that I can smother God’s Spirit within me who wants to cry out to the Father on my behalf, and in my voice, because I cannot do this by myself. I cannot pray unless it is the Spirit praying in me. The grace that I seek, the freedom that I seek, is to open the door for this to become the reality of my living in God.
In that sense, Benedict, in this moment of interpenetration, when God’s time touches and joins itself to the last moment of his time, and Benedict makes that definitive decision to go along that path to life in God, shows us the kernel of monastic life, and of all God experience in any life lived on earth – to allow God to penetrate the lived moment of my now.
In the celebration of Benedict’s crossing over from this life to eternal life we have a portrait of monastic life in microcosm: prayer overwhelming us and as natural as our breathing; frailty laid bare in our poor humanity and becoming the doorway for our leaning on our brethren and our accepting their love, support and strength when we are weak; feet rooted here but a gaze fixed and focused on a long term goal, the kingdom of God and eternal life in him; a daily remembrance of our own death to allow us to see value in every moment of our lives here and now and as encouragement to live fully the life and charisms with which we have been blessed; and above all, perhaps, to know that the impetus of our lives, answering the question about what we seek, is answered by Christ who already stands at the centre of all.