Sometimes, trying to find something new to say about a figure who has had vast and, it’s reasonable to say, as yet entirely unquantified influence on society and Church can simply be pointless. And that is by no means to say that all conversation about one such has been exhausted. St Benedict of Nursia perhaps might be said to fit into that category. Given that his extant output amounts to a very slim written work – The Rule for Monasteries – St Benedict’s unquestionable presence is felt today still, almost 1500 years after his death. Part of the enjoyment of coming to know Benedict and his influence is precisely in reading the reflections that others have made, what fixes Benedict in their minds and lives, and how we, constantly searching for voices which will lead us with authority and integrity, need the food which they offer us, if we have any hope of being nourished on anything else except the junk which passes for mass communication today.
For the solemnity of the Father of Western Monasticism, which we celebrate today, we would like to offer a few words given us by Pope St Paul VI, from the early days of his pontificate (1964). Pope Paul was in the midst of assuming the burden of the Second Vatican Council, convened in the Holy Spirit by his venerable predecessor, Pope John XXIII, and he, the Church and the world were yet to be confronted by all the demands which the deliberations of the Council, and the waves which it would send out, would send crashing before it. And indeed, there are those who still struggle to listen with the ear of the heart to the teaching of that ecumenical synod and the subsequent papal magisterium which has boldly continued to set it forth and gently push the Church “always in need of reform”.
Pope Paul’s reflections on the figure of St Benedict and his immense reach have not lost any of their lustre and insight in the decades which separate his writing from our hearing and reading. We offer a little of it today for your consideration. It’s filled with pauses for thought and prayer – questions about peace, about unity, about the growth of culture and civilization. It asks us to stop and consider the disunity of our own age, the threat to Europe and the European project, and above all what a society without the culture of Christianity and monasticism would look like. The extract is taken from Pope Paul’s Apostolic Letter Pacis Nuntius (The Messenger of Peace), in which he proclaimed St Benedict Patron of Europe.
Saint Benedict has the reputation of being the messenger of peace, the maker of unity, the master of civilization, and especially the herald of Christianity and the author of monasticism in the West. When darkness seemed to be spreading over Europe after the fall of the Roman empire he brought the light of dawn to shine upon this continent. For with the cross, the book and the plough, Christian civilization was carried, principally through him and his sons, to the peoples who lived in those lands which stretch from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, and from Ireland to the plains of Poland.
With the cross, that is with the law of Christ, he strengthened and developed the institutions of private and social life. Through the “Work of God”, that is, through the careful and assiduous conduct of prayer, he taught that divine worship was of the greatest importance in the social sphere. And so he sealed that spiritual unity of Europe in which the various nations of different ethnic origins and languages felt themselves to be united into the one people of God. And so this unity, learned from so great a master, which the sons of Saint Benedict so faithfully strove to achieve, became the principal element in that period of history called the middle ages. All men of good will in our times must strive to recover that unity, which, as Saint Augustine says, is the “form of all beauty”, and which, alas, has been lost in the vicissitudes of history.
With the book, that is, with the culture of the mind, this venerable patriarch from whom so many monasteries have drawn their name and their spirit spread his doctrine through the classics of literature and the liberal arts, preserved and passed on to posterity by them with so much care.
And lastly with the plough, that is, through agriculture, he changed the waste and desert lands into orchards and delightful gardens; and joining work with prayer in the spirit of those words ora et labora, he restored the dignity of human labour. Not without reason, then, did Pope Pius XII call Saint Benedict the Father of Europe, for he inspired the peoples of this continent with the love of order upon which their social life depends. We pray he may look upon Europe, and by his prayer achieve even greater things in years to come.
In the sixty years which have passed since Paul VI issued that letter the Europe which he knew, and which many reading this may remember, is all but gone. The felt presence of a Christian cultural milieu has taken wave after wave of hammering, from within its own ranks of believers and clerics, and from without, a society which has grown to be decidedly post-Christian and even post-religion, proudly proclaiming itself secular, when in reality it is secularist, intolerant of religious views and practices, and self-confident in its own self-sufficiency. A new darkness, one might say, has fallen over Europe, and has been falling for most of the last century. Undoubtedly, the swagger of unbelief – at least, the rejection of Christianity – has left Europe feeling hollow, disembowelled, truly rootless as it tries to cut all ties with its Christian heritage and the Christian cultural paradigm which has shaped it, and allowed other, religious and ante-religious, currents to claim a new hegemony.
The survival of monasticism in these times is a testament, of course, to the truth which monasticism professes: there are still men and women who believe that preferring nothing whatever to Christ is the most self-expressive way of living which they can embrace, not because it is centred wholly in self at all, but because it necessarily travels out to the other, and the Other, fellow men and women, and God above all. Its survival, and the survival of Christianity, is too deeply entwined with the prophecy which always lay at the heart of the Church’s life, right from her Pentecost day: and prophecy consists precisely in the lived witness that a person knows God’s kingdom is breaking in on our reality, and that it cannot be ignored. Much of this is inherent in Pope Paul’s statements above: while St Benedict himself cannot be personally accredited with all the work which Pope Paul elencates, it is exactly in the lives of monks and nuns of the Benedictine tradition that all these things have been achieved – and they are done and completed for the sake of the Kingdom of God. If they were not, they would simply lie within the field of human endeavour and so, while meriting praise, no doubt, and imitation, they would lack the spark of life which imbues the Benecitine ideal – that in all things God should be glorified.