By CAROLE BRESLIN
Every month the Apostleship of Prayer publishes the intentions of the Holy Father: one for a universal intention and one for an evangelical intention. In June 2014, the evangelical intention was that Europe may rediscover its Christian roots through the witness of believers.
The advent of Christian civilization coincided with the advent of Western civilization. The Benedictine monasteries established throughout Europe brought about the development of farming, education, and peace. These Benedictine monasteries were started by St. Benedict.
In How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, the author, Thomas E. Woods, explains how St. Benedict came to be called the Father of Europe. The monasteries he founded were the centers of the “literary inheritance of the ancient world, not to mention literacy itself, in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.” The monks founded by St. Benedict developed a network of “model factories, centers for breeding and livestock, centers of scholarship, spiritual fervor, the art of living and social action” (p. 5).
St. Benedict was not the founder of monasticism, but he took monasticism in a new direction in Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. As a young man, he showed great proclivity for the spiritual life. He was born of a wealthy and noble family in the mountain village of Nursia, northeast of Rome, around 480. When he was a young teen, his parents sent him to Rome to further his education. However, at that time the presence of the Arian barbarians did much to destroy what little morality was left, as they brought their pagan ways to the city.
As a result, St. Benedict decided to leave Rome and go to the village of Enfide, about 30 miles from Rome. His nurse cared and cooked for him. Even though they stayed here for a short time, it was long enough for Benedict to engage in deep discernment. One thing that might have triggered this decision may have been the time he miraculously repaired a borrowed pot that his nurse had dropped and shattered.
Benedict soon realized that God called him to be more than a quiet layman. He knew he must be totally removed from the world, and leave even the quiet life of Enfide. Thus he went to the hills of Subiaco, where he met the holy monk Romanus.
Romanus led him to a cave that was nearly impossible to reach through thick forests and across great canyons. In this cave, Benedict lived for the next three years. The first outsider to see Benedict after this time was a priest who had received a vision from God to take food to him on Easter. Benedict had lost track of time and did not realize that it was Easter, so he ate with the priest.
Not long after, a group of shepherds mistook him for a wild animal because he appeared with animal skins for clothing. When they realized he was a man, they recognized his holiness. They gained much from listening to him about the love of God. Word began to spread about the holy man of the hills. More and more people brought him food as he counseled and preached to them.
Like all holy men, he was severely tempted, especially with the temptations of the flesh. His cure was simple and one used by many saints down through the centuries: having stripped off his clothes, he threw himself into some briers and nettles so that the wounds of the flesh would heal the wounds of the soul. This sacrifice freed him from that particular temptation for the rest of his life.
His reputation inspired a nearby group of monks to seek him out when they needed to replace their abbot who had died. Benedict refused on the grounds that they would not like his austere lifestyle. As they were relentless in their pursuit of him, he finally agreed to serve them. His initial response to them proved to be correct when they plotted to get rid of him.
Benedict discovered their plot to kill him when he blessed a poisoned carafe of wine, which then burst, revealing the plot to him. He immediately rebuked the monks and left to return to Subiaco. Here he would begin to implement that call which he had discerned earlier, but which he had not acted upon.
St. Benedict began to gather men from all walks of life to live in harmony with each other in monasteries away from the world. These men were both nobles and barbarians, rich and poor, learned and simple. They lived in small wooden huts with 12 men in each hut under chosen monks to guide them.
The men lived in harmony by following the example of St. Benedict who spent much time in prayer as well as working hard to support the men — ora et labora. Some historians comment that it is a miracle in itself that the nobles, who joined him with their great abhorrence of physical labor, also joined in the manual tasks of cleaning, farming, and cooking.
St. Benedict — as Pope St. John Paul II would write many centuries later — taught that physical labor was not only dignified but also a way to grow in holiness. Eventually, St. Benedict made it a part of the rule that every member had to engage in labor.
Benedict stayed in Subiaco until circumstances forced him to leave in order to protect his work. The popularity of the saint and his men became so widespread and universal that envious men sought to destroy it by spreading false rumors and trying to poison the saint. His enemies even went so far as to send women of no virtue to tempt the men into sin.
Recognizing that the motivation behind these actions was none other than to undermine his work, St. Benedict abruptly packed and left Subiaco. When he arrived in Monte Cassino, an elevated remote location, he began to draw more people once again. This enabled him to destroy the temple of Apollo there and build two chapels once he had completed a forty-day fast. People would bring rocks and stones which eventually became the great abbey of Monte Cassino. Benedict himself placed the foundation around 530.
Here in Monte Cassino his rule was formalized and the pattern established that would bring the advancement of civilization to Europe as the monks sought to teach, sanctify, and labor not only for God but also for man. Benedict did much to confirm his work by the many services to the poor and needy, including miracles for their benefit.
In 543, six days before his death, he instructed his men to dig his grave. He received our Lord and died just as the grave was completed. His body was buried next to his sister, St. Scholastica, on the hill where he had destroyed the temple to Apollo. His feast day is July 11.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)