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Catholic Heroes… St. Peter Damian

January 24, 2023 saints No Comments


For those in search of a night free of insomnia, it’s said those with a clean conscience sleep blissfully. Yet, many of us know it is not quite that easy to vanquish insomnia and in truth, the longer one tries, the less one is inclined to fall sleep. At the least it can be exhausting, at the most, incapacitating.
In searching for help amongst the lives of the saints, we find mainly tales of those offering up the sleep they could have, and or fighting to stay awake. St. Jerome, when he got sleepy, would dash himself against the ground in an attempt to remain alert. Many religious, including saints, fasted from sleep. Or sleeping on rough ground, mattresses, or boards was common…to make sleep difficult. St. John Paul II would sleep on the floor and then mess up his comfortable bed, so those around him would not know of his mortification.
But for those who suffer insomnia, St. Peter Damian is suggested. He had such zeal as a young monk that he overly filled his life with such mortification, with the result he suffered from severe insomnia. He did, however, recover from this sleeplessness. Furthermore, later as prior, he introduced a siesta into the monks’ routine, to make up for being up late praying the night office. This is all in the true spirit of the Benedictine rule, which needed to allow energy for prayer, yes, but also labor.
This doctor of the Church has a feast that is rapidly approaching — on February 21. To place him in history, he died about a century before St. Francis of Assisi was born.
Born 1007, a millennium ago in Ravenna, Italy, he was orphaned early and had many siblings. Cared for first by one brother who worked him hard and did not feed him enough, he was luckily taken in by another, Damianus, an archpriest. This action made all the difference in his life, for Peter studied and was very bright. He even added his brother’s name to his own. By age 25 he’d already completed university studies in theology, canon law, and was a famed teacher.
Then he felt the call himself, to be a monk.
History has shown him to be exceedingly learned and adept in the Latin tongue: Many of his writings still exist, he was an adviser to and correspondent with Popes, including Nicholas II, Gregory VI, and Alexander II.
To backtrack, Peter sought out Fonte Avellano, a cluster of hermits living together which Dante visited and described in The Divine Comedy. Two monks lived and slept per cell. Its attraction was that it was not “luxurious,” as some monasteries had become. Entering at thirty, he was first assigned to lecture there and at neighboring monasteries, using his gifts, and he wrote a life of St. Romuald. But returning to Avellano by 1043, he was made manager of the household and eventually abbot, remaining at Avellano until his death around thirty years later.
He’d go on to establish five more hermitages and be appointed cardinal-bishop of Ostia. None of the leadership was anything he had craved.
The monks lived with very basic provisions, a straw mattress, a bench and table, books for prayer. They went barefoot and four days of the week ate nothing but bread with salt and water. Other days they added in vegetables. Wine was Mass or for the sick. The men would gather together only on Sundays and holy days for divine worship.
St. Peter Damian wrote On the Perfection of Monks:“You are well aware, my brothers (I say it with tears), into what lack of zeal our holy order has fallen, and does not cease to fall more deeply every day; so that now, having carelessly forgotten almost all its precepts, we seem to be content to wear merely the outward habit of our calling. Under the cloak of religion we live worldly lives, and outrage the spirit of discipline when we abandon ourselves to the flowing stream of pleasures, disgracing the title of our nobility, and vainly bearing the name of monks. We are like bastard sons, who delight in being called by their father’s name, but whose dishonorable origin bars them by law from inheritance. . . .
“Therefore, beloved, gather your forces, with Christ’s aid, and do not bear the yoke of His service to whose banner you are pledged idly or weakly, but rather zealously and manfully; so that the foundation of your way of life . . . may, through the perseverance of your abiding fervor, reach the peak of perfection. Besides loving prayer He loved the poor, having been poor Himself.”
And being a man of knowledge, he wrote many documents during the course of his lifetime, treatises on various subjects, letters, sermons, prayers, and hymns.
Though not all of his works have survived, two works mentioning are Liber Gratissimus, against the practice of simony (or paying for offices or services in the Church, which he condemned) and Liber Gomorrhianus, or the Book of Gomorrah, which condemned sodomy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Church in the time of St. Peter Damian was messy. The Pope, Benedict IX, had received his office through bribery. His uncle had been the previous Pope. He was chased out of Rome, returned, then agreed to give up his office to his godfather for expense money, then tried again. In the end, the Holy Roman Emperor came in to “clean house,” and a new Pope was elected. Alas, it is no wonder that the saint wrote and preached against simony. Anything of Christ’s Church — be it an office or grace — cannot, must not, be bought.
This was a time when much reform was needed in the Church. Appointed a papal legate for Milan, he was sent to face open rebellion where clergy were openly marrying the women they lived with, and claiming Rome had no power over the city. They rioted in front of the cathedral.
By the time he was done with them, the riot was finished. Clergy had taken an oath to abide by celibacy and our saint even extracted and oath from the archbishop that there was to be no more payment for clerical offices. He would also later serve as a papal legate to France, Florence, and Germany on other missions.
To hit a final point, St. Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah is pertinent to those in today’s secularized culture who assert that active homosexuality is in any way to be tolerated. He goes into great detail on the threat unchaste behavior is to the soul, reserving the harshest punishments for clergy over laity and particularly those who drag another down with them:
“A cleric or a monk who persecutes adolescents or children, or who is caught in a kiss or other occasion of indecency, should be publicly beaten and lose his tonsure, and having been disgracefully shaved, his face is to be smeared with spittle, and he is to bound in iron chains, worn down with six months of imprisonment, and three days every week to fast on barley bread until sundown. After this, spending his time separated in his room for another six months in the custody of a spiritual senior, he should be intent upon the work of his hands and on prayer, subject to vigils and prayers, and he should always walk under the guard of two spiritual brothers, never again soliciting sexual intercourse from youth by perverse speech or counsel.”
Clearly, he is a saint for all times, and we should continue to invoke him for the health of the Church, as well as ourselves. Let us pray for more St. Peter Damians to help our reforms today.
St. Peter Damian caught a fever while visiting the monastery of Our Lady at Faenze and died after eight days, with the monks singing matins around him.

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