The 11th of July is the feast of St Benedict. Some years back, on this day, I had a chat with this great saint (in my prayer and reflection) and posted it on my Faithbook. I am re-posting this conversation today to remind us of this great saint in the 5th century, whose example, legacy and spirit, are still of great relevance for us in the 21st century.
Junjun Faithbook: St Benedict, thank you for this great privilege of knowing you and ‘chatting’ with you. It is always very affirming to my faith to be able to have a glimpse of someone who lived out the gospel in a more real, personal, simple and practical way. Could you please tell us something about yourself?
St Benedict: Certainly. I was born around the year 480 at Norcia in Italy. My parents were, in a manner of saying coming from a distinguished family. But enough of that. I was born just four years after Romulus Augustulus, the last of the emperors of the Western Roman Empire who was deposed around the year 476.
Junjun Faithbook: Wow! You are indeed part of the great moments in our human history.
St Benedict: By the grace of God, yes.
Junjun Faithbook: Anyhow, could you tell us about your Educational background?
St Benedict: Well, I was on my teenage years when I was sent to Rome to get ‘liberal education’, that included literature and law. And you won’t believe this, I was accompanied by my own ‘nurse’ or perhaps you might call it now ‘a housekeeper.’
Junjun Faithbook: Fancy that! You’re spoiled! And how was it like being in Rome?
St Benedict: It wasn’t really that consoling.
Junjun Faithbook: What do you mean?
St Benedict: I don’t like the influences around me. My companions were living in such a low moral standard, that I decided to leave Rome for good.
Junjun Faithbook: How did you get out of there?
St Benedict: With the help of my ‘housekeeper’ or ‘nurse’ I escaped without telling anyone.
Junjun Faithbook: And where did you go?
St Benedict: We went to the village of Affile, in the mountains, about 30 miles away from Rome.
Junjun Faithbook: Did you find peace there?
St Benedict: At first yes. Only because I thought then that if I could get away from the temptations of Rome, I would be alright. However, I realized I was called to something deeper.
Junjun Faithbook: You felt you have discovered your vocation then?
St Benedict: Sort of. So I went alone to a much higher place, on the hills of Subiaco.
Junjun Faithbook: And did you find peace in that wild and rocky countryside at last?
St Benedict: Not that immediately, I would say. I met a monk there by the name of Romanus. I told him everything my heart desired. I also told him then that I wanted to live a life of a hermit.
Junjun Faithbook: Did he help you in discerning about it?
St Benedict: Absolutely! He assisted me. He even ‘clothed’ me with a sheepskin habit and led me to a cave in the mountain. There I lived on my own.
Junjun Faithbook: After leaving you to settle, did this monk Romanus leave you on your own?
St Benedict: Not really. For three years, he was the only one who knew my whereabouts. He kept it secret from anyone.
Junjun Faithbook: And how did you get your daily sustenance?
St Benedict: The monk Romanus brought bread to me daily who drew it up in a basket and let down by a rope over the rock and into my cave.
Junjun Faithbook: That’s what I would call fraternal dedication and concern.
St Benedict: Indeed! And I am always thankful to God for that.
Junjun Faithbook: And so, you must have enjoyed the solitude there?
St Benedict: At the beginning, yes. But people started coming to gather around me. Their reason was that as they confided to me, they were attracted by my holiness and by miraculous powers.
Junjun Faithbook: Saints always shine indeed. And you just can’t deny yourself of that privilege, so to speak. By the way, who were these people who came to you?
St Benedict: Some of them were just wanting to flee from the world. And some were solitaries who were living among the mountains.
Junjun Faithbook: Did you gather them then as one community?
St Benedict: I tested them if they would obey me. I asked them to settle in ‘twelves’ into a twelve wood-built monasteries, and assigned a prior to each of those monasteries.
Junjun Faithbook: So you didn’t really have to oversee all of them?
St Benedict: No, except those monks I have trained especially and who were under my direction.
Junjun Faithbook: So in that way, you’ve actually established your monastery there as a firm and stable community?
St Benedict: In a way, yes. But I actually did it just set things in order.
Junjun Faithbook: What do you mean?
St Benedict: When I saw it certain that they could manage on their own, I withdrew from Subiaco to Monte Cassino.
Junjun Faithbook: Why there?
St Benedict: It is a solitary elevation on the boundaries of the Campania, commanding on three sides, narrow valleys running up towards the mountains.
Junjun Faithbook: It really sounds very convenient for solitude.
St Benedict: Certainly! In fact, I initiated the building of the two chapels there, around which lay the foundation of a great Abbey.
Junjun Faithbook: And which year was this built?
St Benedict: Around the year 530.
Junjun Faithbook: You must have been in your middle age by then? And you must have enjoyed being a hermit there?
St Benedict: For a certain time, yes, but then people who wanted to follow my lifestyle started coming to Monte Cassino too.
Junjun Faithbook: And you welcomed them?
St Benedict: I couldn’t turn them away. So I gathered them together in one community, appointed a prior over them and deans as well. And yet they still looked up to me for general supervision.
Junjun Faithbook: And besides your disciples, did you also take other people into your Monastery? As guests perhaps?
St Benedict: Yes, hospitality is one of our major works. And indeed, it had become necessary for us to build more guest rooms to accommodate those people?
Junjun Faithbook: Are they basically lay people who were attracted to your simple and well-ordered lifestyle?
St Benedict: There were also dignitaries of the Church who would come and ask advice at times.
Junjun Faithbook: People would come to you because of your reputation of holiness, wisdom and even miracles. Have you realized that?
St Benedict: I just did what God wants me to, and I was just being myself as a channel of God’s graces.
Junjun Faithbook: How about the famous Rule of St Benedict that is being followed now by Benedictines and Cistercians around the world, did you compose that around your time in Monte Cassino?
St Benedict: Around that time yes.
Junjun Faithbook: It really had made such an impact to people. The people in your time then, especially those who were living in the surrounding country would testify that you cured their sick, relieved their distress, distributed alms and food to the poor, and even said that you raised the dead on more than one occasion, did not all these make you proud of yourself?
St Benedict: It is God who made all those things to happen through me. So what am I to be proud of?
Junjun Faithbook: How about the story that you even told your disciples your imminent death six days before it actually happened to you, and thus you asked them to make a grave ready for you?
St Benedict: Again, it is God’s doing.
Junjun Faithbook: Let’s praise God for his great love revealed in you St Benedict. Thank you so much for your life and example. Through your famous Rule, we have learned so much the importance and the great value of balancing work and prayer, charity and moderation, community life and recreation, and how to make these aspects of our life, a way for our sanctification. Please pray for us always that like you we may end up in heaven too.
On the last day of St Benedict’s life, he received the Body and Blood of the Lord. With the help of his brothers in the monastery, he was able to stand up in the chapel, with his hands uplifted towards heaven, and breathed his last on the year 547. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared him Patron Saint of Europe.
St Benedict of Nurcia, pray for us.