THE HOLY ABBOT BENEDICT
by Leonard Goffine, 1871
Truly, St. Benedict was as his name indicates, a child of blessing. He was born about the year 480 at Nursia in Italy. His parents sent him, when growing up, to Rome, that there he might be instructed in all the fine sciences. Benedict soon perceived the moral corruption of the Romans, and was seized by fear concerning his own innocence. In order to escape the enticements, he left Rome and sought his way into the mountains; thence he went to Subiaco, a day's journey distant from Rome, where he found a desert with inhospitable caverns in the mountain-cliffs. He had resolved to serve his God in solitude and retirement, and to acquire such virtues as would enable him to perform and undergo great labor for the Church and the welfare of his fellowbrethren.
On his way to the desert he met with a holy monk, named Romanus, to whom he revealed his intention. Romanus gladly approved of the design, promising him to keep his secret, and gave him a monk's garment. Benedict now chose for his dwelling-place an almost inaccessible narrow grotto at the foot of one of the mountain-cliffs. Romanus daily laid aside a portion of his bread, and secretly brought it to the young hermit, lowering it by means of a rope. The sound of a bell attached to the rope was to announce the arrival of the bread.
Benedict spent his whole time in prayer, until God who was with him, made manifest his chosen instrument. Shepherds, feeding their flocks in the vicinity, one day discovered him. At first they believed him to be a beast, because he was clad with the skin of a brute animal, also because he hid in the shrubs, when perceiving himself discovered. They approached him and found to their astonishment that he was a human being. Our saint addressed them in a friendly manner, and availed himself of the opportunity to impress upon their minds the important and holy doctrines of the Christian religion, and thus effected in many of them an entire change of life.
In this way the holy man became known. In a very short time the inhabitants of the surrounding countries flocked around him, eager for their salvation. They listened with great attention to the saint's pious instructions, and were so moved and edified by them, that many relinquished the world and all its glory and confided themselves to his care. About this time it pleased God to visit our saint with a severe trial. Base phantoms and representations as also obscene emotions tormented him day and night. He, however overcame them by pious and fervent prayer and by an heroic act of selfcommand which was and will always be admired in him by all following generations; for when the demons already thought themselves victors, our saint undressed, threw himself into a bush of briars near his grotto, and rolled himself most vehemently, until his whole body was dilacerated and formed but one wound. Thus he extinguished the flame of lust.
The fame of his sanctity daily increased and spread throughout the country. It also penetrated into a monastery, the monks of which entreated him to come and be their director. The holy man reluctantly consented. But some of the monks who were accustomed to an easy and free life, would not comply with the pious rules and regulations which Benedict introduced. To rid themselves of him, they resolved to mingle poison with his wine. Benedict never ate nor drank without first blessing the victuals. But when he came to bless the wine in the chalice, the latter bursted asunder and the mystery of their malice was unveiled. Benedict rose calmly, saying: "Brethren, may God be merciful unto you! Why have you done this to me? Did I not already tell you, that my habit of life could never be reconciled to yours. Find another guide for yourselves, since you can no longer have me as such." Saying this, Benedict returned to his beloved desert with the intention, to live there in the happy communion with God still more retired than ever.
The Almighty however wished that the light which he had kindled in Benedict, should no longer be hidden. The more the saint endeavored to withdraw from the society of men, so much the more disciples flocked around him. Their number daily increased, since they not appeared one by one but in large troops, and demanded that they should all live together and form a community of which Benedict should be the abbot. The means for erecting the necessary edifices and procuring real estates, were not wanting, because the benefactors were numerous. Thus within the course of some years arose twelve monasteries to each of which the saint gave an abbot. He himself lived in his cell on Mount Cavo, and retained with him only few disciples to whom he was a kind teacher, abbot, and instructor. The saint also wrote a rule for the monks of these monasteries, according to which they were to model the lives. This rule is this very day yet the principle of spiritual life of the Benedictines, blessed by God for all ages. The holy life of St. Benedict and of his disciples was not only known in the surrounding country, but the fame of it reached even Rome. The hearts of many young men burned with the desire of entering this holy community, and parents felt greatly consoled at having found a place of refuge, in which they could preserve their children from the allurements of the world. Many came to the saint, entreating him to accept the tutorship of their young sons. Among these were also two Roman senators who begged admission for their sons, named Maurus and Placidus. Maurus was twelve years of age, and brought the baptismal robe unstained into the monastery. He was loved very much by St. Benedict on account of his unfeigned humility, minute obedience and his purity of heart.
One day when St. Benedict was in his cell, Placidus whom he no less loved for his pure soul, went to the neighboring sea in order to get some water. Dipping his bucket too hastily into the water, he lost his balance and fell into the sea. Benedict perceiving the danger of the boy, immediately called Maurus. "Maurus," he exclaims, "quick, hasten for the youth that was sent for water, for he has fallen into the sea, and the waves are already carrying him off!" Maurus instantly begged the saint's blessing and hastened in full speed to the sea. He looked at the boy, and thinking of nothing else but the command of saving him, jumped into the water, and, behold the miracle! he runs on the surface of the water as if it were ice. Thus he reached the boy, seized him by the hair and pulled him along with himself. Not until he had reached the shores he became aware that he had been walking on the waters, when he almost fainted from fear and admiration. As soon as he had returned to the house, he narrated to St. Benedict what had taken place. The holy abbot replied that that was the reward of obedience. But Maurus answered that he had only done, what he had been ordered to do, and that on his own part he could not perceive any virtuous act in complying with the command of his father. But behold, when they were thus engaged in holy contest, Placidus entered and acted as the deciding judge, by saying: "I saw when I was drawn out of the water above my head the cloak of the abbot and perceived that it was he who dragged me to the shore."
More than thirty years Benedict's light had sent its rays over the Sabine Mountains. Every one pronounced his name with reverence, and saw in him the universal spiritual benefactor, pastor and teacher. Whoever was in need of counsel, came to him; and those that sought instruction, asked it of him; those that felt the necessity of prayer, recommended themselves to him; in short, all had recourse to him in their troubles and anxieties, and St. Benedict in this way gained the hearts of all for the love of their crucified Redeemer. Many renounced the world and offered their necks to the sweet yoke of Him who once said, that His yoke was easy and His burden light. Nevertheless, to the virtues of this great man the crown was wanting. Seven beatitudes he had already acquired, only the eighth was missing, namely: "To suffer persecution for justice sake;" but also that he should obtain.
There lived in the neighborhood a priest, named Florentius. This priest could not bear to see the confidence placed by every one in our saint, and sought by all means to avert the people's hearts from him. Not succeeding in this, Florentius was greatly enraged, and becoming daily more embrittered by jealousy resolved to kill the saint. In those times it was yet a pious custom in the Church to send each other in token of holy love a loaf of blessed bread, called Eulogia. Florentius poisoned one these loafs, and sent it to the holy man who accepted it with thanks. St. Benedict immediately discovered what was wrong with it, and had it carried by a raven who daily received his food at the hand of the saint, to a place where it could not injure anybody. Florentius being aware that he was also foiled in his infernal attempt, meditated revenge on the souls of the saint's holy community. When they were laboring in the garden, in which also the holy abbot was with them, he sent seven unchaste women into the neighborhood of it, and ordered them to dance in a circle taking each other by the hand, that thus they might inflame the hearts of the young men with impurity. When St. Benedict saw this, he also frustrated this devilish trick of Florentius. Seized, however, by fear and pain as to the spiritual welfare of his children, Benedict resolved to leave the country, where eternal perdition was threatening them. Having entrusted the different monasteries to the care of some of the elder monks, he left with the rest for Mount Cassino, which is situated between Rome and Naples. Florentius was almost in a transport of joy, when he perceived his ardent desire at last fulfilled; but the joy was of short duration. Suddenly his dwellinghouse fell in joy, burying him below its ruins.
St. Benedict found on Mount Cassino many remains of idolatry, as temples and altars, which were visited during the night by the inhabitants of the neighborhood. The saint however was determined on here making an end to heathenism. He tore down the temples and altars of the pagans, and in their places erected two chapels, one in honor of Martin of Tours, the other in honor of St. John the Baptist, adjacent to which he also built a large monastery. While this was done, he did not omit to open the eyes of these blind idolators, and to win them over to the only true faith.
Unceasingly he preached on the streets and even penetrated into their houses. Incessant were his prayers to God in their behalf. Gradually he succeeded in gaining them over. At first only some demanded holy baptism, but by and by they all flocked to him, earnestly beseeching him, not to deprive them of the grace of this holy sacrament. But Satan, the father of falsehood and prince of darkness, could not suffer to see himself defeated by our saint, and tried in every way to impede the conversion of these souls. He appeared to Benedict in the most hideous forms, raising hellish shouts and yells. The other monks heard his horrible clamors, although they could not see the hideous forms. Benedict's zeal was by no means impaired by these terrific spectacles, but he continued to propagate the holy faith over the whole country.
Whilst the monastery was being erected, Satan appeared in the saint's cell, mocking and deriding him, saying, that he had come to visit the workmen. The holy man immediately informed the monks by a messenger, saying: Brethren, be on your guard, for in this hour Satan will come to you. Hardly had the messenger pronounced these words, when the wall which they were then erecting, fell into ruins, killing a boy who already wore the habit of the order. The monks greatly afflicted, informed the saint of what had occured, who ordered the dead boy to be brought to him. Since, however, not only all the limbs of the body were broken, but even all the bones of it crushed, they picked up the pieces of it into a bedsheet, and thus carried them to the holy abbot. The saint had the body laid upon a matrass in his cell, on which he was wont to say his prayers. Having ordered the monks to leave him, he locked himself up, and began to pray most fervently to God; when lo! even in that hour the boy was sent back to resume his work.
Already while the erection of the new monasteries was going on, and especially after they were completed, the number of monks rapidly increased. The saint was most vigilant that the rule, which he had given them, should be observed. He prayed incessantly to God for illumination in order to guide his community in the spirit of prayer and mortification. God granted to him what he had demanded, nay more, for he had the gift to understand things hidden, as also to foresee future events.
One day while our saint took his evening repast, a monk, who was a lawyer's son, held the lamp for him, in whose heart arose, while performing this charitable act, thoughts of pride; for he thought by himself, "Who is he whom I have to serve at table thus holding the lamp for him, and who am I, that I tolerate this willingly, and execute so degrading a work?" Benedict's spirit penetrated into the heart of the culprit, and soon rebuked him severely in the following terms: "Brother, cross thy breast! "What are you speaking in your heart? Cross thy breast!" Seeing that his reproach was to no effect, he called the other monks, had the lamp taken out of his hand, dismissed him from his occupation, and ordered that he should remain alone for that hour. The haughty monk was bettered by this chastisement, and afterwards humbly confessed his fault to his fellowbrethren who thereby were greatly edified.
The wicked and haughty king of the Goths, Totila, who in his arrogance acknowledged no superior on earth, saw himself nevertheless impelled to bow before the spirit that dwelled in St. Benedict. He had been informed of the prophetic spirit of Benedict, and not believing in this divine gift, he wished to try the holy man. He, therefore, came to Mount Cassino with his servant Riggo whom he ordered to vest in his royal robes and thus appear before the saint. The saint, however, as soon as he saw him approaching, addressed him at a distance: "My son! depose the vestments you have on, they are not yours!" Riggo and all who accompanied him, were terror stricken at these words. At the thought of having intended to deceive so holy a man, Riggo fell prostrate on the ground, after which he hastened to king Totila, informing him of all that had taken place. Totila struck with consternation, did not hesitate himself to come to the saint. He threw himself at his feet, and did not venture to rise, until the saint approached him, and taking him by the hand raised him up. St. Benedict now reproved the penitent king for his conduct, saying: "You perpetrate many crimes, you have perpetrated many already; forsake at last the ways of injustice. You will enter Rome, will cross the ocean, and will reign nine years hence, but in the tenth you will die!" What St. Benedict here predicted, was minutely fulfilled.
Not long afterwards when Totila was about to besiege Rome, the bishop of Canosa was with the saint, and remarked to him: the city would be destroyed by this king! and henceforward it would remain uninhabitated. The saint, however, replied, that through these wandering tribes the city would not be destroyed, but that it would be molested by storms, hurricanes and earthquakes in such a manner as finally to dissolve in itself. St. Gregory the great, who afterwards wrote the life of our saint, remarks in relation to this: "The mystery of this prophecy is at hand; it is manifest to us all who witness the downfall of the citywalls, churches and houses by storm and the ruin, of its edifices by age."
A noble man Theoprobus, who was an intimate friend of the holy man, one day entered his cell and found him weeping bitterly. For some time he remained at a distance, thinking that the saint was absorbed in prayer and was shedding tears as he was wont to do. Seeing, however, that Benedict was not engaged in prayer, he approached him, enquiring for the reason of his affliction. Immediately the holy man replied: "This entire monastery which I have erected and all that I with my brethren have brought in order, is by decree of the Almighty delivered unto the heathens; hardly could I obtain from His majesty the salvation of the souls (that is, the lives) of the monks." Forty years after this prediction, the monastery was destroyed by the Longobardi who invaded it during the night, yet none of the monks was killed. Like all friends of God, so also St. Benedict had compassion with all who were afflicted, and an unshaken confidence in God. During a famine which at that time ravaged the country, the saint distributed among the poor all that he possessed of eatables. Nothing was left save a little oil, when a subdeacon, named Agapitus, came asking for a little of it. The saint ordered that the scanty remnant should immediately be given him. The steward of the monastery, however, refused it. When St. Benedict asked him whether he had given the oil to the poor subdeacon, the brother steward apologized that if he had given it to him, nothing would have remained for the monks. The saint inflamed with holy anger, ordered him to fling the oil vessel out the window. It was done. Outside of the window was a precipice, from which rocks and cliffs projected. Every one thought, that the vessel would be dashed in a thousand pieces. But it was well preserved, not even a drop of oil having been spilled. The saint then gave it to the petitioner. The monastery was now totally destitute of provisions. To whom should the monks have recourse in order to appease their hunger? The saint, however, was not in the least embarassment concerning the imminent danger. They all had recourse to prayer. In the place where they prayed there was a large oil-vessel with a heavy cover. They prayed for a long time. But behold! the cover of the vessel began to rise and the oil rushed forth in abundance from the vessel. Now St. Benedict terminated his prayer and the oil seized flowing. The saint availed himself of this wonderful event to admonish the diffident steward to be more confident in the goodness of God. The saint also by his faithful prayers raised the dead to life. Thus he restored to life the son of a peasant, who had been most ardently entreating him.
Endowed with the gift of prophecy and decorated with the power of miracles, also ornamented with every virtue, especially that of prayer, our saint broadly diffused heavenly blessings, especially by the erection of so many monasteries, even in far distant countries in which his spirit continued to live among his children. Thousands of youths received in them a religious training and an educational instruction. Popes, bishops, and a host of learned and pious men, went forth from these monasteries.
The saint had a dear and pious sister, named Scholastica, whose feast the Church celebrates on the 10th of February. She together with other holy virgins led a most holy life in a convent about three miles distant from Mount Cassino. This sister God had taken to Himself. Benedict saw her soul soaring towards heaven in the shape of a dove. He was seized with a longing to be united to his beloved sister in heaven, there to praise God forever. He ardently desired death and foretold the hour of it to his children. On the 15th of March 543, he ordered his grave to be opened. He soon was attacked by a fever and in defiance of the precaution taken in administering him, the illness increased. On the 21st of March he ordered his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he received the holy viaticum to strengthen himself for the last struggle, and standing upright, supported by his beloved children, with hands raised in prayers towards heaven, he yielded his pure soul into the hands of its creator.