July 8, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Wisdom of the saints: St. Benedict

John F. FinkSt. Benedict, whose feast is on July 11, is the father of Western monasticism. Born around the year 480 in Nursia in central Italy, he studied in Rome but felt called to the solitary life to escape an immoral world. He became a hermit, living in a cave near Subiaco for three years.

Other hermits soon chose him as their leader. At first, this didn’t work out because they wouldn’t accept his strictness, but eventually Benedict got the idea of founding one “Grand Monastery” where monks could live in unity and fraternity, and where they could worship together. He began to build the famous Monte Cassino around 530.

He wrote his Rule for the monks, prescribing a life of “ora et labora”—prayer and work. The monks were to live a life of liturgical prayer, work, study, moderate asceticism, and community life under a common father (abbot). During the early Middle Ages, all monasticism in the West was guided by the Rule of St. Benedict.

In the prologue of the Rule, he advised his monks always to begin any good work with an appeal to Christ to bring it to perfection. “For we must always serve him with the good things he has given us in such a way that he may never—as an angry father disinherits his sons or even like a master who inspires fear—grow impatient with our sins and consign us to everlasting punishment.”

We should rouse ourselves, he said, listen to the words of Scripture, and harden not our hearts. Our eyes should be open to the God-given light, “and we should listen in wonderment to the message of the divine voice.”

Quoting scriptural passages, Benedict said that the Lord seeks the one who will do his work. In doing so, he tells them that, if they desire true and everlasting life, they must keep their tongues from evil and their lips from deceit—turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

And when you have done these things, Benedict wrote, God says, “My eyes will be upon you and my ears will be attentive to your prayers; and before you call upon my name I shall say to you: ‘Behold, I am here.’ ”

Benedict asked, “What could be more delightful than the voice of our Lord’s invitation to us? In his loving kindness, he reveals to us the way of life.”

Once we are girded with faith and the performance of good works, he said, we must follow in Christ’s path by the guidance of the Gospel. “If we wish to attain a dwelling-place in his kingdom, we shall not reach it unless we hasten there by our good deeds.”

Benedict acknowledged that there is an evil fervor, a bitter spirit, which divides us from God and leads us to hell. However, he said, there is also a good fervor that sets us apart from evil inclinations and leads us toward God and eternal life.

Let us put Christ before all else, he said, “and may he lead us all to everlasting life.” †

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