St. Benedict was born about 1500 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Bishop Robert Barron recently streamed the story of St. Benedict in his “Pivotal Players” series and calls him “the most pivotal of all the pivotal players.” We remember St. Anthony of the Desert as the one who pioneered desert spirituality. St. Benedict made monasticism a workable system so that it would be strong enough to hold together civilization when civilization was literally collapsed around them. He wrote a rule that is still in use today, and that enabled monasteries to be great centers of learning, evangelization and service for centuries to come.
There were some characteristics of the rule that I think made it so successful:
Prayer: most important thing they did and nothing interfered
Work: not just a practical necessity, but a way of glorifying God Colossians 1:23 “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others…”
Hospitality: kept them from becoming self-absorbed
Learning: preserved books, non-Christian and Christian
Stability: temptation always to be looking for something preferable, and whenever things get uncomfortable, run away.
Practical: though dedicated to eternal realities, must not neglect day to day issues. Though they dedicated themselves to eternal realities, they had to deal with practical problems.
While civilization fell down around them, they kept it going, and enabled human knowledge that would be preserved in the midst of the upheaval. They copied books that would otherwise be lost. They became innovators in agriculture, health care, and other areas. I would recommend “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” for a fuller description of their contributions. This would not happen without the work of St. Benedict.
He is often portrayed with a cup that has a demon in it, and a raven with bread in his beak. This is from two stories about him. Once, monks who didn’t like his discipline put poison in his wine, but when he said the blessing, the cup shattered, and the Holy Spirit made him know what happened. Another time a wicked priest gave him some poisoned bread. He realized it, so he commanded his pet raven to take the bread and put it where no one would find it (sort of an inverse of 1 Kings 17:6). Whether these stories are true or not, they convey that he had to deal, not only with barbarians outside, but dysfunction in the Church inside.
As we look at the challenges we face today, outside and within the Church, I think we can draw some inspiration from St. Benedict.
We celebrate his feast day July 11.