Friday, July 11, 2014

St Benedict, pray for us

It is difficult to look at the state of “Christian” Europe and the cultures derived from it without concluding that a new dark age is upon us. Now, however, according to Alisdair MacIntyre, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” Our not knowing this, MacIntyre adds, “constitutes part of our predicament.”

And so, Cardinal Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope, chose the name “Benedict”, drawing our attention to St Benedict of Nursia (whose solemnity it is today), pointing out that St Benedict and the monastic communities he founded carried the Gospel through difficult times like our own, influencing whole societies and regions, and preserving the best in the culture which would again one day flourish. Benedict’s apparently insignificant movement evolved into what Ratzinger called “the ark on which the West survived.”

While there will always be well attended shrines, cathedrals, mega-churches, and parishes propped up by trust funds or the primary and secondary schools that give them the appearance of effectiveness and usefulness, it is clear that today’s Church in western European cultures is entering a new era which will (as Ratzinger said) be characterized by the mustard seed — small groups that seem to have little significance in the world. But these small groups of Christians who are serious about real discipleship, holiness of life and evangelisation - in the manner of St Benedict and his communities - will incarnate an alternative way to the rabidly secular, individualistic patterns of living we have got used to, and pave the way for real Gospel renewal in our chaotic society entrenched in its culture of death. 

Born around 480 AD in Norcia, a town near enough to Rome to have felt the convulsive effects of its sack in 410 by Alaric, the Visigothic King (the first time in eight centuries Rome had fallen), Benedict grew up in a world whose moorings had been completely uprooted.  Less than a half-century after Alaric, the Vandals would finish the job he’d begun, leaving Rome looted and in ruins once more. We gain an idea of the upset of this period when we look at the effect on Rome’s population. According to the most conservative estimates there were just under a million people in Rome by the end of the 4th century. By 550 AD this had dwindled to a mere thirty thousand.  

Sent to Rome as a student, Benedict experienced first hand the trauma of its loss and, recoiling from its depravities, fled into the wilderness to pursue an undistracted life of union with God.

And there in a life of prayer, pondering the Scriptures, and fasting in order to gain "self-mastery", Benedict discovered the truth that would make him a great light in the darkest of ages. He saw that by drawing nearer to God and responding to those promptings of grace and love that the Lord had given him, the world he had fled was itself beginning to be transformed into a better and more wholesome place.  Benedict had become, unwittingly, an agent of renewal and regeneration.

A movement began. Others joined him who were equally thirsty for a life of transforming intimacy with God. Eventually Benedict made his way to Monte Cassino, some eighty miles to the southeast of Rome, demolished the altar of Apollo, and raised up his own altar, consecrating it to the glory of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here emerged the ideals of Benedictine life, enshrined in the famous Rule with its exhortation to “pray and work.”

Five years before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger said about Benedict that

“turning the earth into a garden and the service of God (were) fused together and became a whole . . . Worshipping God always takes priority . . . But at the same time, it’s a matter of cultivating and renewing the earth in an ethos of worship . . . Manual labor now becomes something noble . . . an imitation of the Creator’s work.  [And] along with the new attitude toward work comes a change in our ideas about the dignity of man.”

From such a modest beginning, a handful of religious would in due course create the Christian West. In a very moving essay on St Benedict published more than sixty years ago, Whittaker Chambers wrote: 

“At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages.  For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.”

It has often been said that thanks to St Benedict and Western monasticism, the demise of classical civilization was the occasion for a new beginning - and, eventually, a nobler civilizational accomplishment.

(For Anglicans it is important to recognise the centrality of Benedict to our “patrimony.” Go HERE to read an article written on this subject by Dom Robert Hale OSB back in 1980.)


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