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What enormous debt human civilisation and the church owes to the family of the original Benedict and his sister Scholastica? Tom Lee's exploration of the first 500 years of Christianity today pauses far too briefly to explore the legacy of Benedict and Scholastica.
Botched Imperial Peace-Making & Monastic Enlightenment Part 27.2
Benedict and Scolastica...
At the very edge of the known world, King Fergus, with his brothers Lorn and Angus, leading their Irish tribe, the Scots, invaded and settled northern Britain, in 503, giving the land its future name, Scotland. Irish monks and nuns swiftly followed.
About 480 at Nursia in Umbria, twins, brother and sister, Benedict and Scholastica were born. In his teens, Benedict was sent by his well-to-do parents to school at Rome. He was appalled at the almost universal licentiousness of Roman youths. The versatility of youthful concupiscence in the streets and the baths had not changed much since the days of pagan supremacy, despite the church's earnest preaching on sexual morality. Benedict ran away from school and went into retreat in the mountainous district of the Abruzzi.
There in a rocky cave on the mountainside, looking across the valley to the ruins of Nero's palace, he took up his lonely abode, secretly supplied with food by his friend Romanus, a monk at a nearby monastery.
In a few years the fame of the young hermit spread; and Benedict was beset with disciples. Gradually he established twelve monasteries in the district, with twelve monks in each, and himself over all. Even Roman senators sent their sons to be brought up as monks, but success brought envy and hostility from some of the secular clergy and Benedict, leaving the Roman monasteries to their own resources, went south with a few companions to Cassino, halfway between Rome and Naples. There, on a mountain overlooking the town, Benedict established a monastery, destroyed a temple of Apollo where pagan worship still lingered, and won the rustic population to Christianity. The monastery on Monte Cassino soon became an important center for all Western Europe, and was to remain so for centuries.
Benedict's sister Scholastica was a dedicated virgin, who in the early years of her vocation probably continued to live in her parent's home. Later she lived not far from Monte Cassino. Brother and sister used to meet once a year at a house near the monastery. She preceded him to the grave by four years, but when his time came, in 547, Benedict was buried in the same grave, "so death did not separate the bodies of these two, whose minds had ever been united in the Lord".
Monastic life in the East was and still is based on the rule of St. Basil, but monastic life in the west had previously shown little uniformity. Some followed Basil, others Cassian, and others totally individual rules of their own. But now the rule of St. Benedict gained acceptance as the model for all. Most of what we know about Benedict, apart from the Rule, is from the Dialogues written by Gregory the Great a century later and full of extraordinary wonders, but the shadow of the real man is still discernible.
A Rule — with flexibility...
The Rule put first things first, with no compromise: love of God above all things, putting nothing before love of Christ, valuing nothing more than Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves. The Liturgy, the Church's prayer, which Benedict called the Work of God had priority, and prayer ran through the whole Benedictine life, and still does; prayer based on the Psalms and Scriptures and the Church's tradition. But here Benedict's greatest strength came in, his flexibility. He suggested a detailed scheme for daily prayer, and the space he devoted to it shows how important he thought it was, and then he went on to say, that if the Abbot of the monastery thinks another scheme would be better, he is at liberty to use it. This flexibility of Benedict and his Rule, laying down essential principles, but leaving their application free, was certainly one reason why his rule prospered.
Benedict gave his own ideas about the clothes his disciples should wear, and said that what really mattered was that the clothes should fit the wearer, be suitable for the climate and the work being done, and be made out of whatever color and kind of material was easily available locally. Some physical work was enjoined, but unless the work was very strenuous and the Abbot deemed more food to be necessary, only one meal a day was to be eaten.
The monks became pioneers in agriculture, going where individuals could not go, and establishing model farms in the wilderness. The monasteries also became hostels for travelers, and places of refuge for the sick and oppressed. Some were missionary centers, sending out colonies of evangelists to the frontiers of civilization.
Cassiodorus was born some ten years after Benedict and outlived him by forty years. He was of an illustrious Syrian family, long resident in Italy. His father was an officer of Emperor Theodoric; and he himself became the king's literary secretary, and finally chief of the civil service. When Theodoric died, Cassiodorus forsook the world, founding two monasteries on his own estates, and devoted them to the advancement of knowledge, collecting and editing manuscripts from the past, which his monks copied.
Cassiodorus was a historian as well; but his fame rests chiefly on the Institutes, an encyclopedia of literature and the arts for monks. Cassiodorus saw that if the Christian mind was not to lapse into barbarism, theology must receive some illumination from general knowledge. It was what Clement of Alexandria and Origen had recommended three centuries before. As a result, by the time Cassiodorus died in 585, the monasteries were becoming schools for the priesthood. It was a fortunate development. Without the Benedictine monasteries, no light would have relieved the intellectual darkness of the early Middle Ages, in the west.
The Christian legacy...
Christianity, despite the barbarian invasions and the frequent violence in defense of teachings that advised the turning of the other cheek, steadily forwarded the progress of civilization and helped its spread. Christianity promulgated the equal dignity of all human beings, sanctioned marriage and ennobled love. Its tenets stressed sympathy rather than strength, service to others rather than selfish independence, and it brought about the fusion of the spirit of the North and the spirit of the South. It counteracted both the moral decay of the southern peoples and the ferocity of the Germanic warriors. Offering a hopeful center of enthusiasm for both national groups, it hastened the civilization of the barbarian invaders and prevented the destruction of all the values of ancient civilization.
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IMAGE CREDITS: The headline image is adapted from the front page image on the book "The End of the Western Roman Empire — an archeological investigation" by Ellen Swift available from Amazon.
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©2009 Tom Lee