Today, July 11, we celebrate the feast day of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Benedict was born in the Italian town of Norcia (Nursia) in the year 480. This was a period of serious cultural decline in the waning years of the Roman Empire, and when Benedict was sent by his wealthy father to study in Rome he was put off by the dissipated lifestyles of his schoolmates and the general moral corruption he found in the city. He longed to find a quiet place far from the urban center where he could pursue the spiritual life. At the age of 20 he left school and withdrew to the mountains outside of Rome, where he lived an austere life as a hermit in a place called Subiaco. His obvious virtue and wisdom, as well as his reputation as a wonder worker, drew other men to Subiaco to live with the future founder of several monasteries in that area. But it was at Monte Cassino in the year 530 that Benedict founded the greatest of his monasteries, the place where he would compose what became known as the Rule of St. Benedict. St. Benedict’s Rule is the standard guide for Christian monastic life in the western world. It regulated life in the monastery, establishing a familial structure with the abbot as the father of the community in which it was understood that through their life together the monks would help each other grow in holiness.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, he took the name Benedict XVI because of his devotion to St. Benedict. In one of his homilies about his patron saint, the pope emeritus points out that, unlike other great monastic movements of his time, St. Benedict’s community did not have as its principle mission the evangelization of pagan tribes. The primary focus of life in the Benedictine monastery was to seek God. St. Benedict knew “that when the believer enters into a profound relationship with God, he cannot be content with a mediocre life under the banner of a minimalistic ethic and a superficial religiosity.” In the monastic community the monk would spend his life in work and prayer, silently listening as he entered more deeply into relationship with the Lord.
As the Roman world was breaking down, Benedictine monasteries became centers of stability and order. Monks preserved the wisdom of civilization by copying manuscripts, they drained swamps and cultivated the land, and their monasteries became refuges for the poor and sick. In many places, villages sprang up around the monastery, making them centers of commerce. This was all happening within the shell of the civilization that was passing away, allowing a new civilization to spring up from the ashes.
It is common to compare our age to the decadence of the sixth century and the period of Rome’s decline. The institutions of society that used to provide guidance have lost credibility, and many people find themselves adrift. The life of St. Benedict reveals to us the need to go back to the basics and seek out a relationship with God. So many people are dissatisfied with mediocrity in the spiritual and moral life and want more, but don’t know where to turn if they haven’t already despaired of the possibility. Everyone needs the help of a community to seek God. My hope is that our parish might be such a community of communities – families and groups of friends who, as St. Benedict would say, “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” By living and learning and praying and worshipping together, calling each other on to go deeper in our relationship with the living God, who knows what might happen? We might even become saints.