Solemnity of Our Holy Father Saint Benedict
July 11, 2005
Monastery of the Glorious Cross, O.S.B.
A number of events, great and small, give special significance to this year’s celebration of the solemnity of our father Saint Benedict. First of all, it is the nameday of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Having a Pope named Benedict has drawn the attention of the whole world to Saint Benedict and to his Rule. Having a Pope named Benedict has put Benedictine monasteries in the forefront of the Church’s mission in this new millennium.
On April 1, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a conference at Subiaco, the cradle of Benedictine life. Nineteen days later, as bishop of Rome, he assumed the name of Saint Benedict. Pope Benedict’s message at Subiaco identifies what the world needs above all else. “We need,” he said, “men who hold their gaze directly towards God.” People are drawn to Saint Benedict because in him they see a man who “held his gaze directly towards God.” People are drawn to Benedictine monasteries because in them they expect to find men and women who “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). People come to monasteries in search of a place where there is evidence of a divine inbreaking, traces of the Kingdom of Heaven, glimmers of glory.
Yesterday after Mass, Michael and Kerry came to the sacristy to ask me to bless Saint Benedict medals for them. How did they find our monastery? They searched on the internet. I suspect that in coming to us they were looking for something more than having their medals blessed. At the deepest level, anyone who comes to the monastery even as a visitor or guest, is seeking God.
More often than not the search for God begins with a search for those who seek God. It has always been thus in the life of the Church in both East and West. The faithful come to monasteries looking for fathers and mothers for their souls. People seek out monks and nuns hoping to see on their faces a reflection of the brightness of God. By virtue of monastic profession, we are called to hold our faces directly toward God. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
The Saint Benedict medal is more popular than ever. I cannot tell you how many medals I have blessed since this monastery opened its doors. What does this mean? I think it means that the faithful are looking to the saints, and to Saint Benedict in particular, for companionship and protection. It is a sign that people do indeed rely on the intercession of the saints for help. We Benedictines rely on Saint Benedict. We call him our father: Holy Father Benedict. There is in this custom a sweetness and comfort that comes from affirming, beyond any doubt, that we are children of Benedict, the vir Dei, the man of God. We are related to Saint Benedict as sons and daughters to a father who acknowledges us and desires, more than anything else, that we should follow Christ “to glory” (RB Pro:7).
Saint Benedict’s fatherhood over us is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift given not only for a limited space, a single lifetime, and a small number of disciples. The fatherhood of Saint Benedict is for all places, all times, and all the men and women called, in one way or another, to follow the Holy Rule. Saint Benedict says that monks “should love their Abbot with sincere and humble charity” (RB 72:9). This invites us to love Saint Benedict himself sincerely and humbly. When we call Saint Benedict our Holy Father, we are not giving mere lip service to a formula of conventional piety; we are expressing a mysterious and abiding reality. Saint Benedict cares for each of us with the solicitude of a spiritual father. Even in heaven, he “bears in mind what he is and what he is called” (RB 2:30-31). From his place in glory, ”he adapts and fits himself to all, so that not only will he not lose any of the flock entrusted to him, but he will rejoice as his good flock increases” (RB 2:32).
When we look to our Father Saint Benedict, what do we see? We have to look to the Holy Rule itself; Saint Benedict’s portrait of the abbot is a portrait of himself, for he could not write other than he lived. We see there a man “learned in the divine law, a chaste man, temperate and merciful, one who always prefers mercy to judgment because he himself has obtained mercy, one who, while hating sin, loves us in our weaknesses” (cf. RB 64:9-11). Saint Benedict will not do less for us from heaven than he did for his disciples while on earth. The fatherhood of Saint Benedict is effectively extended to all who, having enrolled in his “school of the Lord’s service” (RB Pro:45) place themselves under his protection.
Even today, Saint Benedict “shows his concern for us, and makes speed to employ his skill and energy, lest he lose one of the sheep entrusted to him” (RB 27:5). Saint Benedict has not forgotten in heaven what he taught on earth: that an abbot undertakes “the care of sick souls, not a despotic rule over healthy ones” (RB 27:6). He continues in heaven to search “for the sheep gone astray” (RB 27:8), and he has such pity for its weakness that he is ready to carry it back to the flock on his own shoulders.
It is as important for us to read and re-read Saint Gregory’s Life of our holy father Saint Benedict as it is for us to read and re-read his Rule. Many monasteries have the custom of reading it through in the refectory twice yearly beginning on March 21th and July 11th. It is a story that we need to hear together again and again. Holy Father Benedict’s Life sheds light on the Rule, and the Rule helps us better understand his Life.
Saint Gregory allows us to see a young man, blessed by grace and by name, disillusioned by the empty pursuits he saw all around him, and moved by the Holy Spirit to seek the habit of monastic conversion. The young Benedict goes to live alone in the savage beauty of Subiaco, far from the disquiet and turmoil of Rome. Saint Benedict of the Sacro Speco, the sacred grotto of Subiaco, is the model of all who, by choice or circumstances, live alone. His solitude was by no means absolute; he related to the rustic shepherds of the locality and, by his teaching, restored their human dignity. Saint Gregory says that many, having known Benedict, passed from a life that was beastly to the life of grace. Offering a spiritual hospitality, the solitary Benedict refreshed all who sought him out with nourishment drawn from his heart.
Saint Benedict was tempted in his solitude. He was no stranger to struggles of the mind, heart, and flesh. This makes him very close to us. The devil seeks, by means of temptations, to drag us into the pit of bitterness, dejection, despair. God, for his part, permits temptation, because temptation makes the saints compassionate, humble, and wise. The seeds of Holy Father Benedict’s compassion, humility, and wisdom were planted in the temptations he endured at Subiaco.
The second period of Saint Benedict’s life is characterized by his foundations at Subiaco. These monasteries were outposts of the Kingdom of God in the wilderness. Their very presence threatened the kingdom of darkness. Miracles illustrating the all-powerful grace of Christ, and disasters revealing the rage of the enemy, abounded. Through it all, Saint Benedict, “full of the Spirit of all the just” (Life VIII), remained peaceful, confident in the mercy of God, and unshakeable in prayer. It was at Subiaco that he began to wield masterfully the tools of the spiritual craft that he passed on to us in the Rule: “Not to give way to anger. Not to abandon charity. To rest one’s hope in God. To fall often to prayer. To love chastity. Not to cherish bitterness, And never to despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4: 22, 26, 41, 56, 64, 66, 74). Listening carefully to circumstances, and seeing the will of God in events, Saint Benedict discerned a call to depart from Subiaco, to move on. He obeyed a call to uproot himself and his monks. He embraced change.
While requiring stability of his monks, Holy Father Benedict was remarkably supple, ever ready to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the paradoxes of Benedictine life: the vow of stability interfacing with that of conversatio morum. By the one, we commit ourselves to persevere in a given context, to put down roots, and endure in spiritual combat; by the other, we commit ourselves to change, always to begin afresh, and to move on in obedience to the Holy Spirit. These are not conflicting vows, but complementary ones. Stability without conversion is a kind of spiritual fossilization. Change without stability is superficial and sterile. Saint Benedict can help us, will help us, to integrate stability into change, change into stability, always in obedience to the Spirit speaking to us through the wisdom of the Rule and in the counsel of the Abbot.
The third period of Saint Benedict’s life took place on the heights of Monte Cassino. There, he reached a fullness of maturity in Christ that was revealed when, lifted out of himself, he saw the entire world gathered into a single ray of light before his eyes (cf. Life XXXV). This signifies, of course, that Saint Benedict had come to see all things as God sees them; he had passed into the light of God while yet in the shadows of this world. Saint Benedict died standing, surrounded by his disciples, with his hands raised to heaven in the gesture of the “Suscipe,” becoming in that hour an icon of the Crucified in the mystery of his Passover to the Father. Benedictine life is, in the end, a mysterious and life-long configuration to the obedient, humble, and silent Christ, a ceaseless passage out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of time into eternity. “Yearn for eternal life,” he says, “with all possible spiritual desire” (RB 4:46).
Our Holy Father Benedict is present to us in this solemn Eucharist. He is attentive to us as a community and to each of us in the struggles and questions that invite us to turn, again and again, from the darkness to live facing the “deifying Light” (RB Pro:9). And should this be too difficult, it is enough that we should have the desire of the Light. Every good work begins in holy desire and in humble prayer to God, a prayer of few words and of “repentance with tears” (RB 20:4). He who inspires the desire for continual conversion is alone capable of bringing that desire to completion.
Seek the prayer of Holy Father Benedict today. Claim his fatherhood over you. Ask him to intervene in all the “hard and repugnant things” (RB 63:8) by which we go to God. Saint Gregory says at the end of his Life of Saint Benedict that “even today, when the faith of the faithful asks for it, he works miracles” (Life XXXVIII). I believe that. I am confident that Holy Father Benedict will not forsake us in our needs. Let us then go to the altar in his company, rejoicing that we have been given so compassionate, so wise, so loving a father in God, and desiring nothing so much as to pass over with him, already here and now, into the everlasting Eucharist of heaven where the praise of all the saints is perfect and without end.