The Forgotten Father
The legacy and orthodoxy
of St. Benedict of Nursia
A Thesis By Fr. Matthew R. Joyner
It has been said many times that the heart of the Orthodox Church is monasticism. The spiritual life of the Church flows from the monasteries like water from a spring, nourishing all those who drink from it. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) tells us why this is so when he says, “Orthodox monasticism clearly demonstrates that the Orthodox Church is ascetic and that Christian asceticism heals human beings. Through looking closely at genuine monasticism we come to a clear understanding that the Orthodox Church is a hospital where spiritual illnesses are cured… If we look at the Church without the monastic life, we see a secularized Church.”1
Orthodox Monasticism gives men and women who come to the monastery a chance to live a life that is completely focused on prayer, repentance, and salvation. However, the influence of these monastics is never left to them alone. Rather, it filters out into the world. The Holy Spirit does not deprive the world of the witness of holy men and women who have been blessed with a closeness to God; and great pillars of monastic godliness there have been indeed.
The history of the monastic movement, no less than the Church at large, is punctuated by great figures, men and women who leave their worldly lives to devote themselves entirely to complete and utter devotion to God. One thinks immediately of the “Father” of monasticism, Anthony the Great, who left behind his life “in the world” to answer the call of Christ, and who, though attempting to live alone in the desert, could not deter people from flocking to him.
The history of the Christian monastic movement is full of men and women of great prominence — always unintended by them personally — who leave a great mark upon the Church. Orthodox Christians call upon these men and women often, and their names are spoken, their works are cited, and their praises are sung to God, Who illuminated them.
There are, however, others who, though leaving an eternal mark upon the Church and the world at large, are largely neglected by many Orthodox faithful. There are great Saints of the Church who have been forgotten or relegated to simply a name on a page or a brief commemoration at the end of a Liturgy, and not given their due attention and devotion. St. Benedict of Nursia, the “Father of Western Monasticism,” I suggest, is such a Saint.
St. Benedict is a great Saint of the pre-schism western Orthodox Church, and his influence led to great changes in the culture around him which have had great bearing on the world even down to the present day. His Monastic Rule and spiritual legacy literally changed western civilization.
We must ask why, then, does St. Benedict not have a greater devotion in the Orthodox Church? What is it about this particular Saint which not only harbors neglect, but in some rare cases actually generates hostility toward this great Saint?2
There are several possible answers to this question. Before we address these, however, we must point out and greatly stress that any objections to St. Benedict, as well as his spiritual legacy, are moot, when one considers that the Church has already spoken
on the matter, and the case is, therefore, closed. The Menaion and the Church liturgical calendar are set, with full acknowledgement of Benedict as a Saint of the Orthodox Church. His holiness is recognized by the entire Church, and is portrayed in icons, hymns, and readings from the synaxarion. Mother Church has enthroned St. Benedict among Her venerable and God-bearing Fathers, who shown in the ascetic life.
Though this truth is manifest and evident, still Benedict is oft neglected in the Orthodox Church. It is a definite possibility that, for the laity, there simply has not been the opportunity to hear about this great Saint of the Church. Benedict’s feast day falls on March 14th, and is generally during Great Lent, when daily Liturgies are not celebrated, and thus, his commemoration would pass many of the laity without notice.
However, it is a strange quandary that many authors, speakers, and academics specializing in history or Orthodox asceticism have failed to write about him in any real depth, or, if writing about him at all, have even made critical statements about the Orthodoxy of St. Benedict.3 There have been suggestions in some informal talks, discussions, and internet threads that have gone so far as to make statements that Benedict “combined his ideas with those of St. Augustine” who, “in his theology rejected asceticism and saw monasticism as recreating the community of the Book of Acts. He put the emphasis on uniformity, lack of any individual effort or struggle, because, for Augustine, salvation was only through grace,4 and there couldn’t be any benefit to individual struggles.”5
It is difficult to understand how anyone could make a statement such as this about either Benedict or Augustine. As for Augustine, the Orthodox do in fact have reservations about certain of his theological writings; however, he is a Saint of our Church. If the Church sees this man as a Saint, despite his theological failings, he is so because of his asceticism and personal holiness, episcopal service, and plentiful non-problematic writings. How, then, could Augustine hate asceticism? Further, how could he then influence Benedict to do so in turn? I believe this to be a grievous slander on Benedict and Augustine.
Perhaps there are Orthodox people who are very critical or negligent of Benedict, or even suspicious of him for no other reason than that he is western, for much the same reason that many within the Church condemn the use of the Western Rite.6 It would seem a strange inconsistency, indeed, to reject the Orthodoxy of St. Benedict simply because he is of the West, given that most Orthodox people have no problem celebrating the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, attributed to St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome.7
In what follows, we will look to St. Benedict’s life, Rule, and spirituality in order to seek out, or rather to show definitively, whether he is truly Orthodox or not. I will attempt to show the Orthodoxy of Benedictine spirituality and practice, utilizing Patristic texts and modern scholarship coming from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican sources. I have divided my discussion into two larger parts which I am calling the work (or energies) of the Benedictine way, and the heart (or essence) of the Benedictine way.
For the work of Benedict, we will look at the concepts of Ora et Labora, or prayer and work; the Opus Dei, or “work of God”; and Lectio Divina, or divine reading, as the outward expressions of how the monastic in the Benedictine tradition lives and works in the world. Thus, we will examine the role that manual labor, prayer, liturgical participation, and the study of the Scriptures plays in the life of the Benedictine.
Once we have completed an examination of these outward expressions, we will then turn our focus to the inner heart of Benedictine spirituality, namely the vows which a monk takes: stability, obedience, and ongoing conversion of life. By the close of this discussion, it is my deepest hope that the Orthodoxy of not only the man, but the spiritual way of St. Benedict, will become self-evident, and that we will embrace not only his monastic wisdom, but also begin to see the few monastic communities in the Orthodox Church which follow his Rule as having something glorious to offer the Church at large.
May God, through the prayers of St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist and Pope of Rome, direct our hearts and minds to His truth and knowledge. Amen.
The most direct source of biographical, or rather hagiographical, information about our Holy Father Benedict of Nursia comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Dialogist. Pope St. Gregory, who was three years old at the time of Benedict’s repose, had a great devotion to Benedict — before he became Pope of Rome in September of 590, he had been a member of the Benedictine Oratory of St. Andrew in Rome.8 Indeed, Gregory is said to be the first monk to be elected Pope. Gregory’s devotion to his monastic patron led him to set down in written form the life and miracles of St. Benedict, in around 593 or 594, for posterity.
Pope St. Gregory composed a work entitled the Dialogues, which is a series of four books which are dedicated to telling the lives of Italian Saints, abbots, deacons, nuns, bishops, and lastly aspects of the afterlife. It should tell us something about Gregory’s devotion to Benedict that his entire second volume is dedicated to the life and miracles of Benedict.
In this work, Gregory was very concerned with the authenticity of his account, not satisfied with hearsay or legend which had sprung up around the figure of Benedict. Rather, he sought out and recorded the lived experiences of disciples of St. Benedict who were still living at his time. And knowing that Benedict did far more than he could possibly write down, he simply selected enough to make clear the holiness and greatness of the Man of God.
St. Gregory says, “I have not attained unto all this man did, but the few things which I here set down, were related to me by four of his disciples — namely, Constantine, a very reverend man, who succeeded him in the government of the Monastery; Valentinian, who for many years bore rule in the Monastery of Lateran; Simplicius, who was the third superior of that congregation after him; and Honoratus who yet governeth the Monastery which he first inhabited.”9
Gregory tells us that Benedict was a true Saint of the West, and of noble Roman stock. He was born in Nursia (Norcia),10 Italy, in AD 480, to “distinguished parents, who sent him to Rome for a liberal education.”11 Benedict also had a twin sister, Scholastica, who would, in her own right, become a great monastic Saint, Abbess, and leader of holy consecrated women. By all accounts, his parents were noble Romans, and pious Orthodox Christians.
Benedict was born into a world of chaos and disarray. In 410, seventy years before the Saint’s birth, the Visigoth army, under the leadership of King Alaric, had sacked the Eternal City of Rome, driving the final nail into the coffin of the western Roman Empire. Though the imperial Roman administration was actually not seized by barbarians until AD 476, this initial sacking by Alaric set in stone, as it were, the beginning of the so-called “dark ages.” Beyond the political upheaval of the Visigoths sacking Rome was the spiritual chaos this event caused, as many Christians in Rome gave in to apostasy, returning to the paganism which the heathen armies brought with them. Thus, Benedict was born into an Empire which was crumbling, a country invaded, and a western world which was descending into political and spiritual darkness. The Western Church was in very great need of a light to shine in the darkness, and it would receive such a light in the person of St. Benedict.
St. Gregory records that Benedict was known for holiness even from his youth. In fact, Gregory makes a play on words with Benedict’s name12 when he says, “There was a man of venerable life, Benedict by name and grace, who from the time of his very childhood carried the heart of an old man. His demeanour indeed surpassing his age, he gave himself no disport or pleasure, but living here upon earth he despised the world with all the glory thereof, at such time as he might have most freely enjoyed it.”13
At the age of 20, in AD 500, Benedict left his home and, taking only his nurse went to study in Rome itself. While there, Benedict became saddened by the state of the spiritual life and morality of those he encountered, and realized that he could not stay in Rome and live a God-pleasing life. “When he found many of the students there abandoning themselves to vice, he decided to withdraw from the world he had been preparing to enter; for he was afraid that if he acquired any of its learning he would be drawn down with them to his eternal ruin. In his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, gave up home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life. He took this step, fully aware of his ignorance; yet he was truly wise, uneducated though he may have been.”14
Benedict went into the wilderness, first taking his nurse with him, but after receiving unwanted notoriety due to performing a miracle in a village, he quietly slipped away from his nurse and all of society. He found a home in a cave in Subiaco, about thirty-five miles from Rome, where he lived for three years in repentance and prayer. His only contact with the outside world was a monk named Romanus, who, knowing “the young man’s purpose… kept it secret and even helped him carry it out by clothing him with the monastic habit and supplying his needs as well as he could.”15
After three years of living alone in the wilderness, disciplining his body, and subduing it, making it a servant to the spirit,16 he, reluctantly, answered the call of some local monks to become their Abbot. However, this would be short-lived, as they would find Benedict’s way of life to be too strict, and they resolved to remedy the mistake they perceived that they had made in recruiting him. After two failed attempts by the monks to murder him, both of which were thwarted by Divine intervention, Benedict left the monastery and resolved to establish twelve new monasteries around central Italy.
During this time, Benedict would hone his spirituality into an art, and would encourage his disciples to grow toward Christ by teaching them in words, and showing them in his life and deeds. Benedict established his monasteries in various places, but possibly the most well-known is the Abbey at Monte Cassino,17 where Benedict would spend most of the last years of his life, and would compose his monastic Rule.
During his time overseeing the monasteries in Italy, we’re told that Benedict worked tirelessly to draw his monks to Christ, and was at the same time strict and loving. Benedict also become very well-known as a miracle-worker and clairvoyant. He saw and
did battle with demons, and performed miracles of healing. St. Gregory even records incidents of St. Benedict raising people from the dead, including a young boy crushed to death by a falling monastery wall.
To his monks, and those laypeople coming to him for help, Benedict was a true Father in God. He helped countless people, and did not distinguish between the high and mighty and the lowly and simple. He loved all, and opened his heart to each one who came to him, making them his family. While he made all people his spiritual kin, he maintained a devoted relationship with his closest blood relative — his twin sister, St. Scholastica.
Benedict and Scholastica were close in virtually every way. They loved each other deeply, and were each greatly devoted to Christ and to the ascetic life. Not long before her death, Scholastica came to see Benedict, meeting him at a house not far from his monastery. Desiring to spend as much time as possible with her holy brother, Scholastica miraculously brought about a great storm by her holy prayers, so that Benedict could not return to the monastery. The two saintly siblings spent the night talking of heavenly things and praising God together.
Three days later, Benedict was in the midst of his morning prayer when God granted him a vision. Benedict biographer Carmen Acevedo Butcher tells us that “he saw the soul of his sister Scholastica leave her body and ascend like a dove into heaven. He knew his dearest friend was dead, gone from him to be with God. He rejoiced to see the glory of her journey from this world to the next, and went to tell his brothers the news. They gathered together and sang praises to almighty God on behalf of his sister.”18