"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. He was born in the province of Nursia of honourable parentage and sent to Rome to study the liberal sciences. But when he saw there many through the uneven paths of vice run headlong to their own ruin, he drew back his foot, but new-set in the world, lest, in the search of human knowledge, he might also fall into the same dangerous precipice. Contemning therefore learning and studies and abandoning his father’s house and goods, he desired only to please God in a virtuous life. Therefore he departed skilfully ignorant and wisely unlearned." - Pope Saint Gregory the Great's Introduction to the Life of Benedict.
"Like a star in the darkness of night, Benedict of Nursia brilliantly shines, a glory not only to Italy but of the whole Church. Whoever considers his celebrated life and studies in the light of the truth of history, the gloomy and stormy times in which he lived, will without doubt realize the truth of the divine promise which Christ made to the Apostles and to the society He founded 'I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.'" - Pope Pius XII in Fulgens Radiatur
"The period in Subiaco, a time of solitude with God, was a time of maturation for Benedict. It was here that he bore and overcame the three fundamental temptations of every human being: the temptation of self-affirmation and the desire to put oneself at the center, the temptation of sensuality, and, lastly, the temptation of anger and revenge. In fact, Benedict was convinced that only after overcoming these temptations would he be able to say a useful word to others about their own situations of neediness." - Pope Benedict XVI from his Wednesday Audience on St. Benedict
Roughly seven years ago, my friend Fr. Matt Kramer and I boarded a regional bus early one Saturday morning in Rome and headed out for the small mountain town of Subiaco for the day. I had never been there before; I didn't realize that morning as I boarded the bus, that my experience at the sacro speco (sacred cave in English) would be one of the most important of my life.
The windy roads that lead to the mountains bookending the Aniene Valley provide a picturesque and contemplative atmosphere that easily transports one from the worries of the big city. One can easily relate to the sentiments of Benedict as he fled Rome and his studies at the age of 18 because of his fear that along with learning letters, he would also learn the ways of vice and moral depravity through remaining in 5th century Rome. St. Gregory the Great describes Benedict as leaving "skilfully ignorant and wisely unlearned." More than just a play on words, Gregory the Great's description is an apt one for the man who knew the difference between empty knowledge and the wisdom praised by the Scriptures.
Having made his way to Subiaco, after meeting the acquaintance of Romanus, a monk of the area who aided Benedict in his pursuits, he began to seek to please God alone through living a solitary life in a cave, praying constantly and doing penance. Three years he spent in that cave. Three years seeking to overcome the disorder of his sinful soul. Three years growing in the way of virtue and holiness. As Pope Benedict points out, these were the years of maturation. The solitude, prayer, and penance of the cave made possible the community life, culture, and fraternal charity characteristic of Benedictine monasticism that flourished after Benedict was coaxed from his cave in order to become the spiritual father that changed and saved Western civilization. Without the cave there could be no hilltop Monastery of Monte Cassino. Without personal virtue there could be no good to offer to others.
As Fr. Kramer and I finished our hike to the monastery that now is built directly over the sacred cave that housed St. Benedict in those seminal years of his life, we rested for a moment looking upon the uniquely beautiful sight before us. Like a swallow's nest built seamlessly and artfully onto the side of a building, so the monastery appears to grow right out from the side of the mountain. The flawless fusion of nature and human workmanship present in the sacro speco is an icon of the relationship between nature and human culture. Authentic human culture maintains an organic connection to human nature, and crowns it in a way that perfects and does not destroy that which is natural to the human person. How is it that something like this exists, I thought to myself?
Photo of the "Swallow's Nest" or sacro speco in Subiaco, Italy. The monastery is built directly over the cave in which St. Benedict lived three years seeking God alone.
It exists because a man, Benedict, had the courage to set out on the most important journey a man can take. Not the journey out of town, but the journey into one's own heart, where a battle quietly rages for the nobility or depravity of one's soul. The cave of Benedict is where Europe was saved from the intellectual and moral darkness descending upon it from every angle during the fall of the Roman empire. Pope Pius XII is right in describing Benedict as a "star in the darkness of night." The Christian paradox is that the star need to be hid in a cave for three years in order for it to shine brightly upon the world in need of its light.
That first experience of the sacro speco stirred something up within me that has never left. Every year that I go back to Italy with our students on the Rome Pilgrimage is a deepening experience of the importance of the cave of Benedict for our time, for our families, for our school, for our nation. "Rome" is crumbling once again in the new guise of America. It crumbles under the exterior pressure of wars with the "barbarian tribes" and interior pressure of financial decadence and moral waywardness masked in the arrogance of false-learning. Our time is ominously similar to 5th century Rome.
I believe the best way forward is the way of Benedict. It is the way of individuals who have the skill to remain ignorant of the ways of the world and wisdom to remain unlearned in the vices of today, so that they might set out upon a way of life defined by virtue and holiness. Benedict did not set out to Subiaco to save western civilization. He set out to save his soul, and in so doing he was the only one able to save western civilization as a result. So also today small intentional communities such as the family, parish, and school can be places of support and learning in the ways of personal virtue, thus becoming centers of authentic humanism and cultural renewal.
The point is that St. Benedict did not stay in the cave, but need to start there. When the time came for his light to shine before men, he wrote the most important document since the Bible for human flourishing: the Rule of St. Benedict. It is a masterpiece of practical wisdom based upon what he learned in the in the cave, namely, that the rightly ordered life is the life that prefers nothing to the love of Christ and orders everything to the work of God. It teaches us the importance of obedience, silence, and humility. It shows us that how we spend our time is important for holiness. The order of our lives matters.
Just as Plato knew that society is a reflection of the souls of its inhabitants, so also Benedict knew that the monastic community would only flourish if monks with properly ordered souls inhabited it. The goal of the Rule is to facilitate the right ordering of one's life and soul by God's grace and good works. The effect of the Rule is to give rise to rich and vibrant centers of human life as is seen by the hundreds of beautiful towns that sprung up around Benedictine monasteries in Europe, the vast expansion of Christian learning, and the promotion of the arts and sciences.
I believe that this is the foundational wisdom that needs to influence the way we live our lives today. The answer to our troubles is not politics, but holiness of life. In particular a voluntarily embraced order of life that seeks to keep God at the center. Roman emperors were unable to save the imploding Roman Empire through legal mandates because society can only be good and strong if the citizens who make it up are good and strong; politics has never produced good citizens, but the Church has.
I hope that you will take the time to read more about the life of St. Benedict. Read the Prologue to his Rule, and the reflections of Popes Benedict XVI, Pius XII, and John Paul II on the importance of his life. It is not that we are all called to be monks, but that we are all called to be authentically human that is the reason why St. Benedict is so important for us today. He is a touchstone of sanity in a world that apparently does not know it is sick. He is a master of virtue, and teacher of humanity. I believe the Lord is still calling out to us in the words of the Prologue of Benedict's Rule: “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: ‘Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’”(Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict, quoting Psalm 34:14-15).
May our school family be full of people yearning for life and desires to see good days!