Words on the Word
The saints are like earthly friends: after a while it seems to us we have known them always. Precisely because our friends forge our very sense of self, it is good to recall how particular friendships began, to give thanks. I have been trying to trace my friendship with St Benedict. We first met in my first year at Cambridge, when I picked up a copy of the Rule from Waterstones. I read it right through, I remember, and thought: ‘Wow! To live like that!’ Still, I only really got a sense of St Benedict in the summer of 1994, when I made my first visit to Subiaco.
On holiday in Rome with my parents, I would not have thought of making the journey south, had it not been for the insistence of a friend. He and I boarded a bright blue bus and went on the bumpy ride south. Getting off in the modern town of Subiaco, we made out way first to the abbey of St Scholastica, impressive in its way. The moment of revelation, though, came later when, after continuing our climb, we reached, dripping wet, the Sacro Speco. This is more a hermitage than a monastery, with cells for about ten monks. It is built right into the mountainside, around the cave where St Benedict dwelt.
The sight of the buildings enchanted me. We went into the church. A wedding was coming to an end. An elderly monk caught sight of us, dishevelled, obviously distinct from the bridal cortege. He invited us in. Through narrow cloisters, he led us out onto a balcony with a view over the valley. The river roared below. The monk put a finger to his lips and said, ‘Hush!’ Then he looked at us, extended his hands, and said: ‘This is paradise!’ To this day, I remember the inflection of his voice. I was moved by it. It introduced me to that signature quality of monks, amor loci, their love of the place they have been called to. And I did sense something paradisal about the setting. That afternoon, it was with regret I left it, already yearning to come back.
There were no buses in St Benedict’s days. Goodness knows what he would make of the tattoo parlour now in operation downtown. The surroundings of the Sacro Speco, though, remain much as he would have known them. St Gregory the Great describes the place in his Life of Benedict. This is how he evokes it: ‘Fresh and limpid streams of water flow from there in such abundance that they first gather into a long lake and then flow out forming a river.’ The river still runs. We still find the gorges, the ravines, the commanding rock overhanging St Benedict’s cave. But it is not just natural features that cause perfumes of Eden to waft over Subiaco. It is the saint’s legacy, and that of the men who have followed his example in that place.
St Benedict, says Gregory, went out to Subiaco ‘to spend himself on labour for God’. For three years he lived in solitude, imploring God for himself and for the world with tears and sighs. This ascetic work was a constant pillar of his life. Another pillar complements it. It stands before us in the story of St Benedict’s epiphany: his removal from seclusion and subsequent appearance to the women and men of his time. You will remember from Gregory’s account that it happened one Easter Sunday that a priest nearby was sitting down to a longed-for lunch after forty days of fasting. Just as he was about to tuck in, the Lord appeared to him and said: ‘You are preparing delicacies for yourself, yet my servant in such-and-such a place is suffering from hunger!’ The priest, to his credit, got up, packed his food in a hamper and set off searching for this unknown man of God, ‘among the mountain-tops and throughout the valley ravines and in the caves in the ground, and he found him hidden in his grotto.’
Benedict, though a rigorous hermit, received his guest with gladness. After they had prayed together, the priest, already hungry before he set out, said to his host, ‘Let’s take some food. For today is Easter!’ St Benedict, the solitary, had lost track of the calendar, yet answered, without missing a beat: ‘I know it is Easter because I have the joy of seeing you.’ The priest explained that, no, that day was truly the day of Resurrection. So they blessed God, ate, had a good talk, then parted. Shortly afterwards, Benedict began his public ministry.
The life of the Benedictine monk is a single-minded search for God. It is a life of austerity, solitude, and discipline. But it is also a life of openness: openness to God’s designs, openness to beautiful and joyful things, openness to those who have something they would share, whether some good experience or some sorrow they carry. In the Rule he wrote, as well as in the Life written about him, St Benedict comes across as a whole human being, someone who, like St Paul, was prepared to grieve with the grieving, to rejoice with those who are glad, to strive to be all things to all men. He could be this way because he had given himself to God entirely, once for all. On this feast day, we give thanks for the gift of being pupils in the school of such a great, loveable master. And we ask the Lord to conform our lives to his, that we may be his worthy sons.