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from issue no. 05 - 2005

«Put nothing before the love of Christ»

Nihil amori Christi praeponere». This indication repeated in the Rule links Pope Benedict XVI to the patron saint of Europe. An article by the Abbot of the monastery of Santa Scolastica in Subiaco

by Dom Mauro Meacci

The last meeting of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, 15th century Umbrian master, Upper Church of the Sacro Speco, Subiaco

The last meeting of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, 15th century Umbrian master, Upper Church of the Sacro Speco, Subiaco

«What we need above all in this moment of history is men who, through an enlightened and lived faith, make God believable in this world… We have need of men like Benedict of Norcia who, in a time of dissipation and decadence, plunged into the more extreme solitude, succeeding, after all the purifications that he had to undergo, to climb back to the light, to return and found, at Montecassino, the city on the mountain that, through many disasters, gathered the strength from which a new world was formed. So Benedict, like Abraham, became the father of many peoples.» When on 1 April 2005 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ended his lecture in Subiaco on “Europe in the crisis of culture” with these words, nobody could have imagined what was shortly to happen.
The following day the beloved Pope John Paul II died and after a few more days, on 19 April, Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Bishop of Rome, and hence supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, taking the name Benedict XVI.
With that name the Pope linked himself to his predecessor Benedict XV, committed to the defense of peace and the evangelization of the whole world and, in a quite particular way, to Saint Benedict, rule-giver of western monasticism and patron saint of Europe. Personal devotion and the sharing of the profound spirituality expressed in the repeated quotation from chapter 4. 21 of the Rule - «Nihil amori Christi praeponere» – links the Holy Father to the saint of Norcia.
All this has led many people to want to learn more about the person and work of Saint Benedict, a figure as praised as he is little known because of the seeming distance that separates him from ordinary life and his remoteness from us in time.
We know of Saint Benedict what Pope Gregory 1 the Great (590-604) tells us in his Second Book of Dialogues and we possess one single piece of writing in his hand, the Regula monachorum.
Benedict was born around 480 in Norcia. After a period of study in Rome he withdrew to Subiaco where he lived for about three years as a hermit in a cave close to the monastery of the monk Romano. Around 500 he began to gather disciples founding, beginning on the ruins of a Neronian Villa, thirteen monasteries of twelve monks each, centering around an abbot, according to the apostolic model. Varied events and a new vision of the monastic life as a single family around a single abbot led him in 529 to leave Subiaco and go to Montecassino where he was to found that “City on the mountain” of which the whole monastic tradition is proud. There, on 21 March 547, he died in prayer while being held on his feet by two disciples.
Today Saint Benedict is known as patron saint of Europe, yet when one looks there are aspects of his personal history and of the purposes of his work that can make it difficult for one to grasp the relevance of his title.
In fact when Saint Benedict was born the Roman Empire of the West had recently disappeared and Romanized Europe was divided among many local potentates at war with the Latin part and often among themselves also. It was not until the 8-9th centuries that the project for something that re-evoked a “European” territorial unit was to occur.
Furthermore Saint Benedict spent all his life in a rather restricted area around Rome and, though he had relations with important figures of the time, it doesn’t seem that he traveled or knew other cultural contexts.
Finally, the purpose of the institution that Saint Benedict conceived aimed to encourage not a relaunching of ancient culture or a renewed missionary thrust by the Church among the barbarian tribes, efforts engaged in by contemporary monastic groups, but the search for God as the only goal of life. “Quaerere Deum” was the ideal Saint Benedict proposed brothers asking to enter the monastery, and to encourage that quest he organized the community around the contemplative reading of Holy Writ, prayer and the set of activities that enable the practical life and the development of relations of brotherly charity.
Where does Europe come into all this? Where is that successful program of integration between the Roman and Germanic and Slav worlds?
Nowhere as conscious intent, everywhere as premise and root.
The serious quest for God presupposes, for the Christian monk, knowledge of those irreplaceable documents of the faith that are the Sacred Writings. In the armarium of the sacristy, core of monastic libraries, apart from the liturgical codices, those containing the Bible and the principal commentaries of the Fathers of the Church are also kept. Soon the need for a better understanding of the sacred texts was to push the monks into deepening the grammatical and syntactic knowledge that could only come out of the study of classical authors and their methods of interpretation. All this led to that admirable phenomenon of the conservation of ancient culture, the merit of which is still attributed to monasticism. It is often forgotten, however, that in the fervor of the debate that took place in the monastic schools a particular theology developed, one that Father Jean Leclercq was to call «sapiential», heir to the great patristic tradition and strongly shaped by the practice of the lectio divina, where the purpose of spiritual nourishment was always to have the primacy over speculative-scholarly learning.
The truth grasped in the contemplation of the sacred pages soon shone out in the most varied and original artistic creation. The transcribers of the liturgical and biblical codices adopted the custom of decorating the texts with splendid miniatures, real pauses for meditation and explanation. In the same way the architects of the basilicas and monastic churches found a way of using the most varied expedient to offer the same Gospel truth. What are certain Romanesque capitals if not true and proper contemplations of the Word carved in stone? What are the great fresco cycles in the churches if not ways of enabling anyone to approach the sacred text, and for that reason justly called Biblia pauperum? What is Gregorian chant if not the successful expression of contemplation of the Sacred Writings set to music?
All this, taken up and relaunched through the Carolingian court by Alcuin and Saint Benedict of Aniane, was to become, from the end of the 8th century onwards and in a more convinced and systematic manner in the first decades of the 9th century, the patrimony of all and, in the effort to give cultural unity to the renewed Empire, humus of a resurgent European culture. The castles, the cathedrals and the hundreds of monasteries spread by then even beyond the Rhine and Vistula were to become the outposts and nuclei of that thrilling historic period which, despite the shadows of the 10th century, was to give its best fruits in the great flowering of the Middle Ages.
The demands of communal life also developed or refined categories that were to be fundamental for the integration of the new peoples with classical culture and for their human growth.
In the first place the conceptions of time and space. To the new peoples, mainly nomadic, used to living under the sky and seeing the earth as a space to be crossed on horseback and by arrows, the monasteries offered the example of a community life in which the various occupations - prayer, study, work, reflection, discussion, repose, etc. – took place at fixed times and in the appointed places. One will never be able to calculate thoroughly the civilizing and educative force of the hard-working regularity that spread out everywhere from the monasteries with the severe chimes of the bell summoning people to their various occupations: «For idleness is foe to the soul».
Saint Benedict admonishes the abbot to remember always that he must guide not the strong or perfect but the weak and the sinning. Out of that came the concern to respond to the demands of each and every one and, though in duty to direct all according to the Rule, to not let it become an obstacle for anybody. It would take too long to list the multitudinous cases in which the dialectic between literal observance and apparent exception is resolved, in the judgment of the abbot, in the choice of the solution most responsive to the concrete needs of the individual or the community. In this way, though respecting the fatherhood of the abbot, an expression of the divine fatherhood, the monk is taken to be bearer of his own inalienable dignity as person, with precise rights and duties deriving from the divine law and recognized by the Rule. Of course the road to the modern concept of the person and of just relations with authority was still a long one and was to pass through painful historical events; but there is here a base fundamental to the recognition of us all as children of the one Father and all brothers in Christ even though fulfilling different community roles.
One can see from these pointers that the making of Europe is inseparably linked with the radiating and structuring force of Saint Benedict’s spiritual insight. A cogent concretizing of the Gospel faith that, as if naturally, became culture and yeast of social choices that - permit me the somewhat bold expression - were to provide a glimpse from the 9th to the 13th centuries - the period of Cluny and Cîteaux – of the dream come true of a Europe civilized and unified in the name of the Christ.
Finally, how can one forget the new dignity the Rule accorded to manual labour? We know that in antiquity only the activities relating to government and the intellect were considered worthy of a free man and, among the new peoples, those relating to warfare. In the face of that mentality the monasteries, often composed of monks coming from old patrician families or from the new nobility, offered the testimony of manual labor engaged in as discipline and as means of adapting the surrounding situation to the needs of the community, according to the principle: «Each lives off his own work». In this field also, in response to the complex historic contingencies that from time to time occurred, the Benedictine family was to provide fundamental contributions to the Middle Ages in Europe.
One can see from these pointers that the making of Europe is inseparably linked with the radiating and structuring force of Saint Benedict’s spiritual insight. A cogent concretizing of the Gospel faith that, as if naturally, became culture and yeast of social choices that - permit me the somewhat bold expression - were to provide a glimpse from the 9th to the 13th centuries - the period of Cluny and Cîteaux – of the dream come true of a Europe civilized and unified in the name of the Christ.
To conclude, I would like to go back to the expression that the Holy Father loves to repeat: «Nihil amori Christi praeponere». As already said, this phrase - though I would prefer to say this life project - comes from the Rule of Saint Benedict which, in its turn, borrows it from the celebrated commentary on the Our Father by Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and martyr. It blends the spirituality of the martyrs with that of the monks. I believe our times are responsive as few other to the fascination of this message. When Pope John Paul II pointed out to all the challenge of seeking and living an exalted holiness, he invited them to take the paths of truth and courage, just as the monks and martyrs did.
Like the monks of every period, we also must seek the truth with trust and tenacity, without growing tired or frightened of taking the paths of modern culture in all their complexity, sometimes fragmented or broken but always crowded with humanity, «per ducatum Evangelii».
And once it has surprised and engaged us, we must not be afraid or overeager in proposing it and in testifying to it. We shall do it in fact not in order to affirm a conviction but to document the existence of a love that precedes us all, that sustains all, that awaits us all, modelling ourselves in this way on the medieval monastic communities that, close to large cities or lost in the middle of forests, situated in Christian contexts or out in hostile or indifferent pagan lands, kept in “step”, praying, studying, working and loving in wait for…

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