St. Benedict’s Life in Mimetic Perspective
by Andrew Marr, OSB
As I see it, the water drawn from the rock recalls Moses; the iron tool that came up from the bottom of the water, Elisha; sorrow at the death of an enemy, David. It seems to me, then, that this man was fully endowed with the spirit of all the just.—Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Book II,.8:8.
The Dialogues, attributed to Pope St. Gregory I, record conversations of the question and answer type between Gregory and his deacon Peter wherein Gregory tells the stories of nearly contemporary saints. Book Two of the Dialogues, devoted in its entirety to St. Benedict of Nursia, is the only document that claims to be a biography of St. Benedict. As is usual in medieval hagiography, the account of Benedict’s life is filled with miracles that test the credibility of most modern readers, but for all their fanciful elements, these stories about St. Benedict hold an archetypal power over the monastic followers of the Rule of Benedict. They remain fundamental elements of monastic folklore because, in an uncanny way, they resonate with the monastic experience of those who follow that way of life. They ring true. Stories that “ring true” tend to have anthropological significance, a quality that makes an analysis with mimetic theory a means of greater insight into them.
Peter the Deacon’s famous outburst in response to a set of three stories about Benedict, quoted in the epigraph, suggests that Benedict was imitating Moses, Elisha, and David. That his actions were rehashes of biblical narrative confirms the suspicion that they are fanciful fictions. However, mimetic theory would have us stop and take notice whenever there is mention of imitation. Important anthropological insights are usually lurking under such stories. It happens that Moses and Elisha are both important biblical types for monastics. Moses went into the desert where he experienced God before the burning bush and in the cloud on Mount Sinai. This was the first of many desert journeys where God was encountered in scripture and subsequent monastic literature. Moses was also a lawgiver for Israel. Benedict, in writing his Rule, was a lawgiver for his monks. Gregory says that Benedict “was also very well-known for his words of doctrine” in his Rule that is “remarkable for its discretion and elegant in its language.” The Rule reveals the “life and habits” of Benedict, since “the holy man could not possibly teach other than as he lived.” Elijah followed in Moses’ footsteps when he journeyed to a cave in the desert. There, he heard the still small voice that quelled the violence of his surrounding society and within himself. Elisha, after receiving Elijah’s cloak and a double share of his master’s spirit, went on to live the life of a prophet in imitation of Elijah, even performing many of the same miracles as his master. John the Baptist lived in the desert in imitation of Elijah and Elisha where he wore a garment of camel skin as did the earlier prophets. After his baptism, Jesus imitated John the Baptist for a time by going into the desert where he was tempted by Satan. In his biography of St. Antony of Egypt, the first great pioneer of desert monasticism, St. Athanasius of Alexandria says that Antony “used to tell himself that from the career of the great Elijah, as from a mirror, the ascetic must always acquire knowledge of his own life.” Antony, like John the Baptist, wore animal skins as did Elijah. Although Elijah was a loner for most of his prophetic life, a community of prophets had appeared around him by the time he was taken up in a whirlwind. Elisha became the new leader of this community, which became an alternative community to the violent society of the kings of Israel and Judah. Because Christian monastics have been conscious of imitating Elijah and Elisha, Elijah has often been anachronistically credited with being the founder of monasticism. We shall see many allusions to Elijah and Elisha, especially the latter, throughout Gregory’s Life of Benedict.
Benedict’s Struggles toward Early Maturity:
The Unanimously Poisoned Chalice
Like most subjects of medieval hagiographies, Benedict was a born saint. “From his earliest years he had the heart of an old man. Precocious in his way of life beyond his age, he did not give himself up to sensual pleasure.” However, in spite of his precocity, there are indications that Benedict had to grow into a mature sanctity. Maybe Benedict “did not give himself up to sensual pleasure,” but one day he was so severely haunted by the memory of a woman that he rolled himself in a bed of nettles to cure himself of his lustful thoughts; a rather adolescent way of dealing with this problem. There is much more to sanctity, of course, then overcoming sexual temptations, and it is these other temptations and struggles that get all the rest of the attention in The Dialogues. Not least among the temptations are problems with what René Girard calls mimetic rivalry.
Being a son in a free-man’s family, Benedict was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts, but when he saw “that many of the other students there had fallen into vice,” he left to live a holy life as a monk. Perhaps the vices that so horrified Benedict included sensual disorder, but Gregory points to deeper matters when he says that Benedict feared that “worldly knowledge…would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool.” Here, Gregory has given us a powerful image of the mimetic process which, in an academic setting, could tempt Benedict to imitate his fellow students in competitiveness as well as sensual indulgence. Wishing to follow the contrary desire to “please God alone,” Benedict fled to a place called Effide with his nurse. This flight made Benedict “learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.” Perhaps Gregory is being anti-intellectual here. After all, resentment of the intellectually skilled is a serious mimetic trap. But this phrase does point to the truth that education and skill are learned from lived experience and are not limited to academic circles.
After Benedict was “charitably” received at Effide, his nurse borrowed a winnowing-dish and accidentally broke it. Because Benedict “felt compassion for her distress,” he prayed over the dish, and it was fully repaired. “Everyone in the district got to know about it,” and they hung the dish outside the church porch. Ironically, a miracle done out of compassion and for a practical purpose was changed into a frozen sacred object, a fetish, that canceled out its usefulness. Benedict realized that this unanimous adulation was dangerous because it was turning him into as sacred an object as the dish. Not wanting to become “puffed up by the favors of this life,” Benedict left the village to live alone in a cave at the top of a mountain as a hermit. In this move, Benedict imitated St. Antony and John the Baptist and Elijah. He even wore animal skins as they did.
While Benedict was living a life of constant prayer in his cave, the abbot of a nearby community died, and the monks needed a successor. Since Benedict had developed the reputation for being a holy man because of his eremitical life style, “the whole community” came to Benedict and asked him “insistently” to be their superior. Apparently their bad reputation had reached Benedict’s ears, because he warned the monks that “his way of life would not fit with theirs.” The monks persisted in their request and Benedict finally agreed to their request against his better judgment. Benedict’s acceptance of this dubious offer shows that he had not fully learned his lesson about unanimous adulation at Effide after all. He had fled from one bad situation only to walk into another. Perhaps one reason Benedict fell into this trap was because he was more susceptible to being praised for his excellence as a monk than he was to being praised as a miracle worker.
As Benedict feared, there was much about the collective way of life in this monastery that needed correcting. Benedict would not “allow them to do unlawful things, as they had done beforehand.” For their part, the community found the prospect of change for the better “unbearable.” The monks became “mad with anger” until they “began to blame one another” for asking Benedict to be their superior. At this tense moment, the monks “conspired together” to poison his cup of wine at the next meal. This plan was thwarted when Benedict made the sign of the cross while saying grace over the meal. Under the power of the blessing, the cup broke and the wine was spilled.
Benedict’s reaction to this incident was firm and decisive, but it was not vindictive. He didn’t call the District Attorney and demand the electric chair for these wayward monks. On the contrary, Gregory reports that Benedict’s face was “serene” and “his soul at peace.” He asked God to have mercy on these monks, and he admitted that he should have known this arrangement was not going to work. Then, he left them so that they could find a superior “suitable to [their] ways.” This is one of many stories in The Dialogues where Benedict returned good for evil and firmly renounced vengeance over evil deeds committed against him.
Throughout this drama, the community was fragmented between its members, but united in relationship to its new abbot. The whole community asked Benedict to be their abbot. When the community splintered over blaming each other for the subsequent unsatisfactory state of affairs, the monks “conspired together” to poison Benedict. In reflecting on this story after Benedict returned to his cave, Gregory tells Peter the Deacon that “these people conspired unanimously against the holy man.” It’s enough to make one wonder how the last abbot met his death. One also wonders if this community was really surprised with the way things turned out. It is difficult to believe that they were so stupid as to think that Benedict would allow them to live in the lawless fashion that had been their custom. Perhaps these monks wanted to have the prestige of Benedict’s reputation for holiness to rub off on them without becoming holy themselves. Perhaps they had the common misconception that a holy person is fuzzy in the head and easy to manipulate. Mimetic theory adds the suspicion that these monks were setting up this outsider to become a victim of their collective violence. The scenario here is very similar to the tribal societies that drafted a person to be their chief, and then made him their sacrificial victim.
When Benedict serenely left these dysfunctional monks and returned to “the place of his beloved solitude,” he again lived alone “under the eye of the Onlooker from above,”and “dwelt with himself.” Peter then asks Gregory to explain what he means by the phrase “he dwelt with himself.” Gregory explains that Benedict could have chosen to hold the incorrigible monks “forcefully subject to himself,” but he would have “exceeded his strength and lost his peace.” In the end, he would have “lost himself without finding them.” With the help of mimetic theory, we can see that Benedict had gone out of himself, where he was grounded in God, and fell into conflictual mimetic rivalry with the community. This threw Benedict and the monks in his charge into a contest of wills to see who could get the better of the other. Far from building each other up in Christ, they could only tear each other down in the mirror relationship that made them stumbling blocks to each other. Gregory sees as well as René Girard that selfhood collapses in the heat of mimetic rivalry. Insofar as we are “led outside ourselves” by “excessive concern” that leads to mimetic conflict, “we remain ourselves but we are no longer with ourselves.”
Gregory goes on to explain this predicament in terms of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. By leaving for a distant country and spending his inheritance, the prodigal son alienated himself from himself. While feeding the pigs and wishing he could eat what the pigs were served, he “came to himself,” and returned home. Likewise, Benedict had withdrawn from himself to care for the community of incorrigible monks. When he withdrew from them, he returned to himself. The literal translation of the Greek phrase in the parable, “he scattered his substance,” confirms Gregory’s understanding of this passage. Benedict, too, moved out of oneself, when he thought of a woman he once saw, and he scattered his substance again when he locked horns with the dysfunctional community. Only by coming to himself in God could Benedict re-gather his substance.
At this point, Peter is confused about the phrase “to go out of himself,” because this phrase is also used to describe the Apostle Peter, who, after his miraculous escape from prison, “came to himself” once the angel had left him. Gregory explains that there are two ways in which we can go out of ourselves. We can fall beneath ourselves like the prodigal son by feeding the pigs with “a wandering mind and by impurity.” Likewise, we fall beneath ourselves by falling into mimetic rivalry, as Benedict did when he accepted the ill-advised invitation to be the abbot of a bad community. It is also possible, however, to be raised above ourselves by “the grace of contemplation.” When the Apostle Peter’s soul was put into ecstacy by the angel, he was outside himself “but above himself.” Both the prodigal son and the Apostle Peter returned to themselves, but from opposite directions. “One left the way of error and recollected himself in his heart, the other returned from the summit of contemplation.” Likewise, Benedict himself was raised “towards the heights” by the “ardors of contemplation” when he “left himself beneath himself.” That is, by returning to himself so that he could move out of himself in a good way, Benedict imitated the Apostle Peter.
In Gregory’s scheme of things, returning to oneself is tantamount to returning to God. If one hasn’t returned to God, one hasn’t really returned to oneself. But by returning to himself, Benedict “looked at himself before the eyes of the Creator.” Benedict’s withdrawal, then, was not an antisocial withdrawal from humanity, but a withdrawal from the mimetic vortex that holds humanity in thrall. One of the important effects of withdrawing to himself in God was that Benedict let go of whatever anger or resentment he might have had with the monks who tried to poison him. Otherwise, he would have remained caught in their mimetic vortex no matter where he was. As it turned out, Benedict’s withdrawal to his solitary cave after the attempted poisoning was not a long one. Gregory goes on to tell Peter that “as soon as he abandoned these incorrigible men in order to live with himself, he was able to revive the spiritual life in a multitude of souls.”
This story shows that there are some human situations that one cannot fix. Maybe another abbot would be able to wean this community from their vices and win them for Christ. Benedict was not that person. Gregory drives home this point, by referring to the Apostle Paul’s need to escape from Damascus because it was not possible to accomplish anything there at that time. If one is not the right person to help another, it is inevitable that attempting to reform that person will become a tug-of-war of mimetic rivalry. Because he was“outside himself,” Benedict could not discern the right approach to these monks. After withdrawing and re-entering himself so as to dwell “within himself,” Benedict learned a more moderate approach embodied in his Rule that would make him the model for abbots. This withdrawal, then, was a preparation for re-entering society in the right way with the ability to model a non-conflictual way of living that drew other people to him.
Benedict’s Middle Maturity as Monastic Leader:
Love and Grief for an Enemy
At Subiaco, Benedict founded a cluster of monasteries where he imitated biblical figures as naturally as he breathed the air. When the leader of one of Benedict’s monasteries complained of a monk who failed to attend the Divine Office, Benedict went to investigate for himself. He immediately saw the demon pulling the monk away from worship. Like Elisha, he prayed that the father would see the demon as well, but it was the monk Maurus who was granted that level of discernment. Benedict promptly set this monk’s priorities straight and that was the end of the matter.
We now come to the first two events listed in Peter the Deacon’s outburst in the epigraph. When some monks complained of the difficult and dangerous journey they had to take down a mountain to draw water, Benedict struck a rock to make water to flow out from it. This recalls the incident at Meribah where Moses struck the rock in the desert to give water to the thirsting Israelites. In the second event, a novice, who was a Goth, was clearing space for a garden with a borrowed tool when he dropped it in the water. As Elisha made a tool borrowed by a prophet float to the top of the water, Benedict pulled off the same trick to save the tool. That Benedict had accepted a Goth into his monastery was a miracle of forgiveness since, under Theodoric, the Goths had recently taken over the western half of the Roman Empire.
There is another miracle tied to a biblical figure Benedict did at about this time that Deacon Peter did not include in his little list. One of the younger monks, Placid, fell into the river while trying to draw water. Benedict, knowing immediately what had happened, sent his disciple Maurus to rescue Placid. After dashing down to the river, Maurus, to his astonishment, found himself running across the water to fetch his friend and bring him to shore. The mystery of this miracle was heightened further when the two young monks discussed the incident with their abbot afterwards. In “a friendly competition of mutual humility,” something like a reversal of mimetic rivalry, Benedict gave Maurus credit for the rescue on account of his unquestioning obedience, and Maurus gave his abbot all the credit for issuing the command. Placid both settled the matter and heightened the mystery by saying that he saw the goatskin of Benedict himself when he was being pulled out of the water. The way the distinction between Benedict and Maurus is blurred looks like a clumsy piece of narrative, but it also shows a movement outside of himself on Benedict’s part. The temporary fusion of two persons is fully constructive because Benedict and Maurus were united in their desire to save Placid. Gregory then said that this event was “an amazing thing, which has not happened since the time of the Apostle Peter.” That is, Maurus imitated the Apostle Peter by obeying Benedict, which was, in turn, obedience to Christ.
The third biblical figure Peter the Deacon’s list, David, was not a monastic archetype like Moses or Elisha, but as a leader of his people, he would be an important example for an abbot. David’s grief over the death of Saul provided such an example. Given the benefit David gained from Saul’s death, there is cause for suspicion as to how sincere David’s grief was, but at the very least, it can be said that his show of grief was an important step toward curtailing continued mimetic rivalry with the house of Saul. In the case of Benedict, we will see him express grief over the death of an enemy that brought no worldly gain.
Gregory introduces this story by saying that “the land round about became fervent with the love of our Lord God, Jesus Christ.” Benedict and his monks had moved the communal mimetic process in a positive direction where almost everybody was following the example of Benedict, who was following the example of Christ. Unfortunately, there was one exception. Florent, the priest in charge of the neighboring church, “began to take umbrage at the zeal of the holy man.” Florent probably understood instinctively that he was the odd person out if, except for him, the land about was “fervent with the love of our Lord God.” This position put him in danger of being the communal scapegoat unless he could redirect the mimetic process against someone else. To that end, he denigrated Benedict’s way of life, “to turn his visitors away from him if he possibly could.”
In spite of his efforts, Florent could not “stop the progress, since the renown of [Benedict’s] way of life kept on increasing.” Florent’s envy and “burning jealousy” grew steadily worse “because he strongly coveted the honor that came to Benedict from his way of life, although he himself did not want to live a life worthy of such honor.” That is, Florent desired Benedict’s holiness, the being of Benedict. The sad irony is that Florent could have received Benedict’s holiness as a free gift from God, but since he did not want to act in the way of Benedict, there was no way he was going to exchange his pride for Benedict’s humility. It seems that rather than sharing the virtue of another person, Florent wanted to be the one and only superior person in his neighborhood. As a priest, Florent was surely a community leader when Benedict and his monks settled in the area. Mimetic theory alerts us to the fact that two person with the closest amount of prestige are the most apt to fall into a conflictual relationship over their influential power if they should take the route of competition rather than that of sharing.
Florent’s envious desire to have the holiness he refused to embody escalated to the point where, “blinded by this envy,” he poisoned a loaf of bread and delivered it to Benedict. Either through supernatural insight or a shrewd reading of Florent’s character, “the poison hidden inside the bread did not escape” Benedict. When a crow that Benedict had befriended came to him for its daily handout, Benedict gave the loaf to the crow and told it to get rid of it for him. (Elijah, by the way, also had a black bird who helped him out.) In sharp contrast to the priest’s hatred of Benedict, the abbot “felt the pain of this [envy], less for himself than for the priest.” In reacting to Florent’s hatred with love and sorrow, Benedict did not try to retaliate in any way, neither did he say anything to hurt the priest’s reputation. Of course, if Benedict had indulged in retaliative behavior against Florent, then the two would have become indistinguishable, no matter how righteous either felt in his own eyes.
Florent, however, remained consumed by hatred. Having failed to kill Benedict, he “started to burn with desire to kill the souls of his disciples.” To that end, Florent invited a group of dancing girls to entertain the younger monks in the middle of the night, hoping “to inflame a perverse passion in them.” Florent clearly was hoping to make Benedict’s monks as depraved as he was himself. If he had succeeded, he would have been well on his way toward directing the communal mimetic process against Benedict.
Even after this provocation, Benedict persisted in refusing to engage in mimetic rivalry with the priest. Without showing any rancor or ill will toward Florent, Benedict appointed his most mature monks as priors over his monasteries, then took the youngest and most susceptible monks and moved away. This action diffused what could have become a violent situation. Benedict’s unruffled reaction to Florent’s hatred demonstrates Benedict’s love and concern for others, both concern for the priest and for his most impressionable monks. Benedict’s restraint is all the more remarkable in that he could easily have led his local community in making Florent the communal scapegoat. The catch, of course, is that Benedict’s sense of values did not allow him to encourage communal scapegoating, not even against someone who had wronged him and richly deserved that fate. If Benedict had taken that path, the local society would have become organized, not around Benedict’s virtue, but around its scapegoating of the priest. Chances are, Benedict’s memory of being the communal scapegoat and the object of attempted collective violence at his first monastery increased Benedict’s sensitivity to victimizing behavior, and he did not want Florent to suffer that fate. In leaving the area with his youngest disciples, Benedict appeared to have lost the battle with the evil priest. In terms of embodying the values of Christ, Benedict had won hands down.
No sooner had Benedict “humbly slipped away from the hatred of his rival,” then “God Almighty struck the priest in a terrible manner.” At the very moment when Florent was “standing on the terrace, exulting at the news of Benedict’s departure,” the terrace collapsed, crushing the priest to death. The reader is likely to feel a sense of satisfaction at the poetic justice. If the narrative ended there, we would be left with a vengeful God who gives his saint grace to refrain from taking vengeance, but who commits violent acts of revenge on behalf of his servants. We would also be left with a self-satisfied delight in vengeance against somebody who “deserved” it. But the narration does not end there. Benedict’s disciple, Maurus, ran ten miles to catch up with Benedict and tell him what had happened to Florent. Far from rejoicing at the news, Benedict “began to grieve wholeheartedly” over the death of his enemy, and he imposed a penance on Maurus who had “exulted over it.” Benedict’s reaction to Florent’s death makes it clear that God was not in the business of killing wicked people and making merry over the deed. If Benedict grieved over the evil heart of this priest and then grieved over his death, then surely God shared that grief. By exulting over Florent’s downfall in the same way that Florent had exulted over Benedict’s departure, Maurus had made himself a mirror image of Florent. That was precisely the situation Benedict sought to avoid by refusing to retaliate against Florent’s machinations. By not exulting over Florent’s demise, Benedict kept himself outside these passions and in a position to pull Maurus and the reader out of the entanglement. Moreover, throughout this episode, Benedict tried to keep love for Florent alive as a magnet for a positive mimetic attraction. That is, he opened the way for others to share his love for his enemy.
It is in response to this story that Peter the Deacon links Benedict with Moses, Elisha and David, concluding by saying that Benedict was “fully endowed with the spirit of all of the just.” That is, Benedict shared the being of Moses, Elisha and Peter, and he performed his miracles by the same power they possessed. Gregory responds with an important corrective to Deacon Peter’s understanding. Benedict did not act through the spirit of Moses, Elisha and David, but through “the spirit of the Only One who, by the grace flowing from the redemption, filled the hearts of all the elect.” Although “the just ones” were given the power to perform miracles by God, they could not “transmit that power to others.” Only Jesus has the power, both to perform miracles and to enable those who love him to do the same. Benedict is sharing the spirit of Christ with Moses, Elisha, Peter, and David.
Gregory deepens the Christological dimension of “the spirit of the just” by adding that “before the proud, [Jesus] was willing to die, and before the humble, to be raised to life, so that the former should see in him a person for contempt and the latter an object for their veneration and their love.” Benedict did not die at the hands of Florent, but his life was threatened by him. The sacrifice Benedict made in moving from Subiaco was a big one, a sacrifice that echoes the sacrifice Christ made, if in a small way. These words of Gregory also tell us that it is the quality of the person who sees an act of self-sacrifice such as Benedict’s that governs what that person actually sees. Obviously, Florent was blind to this reality, but so was Maurus until, we can hope, he did the penance imposed on him. Gregory then says that it is the humble who receive “the glory of power over death.” That is, Benedict’s love of his enemy is the power of the risen Lord. This Christological dimension is important because no other person shows us a perfect example to follow. David’s grief over Saul’s death was, at best, an imperfect example. Further allusions to Elisha will show up some of the imperfections in his example, too. It is Christ who gives the ability to evaluate the examples of even the greatest of other biblical figures.
Miracles such as bringing water out of a rock and levitating a heavy tool out of the water call into question the viability of imitating a man like Benedict. Perhaps all one can do is hope for a thaumaturge to come along and solve life’s problems. It is significant, then, that the third event in the triad of episodes where Benedict imitated biblical heroes had nothing miraculous about. Anyone can share in “the spirit of the just” by holding back from mimetic rivalry, even under pressure. But then, Maurus’ difficulty in doing just that suggests that Benedict’s grief over the death of an enemy was the greatest miracle of the three.
Benedict’s Late Maturity:
The Whole World Gathered in a Single Ray of Sun
Allusions to Elijah and Elisha figure most prominently in the stories covering Benedict’s mature years. Benedict demonstrates his ability to discern reality under the surface like the prophets numerous times. In one instance, Benedict reads the thoughts of a monk, the son of a magistrate, who was asked to hold a lamp for Benedict during supper. As soon as Benedict realized that this young man was asking himself why he should serve this man like a slave, Benedict asked him to “make the sign of the cross over [his] heart,” and then sent him away to reflect on his attitude. Another time, Benedict caught out some disciples who accepted a meal from a pious woman while they were working outside the monastery, contrary to the Rule. Peter points out that Benedict was reading their hearts just as Elisha’s spirit saw Gehazi sneak away to ask for money and gifts from Nahaman. Unlike Elisha, however, Benedict responded with forgiveness rather than cursing his monks with the leprosy Elisha vindictively imposed on Gehazi.
During a famine, Benedict gave everything away to his starving neighbors except for one last phial of oil. When a subdeacon came and asked for some oil, Benedict ordered a monk to give this phial to him, but the monk kept the phial of oil instead. When Benedict found out that he had been disobeyed, he had the phial thrown out the window. It landed on a rock, but it did not break. Here, Benedict was not even trying to perform a miracle; he was acting in anger that his generosity to the poor had been thwarted by one of his own monks. When he gave the phial to the subdeacon, the community was left with nothing at all. Benedict responded to this crisis by leading the community in prayer. Before long, an empty container suddenly overflowed with oil, and Benedict had to stop praying to keep oil from spilling. This miracle brings to mind the poor widow’s flask of oil that Elijah caused to remain miraculously full until the end of a drought. This story also calls to mind Benedict’s admonition in his Rule that all guests should be treated as Christ, and that Christ is especially present in the poor.
Twice, Benedict raised a child from the dead. The first was a youth who was crushed by a wall that collapsed on him during the construction of the monastic church. Benedict took the boy into his cell where he prayed over him until the boy returned to life, just as Elijah and Elisha each prayed over a dead child to bring him back to life. Toward the end of Benedict’s life, a peasant brought his son who has just died and cried out to Benedict: “Give me back my son, give me back my son!” This outcry recalls the importunate demand of the widow who blamed Elisha of taking away her son, although he had done nothing of the kind any more than Benedict had. Benedict insisted that he had no power to bring the boy back to life, that this was a task for the holy apostles like the Apostle Peter who raised Tabitha from the dead. Faced with the father’s insistence, Benedict prayed: “Lord, do not look on my sins, but on the faith of this man who asks that his son be brought back to life.” No sooner was the prayer said then the boy came back to life. The people who witnessed this miracle were awe-stricken, but Benedict disowned any power within himself to perform such a miracle. That Benedict performed this miracle out of concern for the son of a peasant shows, again, Benedict’s solicitude for those at the bottom of the social ladder.
The Goths, who had usurped the western portion of the Roman Empire, impinge on the life of Benedict in two stories. In one, the Goth Zalla brought a peasant in chains to Benedict, because the peasant said he had entrusted his property to the monastery. Benedict was engaged in holy reading at the time. He looked up at his visitors, and the chains fell away from the prisoner instantly. When Zalla fell to the ground in awe, Benedict had him taken inside and given some blessed bread, after which Benedict told Zalla “to desist from such insane cruelty.” Benedict’s hospitality recalls the gentle care Elisha lavished on the Aramites who attacked the prophet, only to be foiled by a vision of flaming chariots followed by blindness. Here we see both Benedict’s concern for the poor and his pastoral concern for a perpetrator of violence. When Totila, the Gothic king, came to the monastery, he arrogantly tried to make a fool of Benedict by disguising himself as a humble soldier while dressing up a common soldier in his royal robes. Benedict saw through the ruse effortlessly and turned the tables on Totila by rebuking him for his trickery. Both the soldier and Totila fell to the ground and remained there until Benedict deigned to raise them up. Far from gloating over his supremacy over the king, Benedict cut to the heart of the matter by rebuking Totila for his cruel actions and prophesying his death in ten years. Gregory then says that, “from that time on, [Totila] was less cruel.” In these stories, we see Benedict rebuke the violent rulers of his time as Elijah and Elisha rebuked the unjust and faithless kings of Israel. Benedict did not follow the examples of these prophets set by calling fire down on their enemies or anointing a violent zealot like Jehu to depose a wicked ruler.
Peter, perplexed by this plethora of miracles, asks Gregory whether or not miracles are performed through power or through prayer. Gregory answers that “those who adhere to God with a devoted mind usually produce miracles in both ways, as necessity demands.” Benedict’s miracle of breaking the chains of Zalla’s prisoner was a miracle of prayer, while the raising of the peasant boy was a miracle of power. Of course this power is the power of Christ and not the power of Benedict himself. Then Peter asked Gregory: “Are the saints able to do everything they wish and do they obtain all that they desire?” This question is understandable since the numerous miracle stories give the impression that Benedict had perfect control over everything. However, this question is answered with a humorous story that not only shows Benedict failing to get his own way through prayer, but shows up a flaw in his character as well.
A sister of Benedict named Scholastica, herself a nun, suddenly enters the story at this point. Gregory says that once a year Benedict would come down from the mountain to meet with her. After spending the day in joyful holy conversation, Benedict said that he was obligated to return to his monastery. Scholastica asked her brother to stay and continue the conversation throughout the night. Benedict responded: “My sister, what are you saying? It is completely impossible for me to remain outside my cell.” In response, Scholastica bowed her head in prayer. At the time, the sky was clear, but, suddenly the sky clouded over and it began to rain so hard that it was impossible for Benedict to step out of the house. Benedict, so self-possessed at other times, suddenly lost it and cried out: “May God almighty pardon you, Sister! What have you done?” Scholastica, sounding like everybody’s sibling, urged her brother to return to his monastery if he could. Gregory goes on to explain that Benedict wanted the fair weather to continue so that he could return to his cell, but his sister wanted God to force him to remain with her, and it was her prayer that God answered. Because of the rainstorm, both were “fully satisfied” by spending the night “with holy talk on the spiritual life.”
Although a woman was theoretically weaker than an abbot, in Benedict’s mind anyway, it was the woman who performed a miracle that circumvented her brother. Gregory explains that this should not be a surprise because John says that “God is love.” Scholastica could accomplish more “because she loved more.” In contrast to all of the stories up to this point, Benedict was concerned with what he wanted instead of the needs of others. Moreover, this story shows that, however commendable was Benedict’s devotion to his monastic Rule, not even this discipline was as important as an act of love appropriate for the specific occasion. Instead, Benedict’s strength of discipline became a weakness in the way of love. This incident is the one time where Benedict persisted in mimetic rivalry, and he lost. The expression “lost it” suggests that what Benedict lost was his habitual living with himself in God that he had established so well after leaving the monastery where the monks tried to poison him. Three days later, Scholastica was further vindicated by God when Benedict received a vision of his sister entering Heaven in the form of a dove.
Soon afterwards, Benedict received a visit from his close friend, Abbot Secundus. Benedict discussed the yearning for heaven with his guest as he did with his sister. That night, Benedict retired to his cell at the top of his tower while Secundus occupied a room below. While standing before the window in prayer, Benedict “saw a light spreading from on high and completely repelling the darkness of the night. It shone with such splendor that it surpassed the light of the day.” This vision of divine light proved to be the prelude to a deeper vision where Benedict saw the whole world “brought before his eyes, gathered up, as it were, under a single ray of sun.” In the midst of this light, Benedict saw the soul of a holy bishop named Germanus ascend to heaven. Benedict cried out to his friend below to come up and share this wonder.
The human passions that work themselves out in mimetic rivalry are overwhelming when we are caught up in them, but from a view above the fray, as in this vision, they become so small as to drop out of sight altogether in the “splendor of shining light.” What we have is a vision of the world redeemed in the radiance of God’s light. Gregory explains to Peter, who is, understandably, puzzled by this vision, that the whole of creation may seem small to the soul in comparison with the light of the Creator, but it is not the case that the world has really shrunk into insignificance. Rather, “in the very light of the internal vision the capacity of the soul is enlarged; it is so expanded in God that it is placed above the world.” The soul is “expanded interiorly” so that the soul “understands how small is that which she could not comprehend in her more humble state.” It is not the world that has grown small, but Benedict’s soul that has been enlarged by the grace of God. The whole earth, gathered into a single ray of light, is surely treasured by God as much as Benedict treasured the peasants whom he helped with his last great miracles. Many years after Benedict fled the “bottomless whirlpool” in Rome where he feared he would be sucked into the dissolute life-style he found there, God has dissolved all of Benedict’s miracles in a ray of light. The miracles performed by Benedict, Benedict’s failure of charity with his sister, even the attempted poisoning so many years ago no longer mattered. That everything was drowned in God’s light shows us how small and narrow everything in the world is, yet everything in the world is precious enough in God’s eyes to be bathed in God’s light.
For more about Benedictine spirituality see Creating a Community in the Spirit or see my book Tools for Peace.
Gregory the Great. The Life of Saint Benedict, translated by Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe. Petersham: St. Bede’s Publications, 1993.
Incredible writing, Father! I will have to read the life of St. Benedict! Somehow, what you have written connects in my mind with my experience of working with a young man the other day. He has an intellectual disability, has been in jail and is expecting a child and has another baby with a different partner. I was talking with him and wondering about our ideas of acceptance, success and failure and what the future may hold for him and his children, as he is minimally employed and not well liked in his community. Somehow St. Benedict’s witness and life reminded me of this young man. Thank you and God’s peace be with you.
Dear Ian, Thank you for your appreciative comments. I will pray for the young man you are ministering to. Sounds like he has at least nine strikes against him. I hope you can help him take some constructive steps. My guess is that you have to choose small steps at a time. Andrew Marr, OSBSt. Gregory’s Abbey