Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Building of the Abbey,
and of the Disciples of Saint Benedict

The Abbey of Monte Cassino rose rapidly under the busy hands of the monks, but it was not likely that the enemy of all good would easily allow himself to be driven out of a district where he had obtained such power. Strange portents hindered the brethren in their work; the stones that they were trying to lift would suddenly become immovable, and remained so until Benedict blessed them with the sign of the Cross. A vision of flames burst out suddenly in the half-completed building and terrified the monks, who ran hither and thither seeking for water; but Benedict bade them sign their eyes with the holy sign, and there was no fire to be seen.

To the Saint himself the Evil One appeared in a terrible form, threatening and reviling him. "Not Benedict not blessed, but ac cursed art thou!" he cried; "why hast thou come to torment me?" A wall which the brethren were building fell suddenly, without apparent cause, burying in its ruins a young monk named Severus. This time it would have seemed that the spirit of evil had triumphed; and the builders, lifting the shattered and lifeless body of their companion in their arms, carried it to Benedict and laid it at his feet with no other comment than their tears. But the Saint, who was praying, redoubled his prayers; and presently the young workman went forth again to his labour as if nothing had befallen him.

The walls of the old citadel were used to form part of the monastery, and of the tower that flanked them St. Benedict made his own abode. It was divided into two stories: in the lower room he read, wrote, and received the many visitors who thronged to see him; while the upper one served him as oratory. The church of the monastery was the old temple of Apollo, which had been purified and dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. Within the enclosure there were dormitories for the monks, for the boys who were under their charge, and for the novices; cells for guests and for the poor; refectory, kitchen, workshops for different trades, and a library where the monks could read and study.

The newly-founded monastery was quickly filled; every day brought new disciples, who, rich or poor, gentle or simple, learned or ignorant, received the same welcome. All that St. Benedict asked was a humble and docile spirit, willingness to work, an earnest desire to love and serve God.

Associated with the Saint in the government of the house were his two dear disciples, Maurus and Placid, fit sons of such a Father, and beloved by all for their wisdom and holiness. Of Constantine, who lived long with St. Benedict and succeeded him as Abbot, we know nothing save that he was revered in the Order as a Saint, as were also Paulinus and Augustine, his companions. Among those who formed that first community at Monte Cassino were Simplicius and Faustus, who in after years went with St. Maurus into France; Mark the poet, who had followed his master from Subiaco; the brave little group who were later to set out with Placid into Sicily, there to meet the martyr's death; and Severus, the boy-monk who had been raised to life by the prayers of Benedict, and was henceforward loved by him with an especial tenderness.

The news of the transformation that had been brought about at Monte Cassino came in due time to the ears of Tertullus in Rome, who at once set out to visit the monastery. With him went Aequitius, the father of Maurus, and we can imagine with what joy they were welcomed by Benedict and his young disciples. Great was the consolation of Tertullus at the good work accomplished; he confirmed his gift of the land by charter, asking only that when his time came to die, he might be buried in the monastery. He made over also to the man of God a property which he possessed in Sicily, in the hope that a Benedictine monastery might be founded there.

It was well for the people of Campania that they had found a father in the Saint, and that Monte Cassino was a refuge for all who were in sorrow or distress, for the troubles of the country were by no means at an end. The Emperor Justinian had succeeded his uncle on the throne of the Eastern Empire, and the dream of his heart was to reconquer the Empire of the West. A brilliant young officer called Belisarius was winning renown at the head of his army, and Sicily had already fallen to his sword. The glorious Theodoric was dead; his successor was but a child. The moment seemed ripe to sweep the Goths beyond the barriers of the Empire, and to unite it under one Caesar as of old. The conquering legions of Belisarius penetrated into Italy; the Goths made a desperate resistance; plague and famine followed in the footsteps of war. The country people, reduced to the last extremity, died by hundreds. Grass and acorns were eaten as food, and ghastly tales were told of famished creatures who fed on human flesh, and mothers who put their own children to death rather than witness their sufferings.

The poorer inhabitants of Campania besieged the monastery begging for bread; nor did they beg in vain. "Give, for the love of God," said Benedict, "while there is anything left to give "; until there came a day when there was nothing for the monks' frugal meal. This, thought some of the brethren, was carrying charity a little too far, and they gave way to despondency, not fancying the prospect of death by starvation. Benedict reproached them gently for their want of confidence. "Are you troubled at the lack of bread?" he asked; "true, there is not much to-day, but there will be more to-morrow."

The next day two hundred bushels of flour were found at the monastery gate, the gift of an unknown benefactor; and the monks who had complained gave thanks to God, resolving to put their trust in His Providence for the future. It was not only flour that was wanting, but everything else. There came one day to the monastery a certain deacon called Agapitus, who asked the monks if, for the love of God, they could not give him a little oil. Now there was no oil left in the cellar but a little drop at the bottom of a small vessel, and the cellarer, being bidden to give that little store to Agapitus, thought proper to pretend to be a little hard of hearing. On being asked shortly afterwards if he had obeyed Benedict's command, he excused himself by saying that he felt sure that there had been some mistake, since if he had given the oil there would not have remained a drop in the house.

"Bring the jar of oil here," said Benedict, "and throw it out of that window, lest what has been preserved through disobedience should bring a curse upon the house."

The crestfallen cellarer obeyed the Abbot's orders, and the jar fell upon the rocks beneath. "Go now," said the Saint, "turning to another monk, "and fetch the oil, and give it to Agapitus." The astonishment of the messenger was great when he found the vessel whole and the oil unspilt. Marvelling greatly, he climbed up the rock, and having given it to the subdeacon, returned to the Abbot's cell. Placing an empty jar in the middle of the floor, the Saint then bade the brethren kneel and pray fervently. As they did so, the oil rose to the lip of the vessel and flowed over on the ground; whereupon Benedict, having reproved the cellarer before them all for his disobedience and want of faith, exhorted him to show himself more trustful for the future.

It was not only food for the body but comfort for their sorrowing hearts that the people came to seek at Monte Cassino. A poor man who had lost his only son brought the little body in his arms to Benedict, asking that if it were the will of God he would restore the child to life by his prayers. The poor countryman was so breathless with weeping and his hurried climb up the mountain side, that he could only hold out his pitiful little burden and gasp the Saint's name. But a brother who met him understood well enough what he wanted. "He is working in the fields with the monks," he told him; and the man laying his child's body tenderly upon the ground at the monastery door, went to seek the Abbot. He had not gone far when he met the Saint returning with his monks to the house.

"Give me back my son, my little son," implored the poor father, falling at Benedict's feet; "he is dead, restore him to life." The man's despair touched the monks, who added their entreaties to his, but Benedict reproved them gravely. "Such deeds are for the holy Apostles," he answered, "and not for a man like me." But the child's father would take no denial. "I will not go away," he said, "till my son is restored to me; he is there at the gate of the monastery."

They went together to the spot, and Benedict, kneeling by the motionless little body, laid his hands upon it and raised his eyes to Heaven. "Regard not my sins, O Lord," he prayed, "but the faith of this man who implores Thee to give him back his child." Even as he spoke a tremor ran through the little body and the child breathed again. Raising him to his feet, Benedict gave him back to his father, and the two went down the mountain path hand in hand together.

Soon after the foundation of Monte Cassino, an assembly of holy women had gathered in the neighbourhood under the Rule and guidance of St. Benedict. Some of them lived in a monastery at Piumarola in the valley of the Liris, their Abbess being Scholastica, the beloved twin sister of St. Benedict, who, having dedicated herself from her earliest childhood to God, had come to Monte Cassino to live under her brother's direction. Others lived in twos or threes in their own houses, and having also consecrated themselves to the service of God, followed a definite rule.

Amongst these were two ladies of noble birth, who, though desirous of leading a holy life, had not quite succeeded in overcoming nature and the prejudices of the world. In order that they might be more free to follow their vocation, a certain good man, perhaps one of the monks of Monte Cassino, was deputed by St. Benedict to take them what they needed and to act in some sort as their servant. This individual, however, whether monk or layman, was of humble condition, and this the noble ladies could not forget. No longer able to bear their sharp words and contemptuous language, the poor victim at last complained to St. Benedict, who warned the two recluses that if they did not mend their ways and practise charity more perfectly, he would be obliged to ex-communicate them. Nature, however, prevailed over grace, and matters became worse instead of better. But the unfortunate man, who did his best to bear his troubles patiently, was destined to be soon delivered from his sharp-tongued persecutors. The two recluses died, and were buried in the precincts of the church.

Now it happened that their old nurse, who had lived with them, assisting at Mass and going up to the altar to offer the accustomed oblation for her two mistresses, saw a sight that filled her with fear. It was the moment when, before beginning the Canon of the Mass, the priest, turning to the congregation, ordered the catechumens and excommunicated persons to depart from the church. As the words left his lips, two shadowy figures arose from the newly made tomb, and stole silently out at the door. The same thing having occurred several times, the nurse in great distress went to Benedict and told him what she had seen. "Take this oblation," he said, "and offer it for them on my behalf." This was done; and the dead henceforward slept in peace.