Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of Monte Cassino,
and How St. Benedict Cleansed it of Idolatry

Although Florentius was dead, for Benedict there was no turning back towards St. Clement's; the will of God was calling him elsewhere. But in the monasteries of Subiaco there was mourning and lamentation for the Father who would return no more to his sons. "The mountain grew pale with its own white mist; the caverns wept with grief; the wind wailed through the trees of the forest; the very waters of the lake moaned with anguish; even the wild beasts grieved for the loss of the man who was the friend of all the creatures of God, "wrote Mark the poet-monk. But the crows, who had been wont to share the frugal meals of the Saint and to feed from his hand, refused to be abandoned and went with him on his journey, flying before the little party as Heaven sent guides to show them the way to their destination.

At the monastery of St. Sebastian, near Alatri, the pilgrims stopped to rest, Servandus the Abbot, who had heard much of St. Benedict, receiving them with the greatest joy and hospitality. From thence along the valley of the Liris, they came to the province of Campania, celebrated in earlier times as one of the most fertile and flourishing regions of the Roman Empire. But the days of its prosperity had long since passed away. Devastated by incursion after incursion of barbarian armies, there was little to be seen, when Benedict and his monks first set foot in the country, but desolation and decay. Through the midst of it led the great Latin way, over which had streamed the Gothic hosts of Alaric, Odoacer, and Theodoric, and the Vandal hordes of Gaiseric. The inhabitants, flying in terror before the savage invaders, had taken refuge in the mountains, leaving the cultivated country to revert to marshland and wilderness.

The Roman town of Cassinum or Cassino, which had been celebrated for its fine buildings, its many inhabitants, and its noble families, lay on the mountain side near the Latin way, looking down on the smiling valley of the Liris. At the coming of St. Benedict in A.D. 529 it was deserted and partly in ruins, while there remained of its many inhabitants only a rustic population, living in the mountain fastnesses under continual terror of fresh invasion. The city had been Christian since Apostolic times, St. Peter, according to tradition, having sent it its first Bishop; but during the terrible years of the barbarian conquests it had fallen back into paganism.

The mission of St. Benedict was to bring these strayed sheep back into the fold of Christ; it was as the messenger of the Gospel that he came amongst a people stunned and terrified by misfortune. For the pagan Monte Cassino was destined to be the cradle of a Christian civilization that was to, spread through all the countries of Europe an ideal that was to last even to the present day.

St. Benedict seems to have been well received by the Cassinese, pagans though they were. This, however, may have been partly owing to the fact that he came amongst them as owner of the land on which their city stood. It had been given to him by the patrician Tertullus, to whom it originally belonged, and who probably hoped by this donation to redeem it from idolatry. It was in the spirit of apostles that the little band of monks set about their work, striving to draw men to Christ both by word and by example.

The mountain heights, which rose above the city, were clothed with magnificent forests, sacred to the worship of the heathen gods, to whom the people still offered sacrifice. On the highest crest, surrounded with walls and towers part of the ancient defences of the city stood a temple dedicated to Apollo. From thence a sacred grove led to an altar where sacrifices were offered to the same deity. Further down the mountain side was a still older wall, dating from prehistoric times, and consisting of enormous blocks of stone flanked by a rudely constructed tower.

At the first sight of this stronghold of idolatry Benedict knelt on the rocks and prayed, foreseeing that the task which lay before him would be no easy one. Yet the teachings of Christianity were not quite extinct in the hearts of the people of Cassinum; and there were a good many amongst them who received the Saint as a father, following him wherever he went, lest they should lose a word of his teaching. These were the first-fruits of his prayers; but there still remained the greater number of the people, sunk in idolatry and paganism. To the eyes of Benedict, enlightened by long years of communing with God, many things were clear that were hidden from the sight of his disciples. He knew that the work which lay before him was destined to be the seed of a great enterprise and was not to be lightly undertaken.

It was the beginning of the holy season of Lent, a fit time for prayer and penance. Shutting himself up in the rude tower which gave entrance to the lower and older wall of the city, Benedict prepared himself, after his Master's example, for the ministry which lay before him. The first converts of the Saint, whose hearts he had already won, were greatly distressed at this sudden withdrawal. They besieged the tower, says the old chronicle, earnestly beseeching their newly-found teacher to show himself once more amongst them.

Their lamentations were in vain. It was not until the sacred Easter day had dawned that Benedict at last came forth from his retreat, chanting the Alleluia of the Paschal feast. The joyful cry was taken up by the monks and re-echoed by the faithful who stood without the tower. Then, with the Cross held on high before them, Benedict and his little band of disciples, followed by those of the townspeople who had been won to Christ by his preaching, ascended the mountain side to where, within the walls of the citadel, stood the ancient temple of Apollo. Entering the sacred grove where the pagans were wont to offer their sacrifices, the monks set to work to cut down the trees, which were to serve later for the building of the monastery.

This done, they proceeded to the crest of the mountain, where stood a great statue of the god on a column of Parian marble. Casting it down from its pedestal, the Saint planted the Cross they were carrying in its place; and on the site of the altar of sacrifice, which they also overthrew, they set to work to build an oratory which was to be dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The temple itself, having been purified and blessed by Benedict, became a Christian church under the protection of St. Martin of Tours. The mountain thus cleansed of its pagan associations, Benedict set to work to preach Christianity in the surrounding country.

But in this devastated spot, where terror of the barbarian went hand in hand with pagan superstition, there was one soul who had remained faithful to his God. This was a holy hermit called Martin, who dwelt in a cave on the mountain which was given over to the worship of Apollo. Day and night his prayers had interceded for a backsliding people until, Benedict having come to Cassino, he felt that his mission was fulfilled.

It has been said that that arrival of the Saint and the work that he was to accomplish had been made known to the anchorite by revelation. Whether this was so or not, after having visited the man of God and asked his counsel, the hermit left his cave at Monte Cassino and retired to another at some distance from the city. There, wishing to increase his penance, he bound himself by an iron chain to the rock, so that he could not stir from the place where he had made his abode. This was an austerity of which St. Benedict did not approve; he therefore sent a message to the hermit by one of his disciples. "If thou art a servant of God," it ran, "let not a chain of iron hold thee, but the chain of the love of Christ."

The hermit at once unfastened his chain, although he lived and died without setting foot outside his cave. Some disciples who had gathered round him in his solitude he sent to Benedict, bidding them take him as their spiritual guide; they were the first vocations of Monte Cassino. For, as the poet-monk Mark says, "The temples of the living God were to be established where the idols had been overthrown, and Benedict was to make fruitful the sterile works of men by watering their arid hearts with the dew of salvation." "It is always through hard labour," he says, "that we aspire to perfect things, and the path is always narrow that leads to the happy life."

It was indeed a life of hard labour and of great privation that was led by the monks in those early days at Monte Cassino, while the monastery was building. No workmen were employed, for the monks wrought themselves in the intervals of preaching to the people. A few came from Subiaco to help in the great work that was to do so much for the salvation of souls; but Benedict alone was the architect and his disciples the builders. In the meantime they lived where the pagan priests of Apollo had dwelt, near the tower in the citadel which Benedict had made his home, going forth from time to time into the surrounding country to preach the faith.

The barren fields, too, had need of cultivation; the terrified country people had to be encouraged to repair the ravages wrought by the barbarians. With faith in Christ came confidence for the future. The fields became fertile once more under the busy hands that found something everywhere to be done for God; houses were rebuilt, some semblance of peace and prosperity began to appear in that desolate region. It was a faint foreshadowing of what the Order was to do for the world in the days to come.