Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Death of Saint Benedict,
and What His Order Did for the World

Scarce forty days had passed since St. Benedict had seen the soul of St. Scholastica winging its way to heaven, when he announced to his disciples that he also was about to depart out of this world. In spite of his sixty-three years he was apparently hale and strong, with no sign of illness; their judgment, no less than their hearts, would fain have disbelieved his words, had they not known too well his power of foretelling the future.

In order that all might be in readiness, the Saint ordered the tomb of his sister to be opened. Soon after, being seized with a burning fever, he asked his monks to carry him to the oratory of St. John the Baptist, where he received his last Communion. Then, standing erect, supported in the arms of his disciples, he gave up his soul to the God whom he had served so faithfully, in the peace of a perfect confidence.

Around him the watching brethren, spell-bound in the silence of that holy peace, followed in spirit the soul of their glorious Abbot as it went on its heavenward way. It was not a moment for grief or lamentation; the sorrow of their hearts was hushed into a deep thanksgiving.

On the day of St. Benedict's death St. Maurus had a strange vision, seen also at the same time by one of the monks of Monte Cassino. They beheld a path leading up to heaven from the spot where the Saint had died. It shone with a myriad of lights, and at the top stood the figure of a venerable old man shining also with the same strange radiance. "Do you know," he asked them, "who has passed this way?" They answered in the negative. "This is the pathway by which Benedict, the beloved of God, has entered into heaven," he said. So did St. Maurus learn of the death of his beloved Father, and of his glorious entry into eternal life.

The body of the Saint was laid, as he had desired, beside that of his sister in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, in the double tomb which remained the most precious treasure of the monks of Monte Cassino.

Thus did Benedict fulfil the great mission with which God had entrusted him, and which was not to end with his life. For he had planted a shoot from which was to spring the tree of Christian civilization; his spirit was to survive in the life of his Order. Chosen to be the great missionary of the Faith to the barbarian nations, he was to lead them into the fold of the Church, cultivating their savage hearts as his monks cultivated the waste and desert lands. Throughout the Middle Ages his Order was to be the centre of all that was best in the civilization of the time. To it our own England owes her conversion from paganism, for the first thought of an organized mission to England took shape in the brain of Gregory, the first Benedictine Pope.

Like Benedict, a Roman youth of noble family, Gregory had been made Prefect of the city at the age of thirty-three. An imposing figure, clad in his purple robes of office, he was to be seen daily driving through the streets of Rome in a chariot drawn by four gaily caparisoned horses. The news broke like a thunder-clap on the astounded Romans when it was announced one day that the noble Prefect, laying aside his silken robes for the rough habit of a monk, had given to the poor all his possessions save his ancestral palace on the Coelian hill, which had become the monastery of St. Andrew. The astonishment became greater still when it was known that it was not as Abbot that Gregory was entering the house of his fathers, but as the humblest among the monks. Everybody knows the subsequent story, his walk through the Roman market-place where slaves were exposed for sale, the golden-haired Saxon lads with their bright faces, and Gregory's sudden resolve to carry the faith of Christ to their pagan country.

He had not only sought and obtained leave from Pope Benedict I. to preach in England, but had already started, when he was suddenly recalled by the Pope at the urgent request of the Romans, who fully realized his worth. Some twelve years later Gregory succeeded Pelagius II. on the throne of St. Peter, being the first son of St. Benedict to wear the Papal tiara. Now at last he was able to carry out his heart's desire; and, calling to his side Augustine, the Abbot of St. Andrew's, he entrusted him with the conversion of England. On Christmas Day, 597, ten thousand Anglo-Saxons bowed their heads to receive Baptism at the hands of St. Augustine and his monks; the great work was begun.

From this seed sprang the conversion of Germany also, for it was from an English Benedictine monastery that Winfrid, an Anglo-Saxon monk, known to history as St. Boniface, set forth to be the Apostle of the German nation. Having visited Pope Gregory II. in Rome and obtained his blessing on the work, Winfrid went to Bavaria, which he found already Christianized. Thuringia, which had the reputation of being also Christian, he found in a sad state, given over to heathenism and idolatry. His attempts to improve matters meeting with but small success, Boniface went on to Friesland, where he found St. Willibrord, another Anglo-Saxon monk, who had been working for years at the conversion of the people.

For three years they laboured together, during which time many thousands were won to the Faith, and many Christians who had fallen away under persecution were brought back to the fold. Monasteries and convents were founded to help on the work, while Boniface, travelling from place to place, continued to preach with tireless energy in other parts of Germany. Created by the Pope Bishop, and later Archbishop, he founded the famous monastery of Fulda, and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the pagans in the year 752.

In the kingdom of the Franks the Rule of St. Benedict had been so universally adopted by the time of Charlemagne, that the great Emperor could scarcely believe it possible that monasticism of any other kind could ever have existed. He was an earnest admirer of the Rule of St. Benedict, and during his reign the Benedictine monasteries spread and flourished throughout his kingdom. The famous Abbey of Cluny, founded in Burgundy in the year 910, became one of the greatest centres of revival and reform in the Middle Ages, while the Abbey of St. Gall, founded by the Saint whose name it bore, fulfilled the same mission in Switzerland.

So did the Order of St. Benedict continue the work of its holy Founder, adding to the conversion and civilization of the Teutonic races the education of the people and the cultivation of art and literature. Wherever the monks went they taught the nobility of labour, changing barren deserts into fruitful fields, draining marshes, converting the outlaw and the thief, preaching the Faith by word and example, and showing to all men the beauty of a life lived for God alone. It was the spirit of St. Benedict that lived in St. Augustine, St. Mellitus, St. Paulinus, St. Bede, and all those holy men of Anglo-Saxon times who won for England her name of the Island of Saints. It was the monks again who, to help their poorer neighbours, built and repaired bridges and roads, doing all that was possible to improve the condition of the people amongst whom they had made their home. Schools were opened, and magnificent libraries were formed by their industry and patience.

At the famous monastery of York the monk Alcuin, one of the most renowned scholars of his time, taught the seven liberal arts with such brilliant results that Charlemagne sent for him to stimulate the revival of letters in his empire; while it was from the Benedictine schools of Paris, Tours, and Lyons that the great French universities sprang into being. The monastery of Bec in Normandy became, under Lanfranc and Anselm, a centre of education second only to Cluny in Burgundy, and shared with that monastery the reputation of being the chief stronghold of learning in France. The seed that developed into our own university of Cambridge was sown in the Benedictine school founded there by the monks of Croyland Abbey.

Nor was it in learning alone that the sons of St. Benedict were the leaders of civilization. The scriptoria, or writing schools, of the Benedictine abbeys were the only book manufactories that existed before the invention of printing. There all the rare manuscripts of antiquity were copied and preserved; the abbeys of Fontanelle, Reims, and Corbie being especially noted for their beautiful work.

It is not only as copyists that the monks have earned the world's gratitude. The greater part of the history of the Middle Ages was written in the cloister; St. Bede, William of Malmesbury, Matthew Paris, and Eadmer of Canterbury were all Benedictine monks. The great abbeys were also the centres of art, science, and of all the humbler crafts that go to make up beauty. The monks of St. Gall and of Monte Cassino were justly famous for their exquisite illuminations and mosaic work; while to the latter monastery is attributed the invention of stained glass. The great St. Dunstan, we are told, was not only noted for his beautiful writing and painting, but was moreover an adept in the carving of wood and bone, moulding in wax, working in gold, brass, iron, and silver. Such were the accomplishments of a Benedictine Abbot in the tenth century, accomplishments which St. Benedict himself had laid down as fitting and suitable for a monk. Most of the great monasteries had their studios and workshops, where architecture, painting, and sculpture, as well as the lesser crafts already mentioned, were taught and practised.

Ecclesiastical architecture was introduced into England by St. Bennet Biscop, a monk of Wearmouth, who had mastered its rules in Rome. The ruins of Croyland Abbey, Tintern, and Fountains in our own country, of Fontevrault and St. Denis in France, not to mention the great cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham, and Gloucester, bear witness to the skill of the monastic architect. Nor in the building of the monasteries was it always the Abbot who directed the work. More often than not it was a humble but gifted monk who was chief architect, while the Abbot wrought under his directions as a simple workman. This was the case with Herluin, founder and first Abbot of the monastery of Bec in Normandy, who, great and noble as he was by birth, carried stones and mortar like the humblest mason.

Many of the monks were artists of no mean order. Mannius, Abbot of Evesham, was renowned as a goldsmith, as well as a musician and painter. The walls of the church of the Abbey of St. Gall, built in the tenth century, were covered with paintings executed by the brethren; while the frescoes of the Abbey Church of St. Savin in Poitou are still the admiration of artists. That the Benedictines made use of their artistic talents in their missions to the heathens, we know through the story of the conversion of the King of the Bulgarians, in the ninth century, effected by means of a picture of the Last Judgment, painted on the walls of his palace by the monk Methodius.

The pictures and the stained-glass windows of the churches were often the only books of the unlearned, who, while they prayed, could meditate on the scenes from the old Testament, or the Life of Our Lord thus presented to their devotion.

The father of ecclesiastical music was St. Gregory the Great, the first Benedictine Pope, who introduced the chant known by his name, still recognized as the most solemn and prayerful of all the forms of psalmody. The very organ itself, originally introduced from Constantinople, owes its development and its perfection to the labours of the monks.

Thus did the Order of St. Benedict, throughout the centuries that followed the death of their holy Founder, work for the world's welfare as well as for its holiness, for beauty as well as for utility. Other religious Orders have arisen as the need for them became manifest, and they have done their work or are doing it. Others may arise in the days to come, for there is scope for all kinds of good work in the world; but the Order of St. Benedict still remains: "It is rooted," as one of its great Abbots has said, "in the clay of the Faith."