Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Sojourn of Saint Benedict in the Desert,
And How Certain Monks
Begged Him to be their Abbot

Crossing the little ridge of hills which lies between Enfide and the rocky gorge of the Anio, Benedict came to the spot where, more than four hundred years before, the Emperor Nero had dammed the swift waters of the river to form an artificial lake in the grounds of the stately villa which he had built for himself in that wild and beautiful valley. The villa had long since fallen into ruins; but the place, lonely and deserted now save for a few peasants and hermits who made their home amongst the rocks, was still known by the name that the wicked Emperor had given it—Sublaqueum, or "below the lake."

Now it happened that a certain monk named Romanus had chosen this quiet spot for meditation. Seeing a young man whose dress and appearance showed him to be of noble birth, and supposing that he had lost his way amongst the mountains, he courteously enquired of him whither he was bound. Benedict, looking into the friendly face of the questioner, whose grave eyes were bent on him with such a kindly sympathy, answered simply that he did not know. God had called him to a life of prayer and solitude, and he was seeking a place where he could fulfil his vocation.

Romanus was a holy man and well versed in the things of God. Entering into conversation with the young stranger, he soon learnt from him the story of his hasty flight from Rome, and the circumstances which had led up to it—a story which convinced him that he had to do with a chosen soul, for whom God had a secret mission. Acceding to the prayers of Benedict that he would give him the monastic habit, and show him some lonely place where he might live a hermit's life, Romanus clad him in the rough tunic of a monk, and led him to a hollow cave in the rocks, the existence of which was known to himself alone. So difficult indeed was it of access that the most enthusiastic explorer might have been discouraged in his search. From beneath it could only be approached by a laborious scramble over rocks and brushwood, while its roof was formed by a high and almost perpendicular rock. It was a depressing and lonely dwelling-place for so young an anchorite, shut in as it was on every side by the frowning mountains, in a silence broken only by the murmur of the river flowing in its rocky gorge beneath; but Benedict had found what he wanted, and was content.

The monastery where Romanus lived was several miles away; but the holy monk was mindful of the soul which God had, in a certain measure, confided to his care. Having promised that he would keep Benedict's secret, he could only visit him at dusk, when none could see where he went, and the daily portion of bread that he brought him was the half of his own repast. From the top of the precipice he would let it down in a basket, to which was attached a little bell, whose cheery tinkle called Benedict from his prayers to his only meal. "But the Evil One," says St. Gregory the Great, "envying the charity of one brother and the refreshment of the other, threw a stone one day and broke the bell," and henceforth, though Romanus continued to minister to the wants of his young friend, the voice of the little messenger was silent.

So the time flowed on; but Benedict had lost sight of days and hours, of times and seasons. Lost in the contemplation of God, he was learning many things that are taught in that divine school of prayer alone, a knowledge that was to fit him for the work for which God had set him apart.

It was Holy Week; and about three years had passed since his meeting with Romanus, when the visits of the latter suddenly ceased. He may have been ill; or obliged to go on a journey, and, being bound by his promise of secrecy, was unable to provide for Benedict during his absence. However that may be, we can be sure that he prayed that God would take care of his young charge; and we know that his prayer was answered. Moreover, the time had come when the ministry of Benedict was to begin, and God had His own ways of bringing this about:

There lived some miles from Subiaco a good priest who had a tiny parish in the neighbourhood. He was too poor to keep a servant, and on the evening of Holy Saturday had set to work to prepare himself a dinner that should be worthy of the Easter festival. That night Our Lord appeared to him in a vision. "while you have been preparing good things for your own dinner to-morrow," He said, "a servant of Mine is dying of hunger in a cave at Subiaco."

St. Benedict


The priest arose at dawn, and, as soon as the Easter Mass was ended, set off towards the mountains, carrying with him the provisions he had prepared. Over the rocks and through the brushwood he scrambled, weary and breathless, searching for the holy man. At last, God guiding his footsteps, he reached the mouth of the cave, and greeting Benedict with joy and gladness, told him how God had revealed to him the place of his retreat.

After they had prayed and talked for some time together, the priest invited his companion to share with him the food that he had brought. "It is Easter Day," he said, "when it is fitting that men should feast." "Easter Day indeed," replied Benedict with sweet courtesy, "since I have merited to look upon your face." Thus did he practise what became afterwards a rule of his Order to greet all strangers as if they were Christ Himself. But the priest explained to him that it was in verity the Feast of the Resurrection, and on that account it was not becoming to fast. "It is for that reason," he added, "that God Himself has sent me to share with thee these His gifts."

Then the two men, having blessed the repast, partook of it together, discoursing the while of spiritual things, until it was time for the good priest to return to his flock. On his homeward way he mused on all that he had seen and heard; on the strange life of Benedict, his wonderful holiness, and the marvellous manner in which he himself had been led to seek him. It is probable that he spoke of these things to the humble peasants to whom he ministered, for shortly afterwards a little band of shepherds found their way to the cave. Seeing Benedict clothed in skins, and kneeling motionless in prayer, they took him for some wild beast of the forest, and at first did not dare to approach. But the sound of their footsteps disturbed the Saint, who turned towards them such a heavenly face that they stood as if spellbound, gazing at him with the greatest veneration. Such, indeed, was the charm of that beauty of holiness, that some of these rough and brutal men from that very moment changed their way of life. The words which Benedict addressed to them, simple teaching suited to their simple minds, were as sweet as his face, so that it is not surprising that people began to flock to the cave from all the country round, thinking it a privilege to be allowed to bring the necessaries of earthly life to him from whom they had received the message of the life that is eternal.

But the Evil One was watching jealously God's preparation of the Saint for his great mission, and made a desperate attempt to mar the work. He conjured up before Benedict's eyes the image of a beautiful young girl whom he had known in Rome, and who had perhaps been destined by his parents for his future bride. With the lovely vision came the thought of the life of ease and pleasure that he might be living, the joys of that world that he had abandoned, the weary hardships of the life which he had chosen. So strong was the temptation that he had almost yielded almost left the solitude of Subiaco and set his face towards the life and love that awaited him in Rome, when, throwing himself into a thicket of thorns and briers, he cured by the wounds of the body the wounds of the soul, and the temptation departed for ever.

The fame of the young Saint had spread meantime throughout the whole valley, and a community of monks who had a convent at Varia, now Vicovaro, twenty miles from Subiaco, and who had lately lost their Abbot, went in a body to ask Benedict to rule over them. The Saint had perhaps heard that their mode of life was no credit to their profession, or perhaps, with the strange intuition which was characteristic of him in later life, he was able to read their hearts. "Your ways and mine will never agree," he answered, refusing their request. But the monks would not accept his refusal; they desired reform, they said; and Benedict reluctantly, and hoping perhaps to lead them to better things, yielded at last to their persuasions. What he had undertaken to do he did conscientiously, insisting that they should obey their Rule and observe religious discipline; but this was not to their taste, and their desire for reform soon died out in angry murmuring, while each blamed the other for having conceived the mad idea of making such a man their Abbot. The very holiness of Benedict, a daily reproach to their own lives, served only to embitter their hatred, and their discontent at last reached its climax in a plot to poison the man whom they had induced, against his will, to put himself at their head.

This wicked plan, however, was doomed to failure. When the poisoned cup was presented to Benedict in the refectory, he blessed it with the sign of the Cross, whereupon it fell asunder in the hands of the bearer and the wine was spilt upon the ground. Realizing the meaning of the miracle, and reading their guilt in the pale and terrified faces of the monks, Benedict addressed them with his usual quiet calm.

"May God forgive you, my brethren," he said; "why have you plotted this wicked thing against me? Did I not say to you that your ways and mine would never agree? Seek now for another Abbot after your own heart, for you can keep me here no longer." With these words he went out from amongst them, and returned to his beloved solitude.

Monasticism in the West was a force which had not yet been organized, although more than one hundred years had passed since St. Athanasius came to Rome all on fire with the fervour of the holy lives of the monks of the East. His life of St. Anthony, the Father of Eastern monasticism, had been translated into Latin, and many had hastened to embrace the religious life on the lines of the Eastern observance. But the climate of Italy was very different from that of Northern Africa; the Rule of St. Pachomius and St. Anthony was hardly practicable in a colder country; relaxation had crept in and the standard had been lowered, for there was no fixed rule binding on all. Monks could go from one convent to another when they chose—a source of much disorder while the fervour of each house depended almost entirely on its Abbot. The monastic system in the west was waiting for the man who could adapt it to the needs of a colder climate, and, by giving it a special and definite form, make of it an instrument for the civilization of the nations, and that man was Benedict of Nursia.