Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Going Forth of the Sons of Saint Benedict,
and of the Spreading of the Order

The time had come when Maurus and Placid, the most beloved of St. Benedict's disciples, were to carry the Rule of their master into other countries. The first foundation was to be in Sicily, on the land which had been given to the Saint by the patrician Tertullus when he came to visit him at Monte Cassino. Was it for this reason that the son of Tertullus was chosen for the mission, or was it that Benedict, knowing the fruitfulness of a good work which is rooted in sacrifice, chose deliberately to separate himself from what was most dear to him on earth? We do not know. That Placid was pre-eminently fitted for the work was proved by the unanimous consent of the brethren when the Saint proposed him for the undertaking.

As the hour of parting drew near, Benedict comforted his sorrowing disciple with inspiring words, bidding him enter with a stout heart on the great mission which lay before him, and prophesying that he would win the martyr's crown. In the spring of the year 537 he set forth on his journey, accompanied by the little band of monks who were to carry the traditions of their founder into Sicily. Their first halt was at Capua, where Germanus the Bishop, an intimate friend of St. Benedict's, received them with cordial hospitality. At Canosa they were entertained by another warm admirer of their holy Abbot; everywhere they went the sons of such a Father were received with open arms.

No sooner had they arrived at Messina than Placid set to work at the foundation of the new monastery; but little is known of his apostolate in the island. He was martyred, as St. Benedict had foreseen, during an invasion of the barbarians. With him perished two of his brothers and his sister Flavia, who had come from Rome to pay him a visit, together with the greater number of the monks. When St. Benedict received the news of the death of this first martyr of the Order, he burst out into thanksgiving that it had been granted to his beloved Placid to give his life for the Faith.

The mission of Maurus was to be yet further afield. While Benedict was still a youth pursuing his studies at his father's house in Rome, the pagan King of the Franks, Chlodovech or Clovis, had married Clotilda, the niece of Gundobad, King of Burgundy. Clotilda's mother had been a fervent Catholic, whose gentle influence on her Arian husband had induced him to allow her to bring up her children in the Catholic faith.

Clovis was at this time engaged in fighting with the powerful tribes of the Alemanni, and for some time resisted the entreaties of his wife that he would renounce paganism and embrace the Catholic faith. But the day dawned when, facing a powerful army of his foes, the Frankish King realized that on the battle that was about to be fought rested his whole hope of sovereignty. Recalling to mind the earnest words of his wife, he uttered his first Christian prayer. "Oh, Jesus Christ," he cried, "whom Clotilda declares to be the Son of the living God, and who art said to give help to those who are in trouble if they trust in Thee, I humbly beseech Thy assistance. I have called on my gods and they are far from my help. If Thou wilt deliver me from mine enemies I will believe in Thee and be baptized in Thy Name." The result of the battle was a complete triumph for the King of the Franks, who, returning to his wife, received baptism in the Cathedral at Rheims on Christmas Day, 496, at the hands of the Archbishop, St. Remigius.

"Bow thy head," said the holy Archbishop to his royal convert as he stood before the font, "and burning what thou hast adored, adore what thou hast burned."

The consequences of his conversion were great. The sword of the most powerful ruler in Europe was henceforward to be drawn in defence of the true Faith, while the whole Frankish nation abjured paganism, and France became a Catholic country. It takes time, however, to win a barbarian people, but lately steeped in paganism, to Catholic faith and practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that some forty years later we find Innocent, Bishop of Mans, writing to Benedict to beg him to send some of the most experienced of his monks to found a monastery of his Rule in Gaul.

Although Maurus had been for long his right hand in the government of Monte Cassino, Benedict resolved once more to call down the grace of God on the enterprise by making the sacrifice of this beloved son. The hearts of the brethren were sore at the thought of losing one who was so much beloved by them all, but they could not but agree with their holy Abbot that the wisdom and holiness of Maurus pointed him out as the fittest among them for the work. Yet Maurus, who, after the example of his holy Father, generously accepted the sacrifice, could not altogether conceal his grief at the thought of the parting, a grief which was universally shared.

The tears and lamentations of the brethren touched the heart of the Abbot, who, forgetting his own sorrow at the sight of theirs, tried his best to comfort them. "Since charity is kind, most dearly beloved sons and brothers," he said, "we are bound by it to show kindness to all who are in need of it, and to desire the good of others rather than our own. I beg you, therefore, by the fatherly love I bear you, to restrain your tears and sadness. Let us beware lest that which to others is a cause of salvation, may become to some of us, through excess of grief, an occasion of loss. Know also, that we who are bound together by the holy bond of charity cannot be separated by distance, for in Christ we ever are, and ever shall be, one."

Then turning to the little band of monks who had been chosen to go to France with Maurus, "You, most dear brethren," he said, "who are going forth to work for God in a distant land, act manfully and be strengthened. The more you suffer for souls the greater will be your reward. And grieve not at the thought that my death must be close at hand, for when I shall have laid aside this mortal body I shall be nearer to you than ever, and more powerful by God's grace to help you."

Brave and hopeful words, but the heart of the old man went out with a wistful tenderness after the travellers. Having led them as far as the monastery gate, he blessed them and bade them a last farewell, watching them through eyes that were dim with tears, as with heavy hearts they descended the mountain path.

Their first stopping place was Aquinum, where they were to spend the night at a house belonging to the monastery, and here they found another token of their Father's fostering care. Two monks had been sent on before-hand from Monte Cassino to prepare for their reception and to give them a hospitable welcome. Nor was this all. At daybreak next morning, as they were about to continue their journey, a little deputation consisting of two young monks, of whom one, Felicissimus, was the cousin of St. Maurus, came to wish them a last godspeed, bringing with them some small mementoes of Monte Cassino and a letter from St. Benedict.

"Accept, most beloved," the Saint had written, "this last gift of thy master, as a token of his enduring love of thee." Then, after having prophesied that Maurus would pass through many tribulations, during which he would be sustained by the goodness of God, he announced that he would enter into the joys of heaven after sixty years spent in the religious life: "Mayest thou be happy," he prayed, "in thy going forth, and still more happy in thy end."

Filled with joy and consolation at the thought that the heart and the prayers of the Saint were with them, the little party set out once more on their journey, Maurus having first taken his young cousin apart and exhorted him to be faithful to his vocation.

The first Benedictine monastery in Gaul was founded at Glanfeuil in Anjou. St. Maurus was its Abbot till the year 581, when he died in the odor of sanctity.

Several other foundations were made in Italy during the lifetime of St. Benedict. Besides the monasteries of Subiaco and Monte Cassino, he presided over that of Terracina, built on the property of a holy man who had begged the Saint to send some of his monks to found there a religious house. Others were built on the various properties given by Tertullus to the Saint. It was in a Benedictine monastery on the island of Ponza that Belisarius, at the command of the wicked Empress Theodora, imprisoned Pope St. Silverius, who was later to die the martyr's death. Another monastery, erected during the lifetime of Benedict at Novalesa in Piedmont, was ruined by the Lombards about the same time as that of Monte Cassino. In another, situated in Perugia, lived the monk St. Herculanus, who became Bishop of the city and was murdered by the Goths.

The destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino some forty years after St. Benedict's death, which might have destroyed as well the work of a lifetime, seemed, through the providence of God, rather to assist its development. The Abbot and those of the monks 99) ?> who had fled to Rome to seek the protection of Pope Pelagius II. took up their abode temporarily in the monastery of the Lateran, where they spread the traditions and the teaching of their Founder. It was here, as we have seen, that Gregory, the scion of a noble Roman family, and afterwards Pope St. Gregory the Great, took the Benedictine habit, and so became the first of the sons of St. Benedict to wear the Papal tiara.

A few monks, however, when the Abbey of Monte Cassino was sacked by the Lombards, concealed themselves among the mountains, to return, after the first force of the invasion had spent itself, to their ruined monastery, where they remained faithful guardians of the tomb of their holy Founder. A little more than a hundred years later Petronax, a certain pious citizen of Brescia, who had come to Rome to venerate the tombs of the Apostles, spoke to the Pope of his desire to help in the restoration of Monte Cassino. His suggestion having been received with enthusiasm, he set out at once for the ruined Abbey, where he found a few anchorites living in the greatest poverty. The work of restoration progressed satisfactorily, and in due time Petronax, having received the Benedictine habit, was chosen Abbot of the monastery. In the year 757 the monks of the Lateran returned to the ancient home of their Order.

By this time, the erstwhile terrible Lombards, having been converted to the Catholic faith, had lost much of their savagery. Their King, Desiderius, even visited Monte Cassino to beg of the Abbot Optatius, who had succeeded Petronax, a colony of monks for the monastery which he wished to found at Leno. His plea was granted, and the monks set out, taking with them as a relic the arm of their holy Founder.