Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of Maurus and Placid,
and How Benedict Founded Twelve Monasteries

It was not to the old hermit life at Subiaco that St. Benedict had returned, his fame had spread too far abroad for that. There were other monks in the valley besides those of Varia, men of a different stamp, seeking God in the simplicity of their hearts, but living under no particular rule, and with no definite aim in their religious life. For such men as these, when they came to put themselves under his guidance, Benedict had no refusal. There were others, too, rough barbarians and simple dwellers in the valley, who, desiring to give themselves to God, were seeking for one to lead them in His ways.

All these, like fatherless children, came thronging to Benedict, and thus was formed the nucleus of the Order that was to regenerate the world.

House after house was built, as the need arose for further accommodation, until there were twelve small monasteries under the Saint's direction. At the head of each of them was a Prior or Abbot of his own choosing, who could have recourse to him in every difficulty. Benedict himself lived at the monastery of St. Clement's with a few chosen monks who were to be the living embodiment of his ideals, and to whose spiritual formation he devoted himself unceasingly. Over this large family he ruled well and wisely, a living example to his monks of what their lives should be, and gaining the experience of men and matters that was to find expression later in the Rule of his Order.

So did the wilderness begin to blossom as the rose, and, as the fame of the monks of Subiaco began to spread abroad, men came from all parts of Italy to see the man who had done such wonders. The memory of the boy of noble name and nature who had fled from Rome to dedicate himself to God in the desert had not died out in the old capital, and many Romans went to Subiaco to see Benedict and ask his advice. Among them came a nobleman named Tertullus, who held the dignity of patrician, and belonged probably to the same family as the Saint. He was married to a good and fervent Christian like himself, and had four children whom he brought up in the love of God and charity to the poor. Arriving at Subiaco, clad in the magnificent robes of his office, his first action was to kneel down humbly at Benedict's feet, earnestly begging him to ask God to pardon him his sins. A warm friendship soon sprang up between these kindred souls, and before Tertullus left Subiaco he had obtained a promise from Benedict to accept and bring up in the ways of God his eldest son Placid, then seven years old.

Another young disciple was also offered to the Saint by Equitius, a Roman senator, in the person of his son Maurus, a youth of riper years, remarkable already for his wisdom and purity of heart, and destined to be Benedict's greatest helper in the work which lay before him. To him Benedict revealed his hopes and his ideals the foundation of an Order which was to adapt monasticism to the Western world, and to bring the barbarian nations within the fold of the Church.

The first thing that he taught to this dearest of his sons was the value of prayer, and the efforts of the Evil One to hinder it. To this end he took him one day to one of the monasteries, where lived a monk who was in the habit of leaving the chapel during the time set apart for prayer, to wander about the house and occupy himself with other matters. His Superior had complained of this to the Saint, who rebuked the man severely. For a short time things went better; but ere long Benedict heard that the culprit had fallen back again into his old ways. "We will look into this," he said, and, taking Maurus with him, went to the monastery, where they knelt together in the chapel.

The brethren were assembled at prayer, and it was not long before the Saint beheld a mysterious black figure pulling at the monk's habit, who, in the end, succeeded in dragging him out of the oratory.

"Do you see who leads him?" asked Benedict of Maurus and of the Abbot, who was beside him.

"No," they answered.

"Pray then," said the Saint, "that your eyes may be opened, and pray earnestly." Two days later Maurus, kneeling in the same place in prayer, saw in his turn the vision vouchsafed him at Benedict's petition, that he might learn how hateful to the Evil One is the regular monastic prayer, and how strong are his temptations against it. "Take this rod and strike the monk," said Benedict, giving Maurus his staff, and at the first touch of it the enemy departed.

Nor was the little Placid without a like training; he, too, was to learn in a miraculous manner the power of prayer.

Three of St. Benedict's twelve monasteries were built on the rocky mountain side, and the monks had to fetch their water from the lake in the valley. Their lives were spent in climbing up and down the rocks. They complained one day to Benedict, that the work was beyond their strength. "Build us monasteries further down, O Father," they begged; but Benedict, while comforting them with the gentle sympathy that made him so beloved, returned no answer.

That night, when all were sleeping, he arose, roused the little Placid, and, taking him by the hand, led him to the crest of the rock on which the monasteries were built. "Let us pray," he said, and they knelt together.

The stars shone down on the wild mountain summit; the silence of the blue Italian night enfolded them the man kneeling motionless and rapt in prayer, and the little child, with angelic face turned heavenwards, nestling at his side. At last the Saint arose, and laying three stones one upon the other, took his small disciple by the hand and returned to the monastery.

The next day the monks complained again.

"Go to the top of the mountain," replied Benedict, "and in the place where you shall find three stones laid together, pierce the rock. Cannot God Almighty by His power give you water from the top of the mountain and relieve you of your weary toil?" No sooner had the rock been pierced than an abundant stream of water gushed out, sufficient for all the needs of the brethren.

Not only those of noble birth but men of all conditions were, as we have seen, received in the monasteries of Subiaco. When the barbarians, those terrible conquerors of his country, rough, poor, and ignorant, came to St. Benedict, they were welcomed as warmly as the wealthy and refined. Thus it happened that a poor Goth, coming one day and begging to be clothed in the habit of a monk, was received with joy by the Saint, who, giving him an axe, set him to clear away the thorns and briers from a piece of land beside the lake.

The muscular Goth put his heart into the work, and hacked away with such goodwill that the head of the axe flew off and was lost in the water.

Horrified at what he had done, the poor barbarian ran up to the monastery, and falling at the feet of the first person he met, who happened to be Maurus, confessed his fault with many tears. His distress was reported to Benedict, who spoke to him kindly and went with him down to the lake. Taking the handle of the axe from the poor novice, he held it out over the water; when, to the awe and astonishment of the Goth, the head rose from the bottom of the lake and fastened itself in its place. "Go now, my son," said Benedict, "and work, and be sad no longer, for when monks work hard, tools are often spoilt or broken."

God had already begun to reveal to St. Benedict, as He was so often to do in later years, the danger that threatened those whom he loved. One day the little Placid, having gone down to the lake to draw water, over-balanced himself and fell in.

"Brother Maurus," cried Benedict, "run quickly to the lake and help the child, who is in danger of being drowned."

Kneeling hastily for his Father's blessing, Maurus ran down the mountain side, to find that the current had carried Placid far out of his depth. Thinking only of obeying the command he had received, the young monk ran out and seized the child by the hair, not perceiving until they were both on dry land that he had been walking on the water.

Trembling he went to tell the Saint of the wonder.

"The miracle was wrought by your obedience," said Benedict.

"Nay, Father, but by your command and through your prayers," was the answer. But the little Placid, who was listening, decided the question. "when I was being carried away," he said, I saw the cowl of my Father the Abbot over my head, and this it was that drew me out of the water."

Amongst the monks of Subiaco there was holiness and peace; but God has decreed that His followers must suffer persecution. Near to the monastery of St. Clement there lived a priest called Florentius, who was devoured with bitterness and jealousy at the sight of its prosperity. He was a bad man, and covetous of the presents which were offered to Benedict, as well as of his reputation for holiness. Florentius himself had tried to pose as a Saint, hoping for the same results, but nothing had come of it; his worldly and self-indulgent life was known to all, and the pretence was seen through at once. If the real Saint could be got rid of, he thought to himself, he might have a better chance; so, poisoning a small loaf, he sent it to Benedict as a friendly token of peace and charity.

The Abbot received the present courteously, but, as had happened once before, he was made aware of the danger. Calling a crow who came to feed every day from his hand

for all the wild creatures of the forest were his friends he bade it take the loaf in its beak and hide it where no one could find it. A few hours later, the bird, having executed his command, came back to receive its share of Benedict's frugal meal; but the Saint was sad at heart, thinking of Florentius's sin.

Disappointed in his attempt on Benedict's life, the unworthy priest conceived an infamous plan against the souls of the young monks under his care, sending women of evil life into the monastery garden to entice them from their work and prayers.

That his beloved sons should suffer danger on his account was more than Benedict could bear. Realizing that he and he alone was the cause of this bitter persecution, he determined to leave Subiaco and seek a dwelling-place elsewhere. The hatred of Florentius, although it probably hastened his departure, was not his only motive. Assembling the brethren together, he made known to them that Christ had commanded him to go to' Monte Cassino, to destroy there the worship of idols.

"Since this is so," continued the Saint, "I must obey and depart. You then remain here and stand firm in the grace and the holy life of religion, knowing that as you remain steadfast in this world, so shall it be with you in the world to come." Then, having set all things in order, and taking with him a few monks, among whom were his dear disciples Maurus and Placid, he set out for Monte Cassino.

Now the news that he had succeeded at last in driving out the Saint reached the ears of Florentius, who, exulting greatly, climbed to the balcony of his house to watch the little procession departing. But his triumph was short-lived, for, even as he stood there rejoicing, the balcony gave way, and the wicked priest was buried in its ruins.

It was not long before the monks of St. Clement's heard what had happened, and one of them, running with all haste after their departing Abbot, succeeded in overtaking the little company, ten miles away from Subiaco.

"Come back, O Father," he cried joyfully, "for the priest thine enemy is dead!"

But Benedict, severely rebuking him for his joy, continued on his way, lamenting bitterly the evil death of Florentius.