Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Prayer of Saint Benedict,
and of the Holy Virgin Scholastica

St. Benedict was getting old. Every day brought him a little nearer to that heavenly country for which his soul had always yearned. To him death was but the entrance to a larger life, the messenger of eternal freedom, for he who lives for God has Paradise already in his soul.

Since the day when as a young man he had gone forth from his father's house, Benedict's life, like that of St. Paul, had been a dying daily. He rigidly subjugated his body," says Faustus, a monk of Monte Cassino, "by fasting, abstinence, watching, and exposure to cold. We have often seen him during Lent without tunic or hood, clothed in sackcloth, and only twice in the week tasting, rather than eating, a crust of bread." The greater part of his life was spent in prayer, and the walls of that upper room in the tower, which he had made his oratory, might have told strange tales of the heavenly visions vouchsafed to him. It was whispered among the brethren that he came forth from these long communings with God surrounded by a strange, unearthly light, the faint reflection of the radiance which was within.

The night was his favourite time for prayer; its silence had always drawn his soul to God; the starlit sky spoke to him of eternity. The very mountain peaks, soaring into the mysterious darkness, seemed to be feeling for that heaven which was so far and yet so near. It was during the still night hours that he had led the little Placid up the steep hillside to teach him the power of prayer; and it was in the night, when praying at the open window of his oratory, that he saw the most wonderful vision of his life. There was a certain deacon named Servandus, Abbot of a neighbouring monastery, who frequently came to Monte Cassino to visit Benedict, and to speak with him of the things of God. He, too, was a man of prayer, and the two saintly souls would talk for hours together of that heavenly country which their hearts desired.

One night when Servandus was sleeping in the lower room of the tower, St. Benedict, who was in the upper room, arose, and went, as was his wont, to pray at the open window. As he stood lost in contemplation, looking out into the night, the darkness was suddenly cloven by a brilliant ray of light in which it seemed to him that the whole world was made visible to his eyes, and as he continued to gaze steadfastly upon the heavenly radiance, he beheld the soul of Germanus, Bishop of Capua, borne upwards by angels in a globe of fire to heaven.

The Saint called loudly to his friend to come and witness the marvel, but by the time Servandus had reached the window only the few last rays of the light were to be discerned. Benedict, having related to him what he had seen, called the monk Theoprobus and bade him send at once to Capua to ask what had befallen the Bishop. The messenger returned with the news of Germanus' death, which had taken place at the very moment when the Saint had seen the vision.

In the valley below the mountain stood the convent of Piumarola, over which Scholastica, the beloved twin sister of St. Benedict, ruled as Abbess. The convent was under Benedict's direction and followed his Rule, but the intercourse between the Abbess and the Saint seems to have been mostly carried on by letters or through messengers. Only once a year did the brother and sister meet, and this was on the mountain side in a house belonging to the monastery and within its gates.

The time had come round for this yearly conference, and the Saint, accompanied by a few of his disciples, came down to the place of meeting, where Scholastica was already awaiting him. The hours passed quickly as they sat together talking of God and of Eternity, and to Scholastica the day seemed all too short. They supped together, and, as the time drew near when Benedict was wont to return to his monastery, his sister, who seems to have a strange intuition that they would see each other no more on earth, besought him earnestly not to leave her, but to pass the night with her in conversation.

"Do not leave me, I entreat of thee," she begged; "let us remain here until the morning that we may speak together of the heavenly life."

"What dost thou ask of me, my sister?" replied Benedict; "it is impossible for me to pass the night outside of my monastery."

Scholastica made no answer, but, folding her hands upon the table, she bowed her head in silent prayer.

The night was clear, and not a cloud was to be seen; but as she prayed the sky grew dark; torrents of rain began to fall; the thunder growled; the lightning flashed; a terrible storm arose. Benedict went to the door and looked out, but it was impossible to leave the house in such a tempest.

Scholastica raised her head and looked at him. "May Almighty God have pity on thee, my sister," he said; "what hast thou done?" "My brother," was the answer, "I entreated thee and thou wouldst not hear; I had recourse to my Lord, and He has had compassion on me and has heard my prayer. Go forth now if thou canst; leave me alone and return to thy monastery." There was nothing to be done but to bow to the Will of God. Benedict sat down, therefore, and conversed with Scholastica until her soul was satisfied.

Of what did they speak in that last nocturnal interview? Was it of their childhood's home in Nursia, of their first thoughts of God, of their desire to belong to Him, and of how that desire had been granted? We do not know. But when the morning light broke over the mountain top, and the storm had spent itself, the two Saints parted, Benedict to return to his monastery on the height, Scholastica to her convent in the valley. Nevermore were they destined to speak together on the mountain side. But the parting was not to be for long; within a few weeks they were to meet in that heavenly city which their souls had desired so ardently, and where partings are no more.

A few weeks later, as Benedict stood at the window of his cell praying, he saw the soul of his sister, under the form of a snow-white dove, winging its way to heaven. So greatly did he rejoice in her happiness, that, forgetful of his own sorrow, he poured out his heart in thanksgiving to God. Then, calling together the brethren, and making known to them that Scholastica was dead, he bade them go to Piumarola and take possession of the holy body, that it might rest in the tomb that he had already prepared for himself in the oratory of St. John the Baptist on the mountain top. Thus, as St. Gregory tells us, those who had been one in heart and soul on earth were not separated in death.

The place where Benedict and Scholastica had held their last meeting became hence-forward a place of pilgrimage. A little oratory was built there and dedicated to St. Scholastica. The remains of it are yet to be seen, although in the sixteenth century, having fallen into ruins, it was replaced by a larger church.

The monastery of Piumarola, of which the Saint had been Abbess, was destroyed at the same time as that of Monte Cassino, by the Lombard duke, Zoto of Beneventum. The Lombards, the last barbarian invaders of Italy, were a people partly Arian, partly pagan, and wholly cruel. They owed their conversion to the Catholic faith to their Queen Theodelinda, a woman as noble in nature as she was beautiful in face. On the death of King Anthari, her first husband, the Lombards, realizing the worth of the young widow, determined that she should remain their Queen, and that the man whom she should choose for her second husband should wear the royal crown. Theodelinda married Agilulf, Duke of Turin, a brave soldier who proved himself to be also a capable ruler. A fervent Catholic herself, her influence over her Arian husband was such that he became a staunch adherent of the Church, and through the good offices of St. Gregory the Great, and the entreaties of his wife, made peace with the Emperor Maurice. The son that was born to Theodelinda was publicly baptized by a Catholic prelate, a thing hitherto forbidden by the Lombard laws. In the beautiful basilica of Monza, built by the King and Queen, the famous iron crown of Lombardy, sent to Theodelinda and her husband by the Pope, in recognition of their services to religion, is preserved to the present day.

At the time of the first Lombard invasion, when the monasteries of Monte Cassino and Piumarola were destroyed, the nuns, like many of the monks, fled to Rome, where they were housed and supported by St. Gregory. It was to the prayers, tears, and fastings of these holy women, he declared, that the city owed its deliverance, when besieged by the Lombard army.

Piumarola was not the only Benedictine convent in Italy. Justina, one of the spiritual daughters of St. Scholastica, was Abbess of another religious house near Old Capua, the episcopal city of St. Germanus, whose soul St. Benedict had seen carried to heaven by the angels.

When the monastery of Monte Cassino was again restored, Piumarola was rebuilt under circumstances less strange in the eighth century than they appear to us in the twentieth. Ratchis, King of the Lombards, having resolved to exchange an earthly crown for a heavenly, renounced his kingdom and, presenting himself in Rome before Pope Zachary, asked to be clothed in the Benedictine habit.

With his own hands the Pope cut off the long hair worn as a sign of royalty by the Lombard Kings, gave him the tonsure, and vested him in the tunic and cowl of a monk. Ratchis retired to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where he lived until his death. His wife Tassia, who with her daughter Ratruda also desired to embrace the religious life, having rebuilt the convent of the holy virgin St. Scholastica, took the veil and spent the rest of her life within its walls.

In later years the convents of Benedictine nuns increased almost as rapidly as those of the monks. When St. Boniface founded the monastery of Fulda in Germany, having sent to Monte Cassino certain monks to bring back an exact account of the customs observed there, he also made enquiries as to the life of the nuns of Piumarola. Shortly afterwards he founded a convent for women and invited St. Lioba, a cousin of his own, to come over from her English nunnery at Wimborne to take the direction of it. The convent was built at Bischofsheim, where St. Lioba the Abbess became as famous for her great learning as for her holiness.

When St. Lioba left England she was accompanied by St. Walburga, the sister of St. Willibald and St. Winibald. When the latter founded a double monastery in his diocese, he made St. Walburga Abbess of the nuns, while he himself undertook the government of the monastery.