Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of the Gift of Vision,
and How the Saint Read the Hearts of Men

Of all the supernatural gifts which God has given to His Saints, perhaps that of being able to read the hearts of others is the most common. Though the understanding love and sympathy that comes from self-forgetfulness has no doubt its part in the matter, it cannot quite explain the mystery. St. Benedict, like most founders of a religious Order, possessed this gift in a remarkable degree, and many instances of its exercise are made known to us by his contemporaries.

One day when some of his monks had been obliged, as occasionally happened, to go out on business, they were not able to return until a later hour than usual. It was the rule that the brethren should take no meals outside the monastery; but on this occasion, feeling hungry, they had gone to the house of a Christian woman who was known to them and asked for refreshment. Delighted to be able to do the monks a service, the good housewife set before them the best that she had, and, after having appeased their hunger, they went their way homewards. On returning to the monastery they were met by the Saint, who asked them where they had refreshed themselves. Fearful of a reproof, they declared that they had taken nothing; whereupon Benedict quietly told them where they had been and what they had eaten. Falling at his feet, they asked his pardon, which was instantly granted. "But act uprightly in the future," he added, "for even when absent from you in the flesh I am present in the spirit."

A certain man who used to come every year to Monte Cassino to see his brother, who was a monk, had made the resolution never to break his fast on the journey. Being tempted one day, however, he gave way, to be gently reproached on his arrival by Benedict, who knew exactly what had passed. On another occasion one of the monks who was preaching to the nuns in a neighbouring convent, accepted at their request a present of handkerchiefs for his own use. As, however, the Rule forbade the acceptance of gifts, he hid them in the bosom of his tunic and presently forgot all about them. On his return to the monastery he was sent for by the Abbot, who asked him why he had been unfaithful to his Rule.

"Take out of your bosom and cast away from you," he said, "what has been the occasion of your fall."

One evening when Benedict was partaking of his frugal evening meal, there stood beside him, according to the custom of the house, a young monk whose duty it was to hold the lamp and to serve at table. Now it happened that this particular monk, who was of noble birth, began to rebel in his heart against the menial office he was performing. "Who is this man," he asked himself indignantly, "who sits and eats, while I, who should by rights be waited on by others, attend him like a slave?" In silence he fulfilled the duties of his office, a tempest of pride and anger in his heart; but his thoughts were as clear to Benedict as if they had been uttered aloud. "Sign thy heart with the Cross, my brother," he said in a voice of stern rebuke, "sign thy heart with the Cross; what is it that thou art saying? Sign thy heart with the Cross." Then bidding the young server give the lamp to one of his brethren, he sent him away for an hour of silent prayer, during which the novice fought with and overcame his temptation. On being asked by the others what had occasioned the unusually stern rebuke, the culprit told them the whole story. "There is no thought of our hearts that is hidden from the knowledge of our Father," he said, "they are all as spoken words to him."

The bravest warrior among the Goths at this time was the famous Totila, their King. A brilliant soldier and tactician, he was not without nobility of nature, although as an Arian he had persecuted many monks and priests of the Catholic Church. One of his followers, named Galla, was especially bitter against the Catholics, and had sworn to take the life of every monk he met. One day, when on a plundering expedition, he seized a poor peasant and ordered him to give up his possessions. The man, who was really penniless, maintained that he had nothing; but on being put to the torture, declared that he had given all he possessed into the keeping of Benedict, the Abbot of Monte Cassino. Binding him securely, the savage barbarian drove him before him to the monastery, that he might demand of the Saint the money that had been entrusted to his charge. Benedict, who was reading in the doorway of his cell, did not move at their approach.

"Get up," roared the Goth, "and give me this man's money." The Saint, then, lifting his eyes from his book, fixed them on the peasant, who stood trembling with fear at the thought of the punishment he deserved for his deception. At the glance of those steadfast eyes, the bonds which held him snapped as if they had been cut with a knife, and fell at his feet. It was now the turn of the Goth to tremble; but Benedict, without rising from his seat, called to his monks and bade them take the astonished Galla to the refectory that he might partake of refreshment and receive the blessing due to a guest. Nor was the blessing without its effect, for before he left the monastery the savage barbarian knelt at the feet of the Saint, and, having confessed his faults and listened humbly to his instructions, promised to amend his ways. The change in his behaviour did not escape the notice of his companions, and the whole story having been repeated to Totila, the King conceived a great desire to see the man who could work such wonders.

He had no intention, however, of taking the Saint's miraculous powers for granted. Having sent a messenger to Benedict to inform him that the Gothic King would shortly pay him a visit, Totila determined to test his reported insight by sending another in his place. Dressing up his sword-bearer Riggo in his royal armour and purple mantle, he bade him ride up to the monastery and announce himself as the King. In order that the deception might be complete, he bade three of his noblest courtiers who usually attended him wherever he went, to ride at the head of the guard of honour that was to act as escort.

Up the steep mountain road, with much tramping of horses and jingling of arms, rode the gay cavalcade, creating perhaps some little flutter of excitement in the silent monastery.

Benedict stood at the door of his cell, looking out with quiet eyes at the approaching company. No word did he speak until the mock king was ready to dismount, when he addressed him in stern accents. "Put off, my son," he said, "that which thou wearest, for it is not thine own." The unfortunate Riggo, terrified at the Saint's detection of the fraud, fell flat on his face before him, an example which the rest of the troop thought well to imitate. When they at length arose, it was not to come forward, but to gallop back with all possible speed to Totila with the news of the detection. The Gothic King, much impressed with their story, determined this time to go in person. Desiring to behave with the respect due to a Saint, he dismounted at a little distance from the monastery, and prostrated himself humbly before Benedict, who was again reading at the door of his cell. The Saint called out to him to rise; but, seeing he did not do so, went himself to meet him, raised him up, and led him to the monastery. Finding the King in such good dispositions, he began to reprove him gently for the evil he had done, and exhorted him to lead a better life in the future, while Totila, who seemed deeply moved and not a little frightened, listened humbly to what he had to say.

Then the Saint uttered the prophecy that—was to come so strangely true in every particular. "Thou shalt enter Rome," he said; "thou shalt cross the sea; nine years shalt thou reign, and in the tenth thou shalt die." At these words the barbarian King was more terrified than ever, and, having begged the prayers of Benedict, departed.

It was remarked of Totila that he was a changed man after the interview, and many beautiful tales are told of kindness shown to captives and mercy shown to enemies during the last ten years of his reign. Within the year, he defeated the forces of Justinian and became lord of Rome. In the tenth year after his interview with the Saint, he crossed to Sicily, and a few weeks later, in a battle with Narses, the general of the Emperor, lost both his life and his kingdom. It was the final defeat of the great Ostrogothic race, which as a nation disappears from history. Italy under Narses became an exarchate of the Empire of the East, and was governed by Byzantine law.

On several occasions St. Benedict foretold the things that were to happen after his death. He was talking one day with the Bishop of Canosa about the entrance of Totila into Rome. "The city will be so destroyed," lamented the Bishop," that it will be no more inhabitable." "Not so," answered the Saint; "it is not by the hand of the barbarians that Rome shall be ruined, but by tempests, lightnings, whirlwinds, and earthquakes," "which things," says St. Gregory the Great, writing some fifty years later, "we ourselves have seen."

On another occasion a monk of Monte Cassino called Theoprobus, chosen by the Saint on account of his holy life to be his familiar friend and confidant, entering the cell of the Abbot, found him weeping bitterly. Theoprobus having asked the cause of his tears, Benedict replied with many lamentations, "with care and labour have I built this monastery, and striven to make its inmates true servants of God, and now, behold God has made known to me that after my death it will fall into' the hands of the infidels; only by my prayers and supplications have I succeeded in obtaining that the lives of the brethren should be spared." St. Gregory again bears witness to the truth of the prophecy, for, during his lifetime, the monastery of Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards, who entered it during the night while the monks were asleep. Yet, though they destroyed everything on which they could lay their hands, not one of the brethren perished. Protected by the prayers of the Saint, they fled from their mountain retreat and found shelter in the city of Rome. It was here that St. Gregory the Great learnt from the monks who had been the intimate companions of the Saint, the story of his life and miracles, and, reading his Rule, was so entranced by its wisdom that he himself embraced it.