Life of St. Benedict - F. A. Forbes

Of Benedict the Youth,
and How He Went Forth from His Father's House

In the heart of the Umbrian Apennines, quiet and secluded in the midst of its mountain solitude, lies the little city of Norcia, known to the Romans as Nursia. Here, towards the end of the fifth century, lived Euproprius and his wife Abundantia, wealthy and noble Romans, who, besides their country house at Nursia, possessed a handsome palace in Rome. They were probably the most important people in the place, and there would be general rejoicing when it became known that Abundantia had given birth to twin children, a boy and a girl.

Eupropius and his wife were Christians, and the babies, having been duly baptized by the names of Benedict and Scholastica, were brought up by their devoted nurse Cyrilla, who loved them as the apple of her eye. The nurse was an important person in a Roman household, being usually adopted into the family, and continuing to share in the joys and sorrows of her nurslings long after they had ceased to require her care.

Cyrilla was a fervent Christian, and it would seem to have been to her rather than to his parents that the little Benedict confided his childish aspirations as he grew from babyhood to boyhood amongst the mountain peaks of Umbria. Twenty miles distant, on the great Flaminian Way, lay the city of Spoleto, a busy centre of life in the Roman world, where the child may have seen and wondered at the barbarian splendour of the soldiers of Odoacer. He would have heard, too, of the wise and tolerant rule exercised by the King from his court at Ravenna, and how, though himself a Goth and an Arian, he respected the Roman laws and the Catholic faith. He would have listened with all a boy's love of adventure to the tales of Odoacer's early life, and how, as a young and penniless soldier of fortune, he had gone to ask the blessing of the holy St. Severinus, whom he found praying in a cell so low, that the tall young Goth could not stand upright in it.

"Go on your way, my son," the old man had said; "you are poor now, but you shall be rich and glorious in the time to come." And when he had attained his greatness Odoacer had remembered the Saint's words, and had sent to him saying, "Ask what boon you will, and I will grant it you." And the answer had surprised the King, who had expected a request for gold or lands.

"I know a poor exile," replied the holy man, "who is eating his heart out for love of his native land. Forgive him and let him come home."

But Eupropius and his wife were anxious about their son's education, and the time came when he must leave the breezy home of his childhood and live and study in Rome. Benedict was happier among the mountain peaks of the Apennines, where everything seemed to speak to his young soul of God. For in Rome, although it had been watered with the blood of the martyrs, the spirit of martyrdom had died out; and many of the Christians, living as they did in daily contact with the vices of paganism, had learnt to think of nothing but their own comfort and pleasure.

Benedict was nine years old when the news came to Rome that Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, had descended into Italy at the head of a migrating people. The army which Odoacer led to meet him was defeated on the Isonzo, and more disastrously still at Verona. This time the defeat became a rout, and the King fled to Ravenna, which he only surrendered to Theodoric after a three years' siege, perishing shortly afterwards at the hands of the Ostrogothic King, who in his turn became ruler of Italy.

He was no rough soldier of fortune, this gallant young Theodoric, whose charge in battle was "as a swollen river through the harvest-field, and as a lion through the herd." Hereditary King of the Ostrogoths, and born of the noble race of the Amals, he had been brought up as a hostage at the court of Constantinople, where he had learnt to esteem what was best in Roman civilization, whilst hating its vices. He was an Arian like most of the Goths; for Ulfilas, their apostle and Bishop, had made the mistake of studying his Christianity in Constantinople from Arian teachers, and in the best of good faith had taught heresy to his pagan converts. But Theodoric, like Odoacer, was tolerant to the Catholics, and knew how to appreciate sanctity. It was to the care of St. Epiphanius, the holy Bishop of Pavia, that he confided his mother, wife and sister after the battle of Verona; and it was again at the intercession of St. Epiphanius that he remitted an edict that fell hardly on the followers of Odoacer. He ruled well and wisely, and for thirty-seven years Italy had peace.

The boy Benedict would have heard of the horrors of the three years' siege of Ravenna; and Roman though he was, his heart may have thrilled at the tales of the valour of Theodoric. He may even have seen the King when he came to Rome, and heard how, in spite of his Arianism, he had knelt devoutly at the shrine of St. Peter. As Benedict grew into early manhood, the sins of the city lay like a weight upon his heart. Who could keep himself pure amidst such corruption, was the question he asked himself daily, and what would it profit him to have all that the world could give if the price of it was to be the loss of his own soul? His parents, it would seem, wished him to excel in his studies, to shine in that Roman society to which they belonged. The world with all its attractions was at his feet; he was free to enjoy it. His young companions had already begun to do so, flinging themselves into its shameful pleasures with all the ardour of their youthful natures. But was such a life as this to be the end of Benedict's fair ideals, his aspirations after God?

His parents would probably have had small sympathy with such thoughts. There was no one to whom he could turn but Cyrilla, and that sweet twin sister whose soul had always been like a reflection of his own. But Scholastica was a girl, and the problem was not so urgent for her as for her brother. He may not even have dared to tell her of his project, lest her tears should weaken his resolve. For he had determined to turn his back upon that brilliant and shallow Roman world, where it was so hard to live for God, and which, when all was said and done, was but "a husk of pleasure round a heart of sorrow."

To Cyrilla alone could he open his heart, and she was worthy of his trust. Yet he could not go alone, she urged, he who was so gently born and bred, who had been surrounded all his life by her tender love and care. She must go with him; she would be no hindrance to his aspirations; she would help him in all that he undertook. It was a grievous wrench to Benedict to tear himself away from all the ties of home; it was hard to refuse her request. In all his childish joys and sorrows he had turned for sympathy to that true and understanding heart, and she had never failed him.

So, in the darkness of the night, or in the hush of early morning, the two went forth together—Benedict the youth and the faithful woman who had nursed him in his childhood, and whose only plea was that she might serve him until death. Thus did Benedict refuse what the world could give him, lest in accepting he might lose his soul.

It was towards the Simbruini Mountains that he set his face, remembering, perhaps, the mountain peaks of his childhood's home in Umbria, and how they spoke to him of God. Along the Via Nomentana, hallowed by the footsteps of countless martyrs, passed the two wayfarers; past the church of St. Agnes, built by Constantine in the fourth century; to where the willow-fringed River Anio flows under the bridge over which Nero rode, when fleeing to his shameful death.

Having reached a place called Enfide, about two miles from Subiaco, they accepted the hospitality offered them by some kind Christians, who invited them to rest awhile before going further. Cyrilla, eager to prepare some refreshment for her companion, borrowed from the good neighbours the implements she needed, amongst them an earthenware sieve. Great was her distress when she found that the borrowed vessel, placed perilously near the edge of the table, had fallen and was broken in two. Her tears and lamentations touched the heart of Benedict, who, taking the broken pieces in his hands, knelt down and began to pray. His prayer ended, he found that the sieve was whole and entire, with no sign of the breakage, whereupon with comforting words he restored it to his nurse. Cyrilla made no secret of the marvel, and the people of the place, rejoicing that God had sent a Saint to dwell among them, came in crowds to visit him.

St. Benedict


But it was not for this that Benedict had left his home. He had torn himself, as he thought, from the world and all that it could offer him; but love had followed him, and honour was laying snares for his feet. A long and weary fight lay before him if he was to conquer his own spirit, and it was a battle that must be waged alone, in solitude and silence. The grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die before it could bring forth the harvest that was to stay the world's hunger. For the souls of men, whether they know it or not, are always hungry for God, and the husks of the swine are but a sorry nourishment. Turning his back, therefore, on Cyrilla and the simple folk who were already prepared to venerate him as a Saint, Benedict set out alone for the desert. The first stage of the combat was at an end.