Monks down through the ages have called Saint Benedict their father: Holy Father Benedict. There is in this custom a sweetness and comfort that comes from affirming, beyond any doubt, that we are children of Benedict, the vir Dei, the man of God. We are related to Saint Benedict as to a father who acknowledges us as sons and desires, more than anything else, that we should follow Christ “to glory” (RB Pro:7). Saint Benedict’s fatherhood over us is a gift of the Holy Ghost, a gift not only for a limited space, a single lifetime, and a small number of disciples, but one that, in the Communion of the Saints, is for all places, all times, and all the men and women called, in one way or another, to follow the Holy Rule. Such relationships are entirely possible in the Mystical Body of Christ. The saints, all the saints, are close to us, attentive to our needs, full of compassion for our weaknesses, and ever ready to help us. Saint Benedict enjoins his monks to “love their Abbot with sincere and humble charity” (RB 72:9). This very admonition invites us to love Saint Benedict himself sincerely and humbly. Nothing is more profitable to a son of Saint Benedict than to cultivate a filial relationship with him. When we call Saint Benedict our Holy Father, we are not giving mere lip service to a formula of conventional piety; we are expressing a mysterious and abiding reality. Saint Benedict cares for each of us with the solicitude of a spiritual father. Even in heaven, he “bears in mind what he is and what he is called” (RB 2:30-31). From his place in glory, ”he adapts and fits himself to all, so that not only will he not lose any of the flock entrusted to him, but he will rejoice as his good flock increases” (RB 2:32).
When we look to our Father Saint Benedict, what do we see? We see a man “learned in the divine law, a chaste man, temperate and merciful, one who always prefers mercy to judgment because he himself has obtained mercy, one who, while hating sin, loves us in our weaknesses” (cf. RB 64:9-11). Saint Benedict will not do less for us from heaven than he did for his disciples while on earth. The fatherhood of Saint Benedict is effectively extended to all who, having enrolled in his “school of the Lord’s service” (RB Pro:45) place themselves under his protection.
Those who do not seek the compassionate intercession of Holy Father Benedict deprive themselves of a particular comfort and help that, in God’s mysterious plan, is held in reserve for his spiritual offspring. Even today, Saint Benedict “shows his concern for us, and makes speed to employ his skill and energy, lest he lose one of the sheep entrusted to him” (RB 27:5). Saint Benedict has not forgotten in heaven what he taught on earth: that an abbot undertakes “the care of sick souls, not a despotic rule over healthy ones” (RB 27:6). He continues in heaven to search “for the sheep gone astray” (RB 27:8), and he has such pity for its weakness that he is ready to carry it back to the flock on his own shoulders.
It is, I think, as important for us to read and re-read Saint Gregory’s Life of our holy father Saint Benedict as it is for us to read and re-read his Rule. It is a story that we need to hear together again and again. Holy Father Benedict’s Life sheds light on the Rule, and the Rule helps us better understand his Life.
Saint Gregory shows us a young man, blessed by grace and by name, disillusioned by the empty pursuits he saw all around him, and moved by the Holy Ghost to seek the habit of monastic conversion. The young Benedict goes to live alone in the savage beauty of Subiaco, far from the turmoil of Rome. Saint Benedict of the Sacro Speco, the sacred grotto of Subiaco, is the model of all who, by choice or circumstances, live alone. His solitude was by no means absolute; he welcomed the rustic shepherds of the locality and, by his teaching, restored their human dignity. Saint Gregory says that many, having known Benedict, passed from a life that was beastly to the life of grace. Offering a spiritual hospitality, the solitary Benedict refreshed all who sought him out with nourishment drawn from his heart.
Saint Benedict was tempted in his solitude. He was no stranger to struggles of the mind, heart, and flesh. This makes him close to us. The devil seeks, by means of temptations, to throw us into the pit of bitterness, dejection, despair. God, for his part, permits temptation, because temptation makes the saints compassionate, humble, and wise. The seeds of Holy Father Benedict’s humility, compassion, and wisdom were planted in the temptations he endured at Subiaco.
The second period of Saint Benedict’s life is characterized by his foundations at Subiaco. These monasteries were outposts of the Kingdom of God in the wilderness. Their very existence threatened the kingdom of darkness. Miracles illustrating the all-powerful grace of Christ, and disasters revealing the rage of the enemy, abounded. Through it all, Saint Benedict, “full of the Spirit of all the just” (Life VIII), remained peaceful, confident in the mercy of God, and unshakeable in prayer. It was at Subiaco that he began to wield masterfully the tools of the spiritual craft that he passed on to us in Chapter IV of the Rule: “Not to give way to anger. Not to abandon charity. To rest one’s hope in God. To fall often to prayer. To love chastity. Not to cherish bitterness, And never to despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4: 22, 26, 41, 56, 64, 66, 74). Listening carefully to circumstances, and seeing the will of God in events, Saint Benedict recognised that the hour had come for him to depart from Subiaco. He obeyed a call to uproot himself and his monks. He moved on.
While requiring stability of his monks, Holy Father Benedict was remarkably supple, ever ready to follow the providential leadings of the Holy Ghost. This is one of the paradoxes of Benedictine life: the vow of stability interfacing with that of conversatio morum. By the one, we commit ourselves to persevere in a given context, to put down roots, and endure in spiritual combat; by the other, we commit ourselves to change, always to begin afresh, and to heed the promptings of the Holy Ghost. These are not conflicting vows, but complementary ones. Stability without conversion is a kind of spiritual fossilization. Change without stability is superficial and sterile. Saint Benedict can help us, will help us, to integrate stability into change, change into stability, always in obedience to the Holy Ghost speaking to us through the wisdom of the Rule and in the counsel of the Abbot.
The third period of Saint Benedict’s life took place on the heights of Monte Cassino. There, he reached a fullness of maturity in Christ that was revealed when, lifted out of himself, he saw the entire world gathered into a single ray of light before his eyes (cf. Life XXXV). This signifies, of course, that Saint Benedict had come to see all things as God sees them; he had passed into the light of God while yet in the shadows of this world. Saint Benedict died standing, surrounded by his disciples, with his hand raised to heaven in the gesture of the “Suscipe,” becoming in that hour an icon of the Crucified Jesus in the mystery of his Passover to the Father. Benedictine life is, in the end, a mysterious and life-long configuration to the obedient, humble, and silent Christ, a ceaseless passage out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of time into eternity. “Yearn for eternal life,” he says, “with all possible spiritual desire” (RB 4:46).
Our Holy Father Benedict is present to us today in the Divine Office and in this Holy Mass. He is attentive to each of us in the struggles and questions that invite us to turn, again and again, from the darkness to live facing the “deifying Light” (RB Pro:9). And should this be too difficult, it is enough that we should have the desire of the Light. Every good work begins in holy desire and in humble prayer to God, a prayer of few words and of “repentance with tears” (RB 20:4). He who inspires the desire for continual conversion is alone capable of bringing that desire to completion. It is enough to bring our desire to God in prayer and to leave it with Him.
Seek the prayer of Holy Father Benedict today. Claim his fatherhood over you. Ask him to intervene in all the “hard and repugnant things” (RB 63:8) by which we go to God. Saint Gregory says at the end of his Life of Saint Benedict that “even today, when the faith of the faithful asks for it, he works miracles” (Life XXXVIII). I believe that: he works miracles. And I am confident that Holy Father Benedict will not forsake us in our needs. Let us then offer the Holy Sacrifice in his company, rejoicing that we have been given so humble, so compassionate, so wise a father in God, and desiring nothing so much as to pass over with him, already here and now, into the everlasting Opus Dei of heaven where the praise of all the saints is perfect and without end.