On a ‘very different’ St. Benedict for our time
by Andrew Taggart
Let us read the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s radiant book together:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (After Virtue 244-5)
MacIntyre’s After Virtue was first published in 1981. That was almost 30 years ago. And who is to say that MacIntyre then was not speaking to us now? Speaking to future men and women: to the bearers of grave misfortunes; to the children of untold sorrow; to the poets of disquietude with these strange times; to the visionaries, half-blinded, of new ways of life?
And what of St. Benedict’s time? Pope Benedict from a 2008 homily:
This perspective taken by the ‘biographer’ [St. Gregory the Great who wrote about the spiritual life of St. Benedict some 50 years after the latter's death] can also be explained in the general context of Pope Gregory’s time: on the cusp of the fifth and 6th centuries, the world was involved in a tremendous crisis of values and institutions caused by the fall of the Roman Empire, the invasion of new peoples and the decadence of customs.
And of St. Benedict–who was he? These fragments from a surprisingly beautiful Wikipedia entry:
Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, the modern Norcia, in Umbria. A tradition which Bede accepts makes him a twin with his sister Scholastica. St Gregory’s narrative makes it impossible to suppose him younger than 19 or 20. He was old enough to be in the midst of his literary studies, to understand the real meaning and worth of the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have been deeply affected himself by the love of a woman (Ibid. II, 2). He was capable of weighing all these things in comparison with the life taught in the Gospels, and chose the latter. He was at the beginning of life, and he had at his disposal the means to a career as a Roman noble; clearly he was not a child. If we accept the date 480 for his birth, we may fix the date of his abandonment of his studies and leaving home at about 500.
He took his old nurse with him as a servant and they settled down to live in Enfide, near a church to St Peter, in some kind of association with “a company of virtuous men” who were in sympathy with his feelings and his views of life.
The Wikipedia writer (oh, and who is she?) goes on in striking detail:
A short distance from Enfide is the entrance to a narrow, gloomy valley, penetrating the mountains and leading directly to Subiaco. Crossing the Aniene and turning to the right, the path rises along the left face off the ravine and soon reaches the site of Nero‘s villa and of the huge mole which formed the lower end of the middle lake; across the valley were ruins of the Roman baths, of which a few great arches and detached masses of wall still stand. Rising from the mole upon 25 low arches, the foundations of which can even yet be traced, was the bridge from the villa to the baths, under which the waters of the middle lake poured in a wide fall into the lake below. The ruins of these vast buildings and the wide sheet of falling water closed up the entrance of the valley to St Benedict as he came from Enfide; today the narrow valley lies open before us, closed only by the far-off mountains. The path continues to ascend, and the side of the ravine, on which it runs, becomes steeper, until we reach a cave above which the mountain now rises almost perpendicularly; while on the right, it strikes in a rapid descent down to where, in St Benedict’s day, 500 feet (150 m) below, lay the blue waters of the lake. The cave has a large triangular-shaped opening and is about ten feet deep.
On his way from Enfide, Benedict met a monk, Romanus of Subiaco, whose monastery was on the mountain above the cliff overhanging the cave. Romanus had discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco, and had given him the monk’s habit. By his advice Benedict became a hermit and for three years, unknown to men, lived in this cave above the lake.
For them he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of which he placed a superior with twelve monks. In a thirteenth he lived with a few, such as he thought would more profit and be better instructed by his own presence (ibid., 3). He remained, however, the father, or abbot, of all. With the establishment of these monasteries began the schools for children; and among the first to be brought were Saint Maurus and Saint Placidus.
And now, reader, do you recall the final line of MacIntyre’s book. Let me remind you. It was: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” We are waiting for a very different St. Benedict. This very different St. Benedict would conform to a life of virtue, would create communities devoted to practicing the virtues, would educate its young in the love of beauty and the greatness of goodness, would gaze upon industrial capitalism with elegiac eyes.
Read this again, ever again, first and last, morning and night: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”