Saint Benedict from Norcia

“Ausculta, o fili, praecepta Magistri et inclina aurem cordis tui…” “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20). Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labour of obedi-ence…”.

Such solemn words are part of the Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is an immortal monument to the holy founder of the Order while it summarises his life and his teaching. Benedict was born in Nursia (today’s Norcia) around 480, as son of a family of minor nobility. At the age of about 18-20, he was sent by his father to Rome to study and take up a career in politics, as it was the use in those days. It was a period of sheer violence. A fierce war was going on be-tween the Goths, settled in Italy under Theodoric, and the Byzan-tines led by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who aimed at winning back the Western Roman-Barbarian Kingdoms. The war was a catastrophe that devastated the Italian Peninsula and destroyed what little remained of cities and countryside after the Barbaric Invasions that had succeeded each other since the Third Century A.D. The population starved to death, as the crops were unceasingly plundered by the marauding troops. Benedict is not at ease in Rome, neither with the bombastic stud-ies of rhetoric, nor with the violent riots taking place in the streets. He increasingly gets aware of a deep and irreconcilable conflict be-tween the precariousness of every human gesture and the immen-sity of the Eternal. Sick of it all, he leaves Rome and seeks refuge at Affile, a small vil-lage in the Sabine Hills. Still not satisfied, he secretly shifts away looking for a lone and deserted place, far away from men.

He needs to question himself, to understand what his destiny is. He takes shelter in a cave in Subiaco, where he leads a simple life, pelt-clad, eating exclusively herbs and roots, except for a piece of bread, offered now and then by a monk who lived in a monastery nearby. The good man would lower the food down a steep cliff us-ing a rope with a little bell tied to it, so that the hermit could get aware of its coming down. This sober and hard life ended one day, when a priest paid an un-expected visit to Benedict. The priest had long sought for him, driven by a divine inspiration. It was Easter Day, and the two reli-gious men celebrated Christ’s Resurrection sharing a frugal meal in peaceful joy. This simple episode changed Benedict’s life forever. He wouldn’t have spent his days in fruitless asceticism anymore, almost annihi-lating his human dimension through loneliness and suffering, on the contrary he would have searched for communion with his neighbours through the teaching of faith and love. A proposal from a nearby monastery apparently showed Benedict the right path to follow: the monks requested him to become their abbot. Yet, the undisciplined and corrupt monks soon regretted their decision, because Benedict was a natural leader made for be-ing in charge, not for suffering the negotiation of compromises. Thus, they tried to murder him: a monk offered him a cup of poi-soned wine, but the cup cracked in the traitor’s hands. Benedict realises that he is not in the right place. Thus, after another unsuc-cessful attempt to kill him, triggered by a priest’s envy for his flour-ishing missionary work, Benedict moved away with some monks and some artisans and headed to Cassino, which, it seems, he reached in 529.

Benedict and his men destroyed an altar dedicated to the Roman deity Apollo and deforested the mountain slopes to build up a new monastery, providing little by little all the necessary facilities: the church, the library, the dorms, the dining hall, the guest quarters, the oven and the mill, the kitchen, the laundry, the workshops, the vegetable garden and the cemetery. A majestic work, conceived by a genius and realized from scratch through the efforts of many people, a tiring yet joyful project, accomplished according to God’s will. Benedict’s wisdom is astonishing! We do not know anything about his physical appearance, but his personality stands out clearly when one reads his Rule. In a world torn apart by wars and violence, by famine and igno-rance, Benedict’s monastery represents an island of happiness, harmony, peace, of fruitful work and high and genuine spirituality. Just think of the balance of a monastic rule that assigns equal dig-nity to prayer (said together by the entire community at given times), to manual work in the fields, in the vegetable and in the medical herbs gardens, to study, to the labour of the Amanuensis making copies of classic literature works, which otherwise would have been gone forever. Everything is wisely regulated according to the drawing of a superior mind. One may feel the grand har-mony between body and soul, between the divine and the human. Many people land in the peaceful isle of Cassino, poor ones like the Goth soldier worn out and sick of the war, as well as authori-ties, bishops and kings, like Totila, to whom Benedict foretells de-feat and death. Soon the Benedictine Order radiated from Cassino all over Europe. The Benedictine vocation does not consist in ploughing untamed land, clearing impenetrable woodland, draining unhealthy swamp-land. The true vocation is an extremely spiritual one: it means breaking away from the fashionable life to devote oneself to prayer and meditation.

To do this, though, the Benedictine monk had to plough, to clear, to drain. The Benedictine monks were in fact “the Fathers of Europe”, because they brought everywhere their spirituality as well as all the techniques in farming, breeding, pharmacopoeia they knew in that epoch. To celebrate mass, they needed wine, thus they spread vineyards all over Europe, as far as the climate allowed. To illuminate the churches, especially during solemn ceremonies, wax was needed – the solution: apiculture. The monks developed advanced techniques in the production of cheese, sweets, beer, mead, spirits; all this for helping sick people or pilgrims and foreigners knocking at their monasteries’ doors. In the same way, they cultivated choral singing and sacred music to praise the Lord during solemn ceremonies. The personal prayer had to be short and silent, while the entire community would ele-vate confident and joyful hymns to God. All of Europe was be colonised by the Benedictines. Montecassino would arise again in Bobbio, in Farfa, in Corbie, St. Gallen, in Reichenau, in Fulda, in Westminster, etc… Chapter 53,2 of the Rule reads: “Let all guests who arrive be re-ceived like Christ, for He is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35)”. The Benedictine monasteries are truly oasis of peace and quiet, where one finds it pleasant to linger.

St. Benedict’s Rule and Scouting

If one reads Benedict’s Rule carefully and in no hurry, he may find unexpected and fitting parallelisms to our Scout world, as though B.P. was inspired in more than one occasion by the Saint’s thoughts. Over this hypothesis, it is however obvious that the men, who in every historical age devoted themselves to their neighbours using wise openheartedness, have enjoyed the unique grace of discover-ing at least one small fragment of Truth! Getting to know people of such high stature is even more astonishing, rather than only sur-prising. The first parallelism between the monastic and the scouting di-mensions may be found in the Rule’s Chapter 2, which is about the Abbot. In due proportions, it looks like the description of a Scout-master’s features, as he “ought always to… make his works worthy of the name of a superior” (or a chief). Furthermore, he “should likewise remember that at the dreadful judgment of God an ac-count will have to be given both of his teaching and of the obedi-ence of his disciples”. In addition, he should never stop urging, re-buking and exhorting his brethrens, “for the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths”, as St. Paul prophetically stated (2Tm 4:3-4). Chapter 27 is again about the Abbot-Chief figure, who “is obliged to exercise the greatest solicitude toward the erring brethren and to strive with all prudence and zeal lest he lose any of the sheep en-trusted to him”. And “he should know that he has received charge over souls that are weak and not a high-handed rule over the strong”. Chapter 3 talks about the “calling of the brethrens for counsel”, “whenever anything of importance is to be done in the monas-tery”. Isn’t it just like our Clan Council? The Saint then adds an in-teresting point: “Moreover, we have said that all are to be called to counsel because it is often to the younger that the Lord reveals what is better.” In the Rule there are many cross-references to the Scout Law, for instance in Chapter 5 where is stated that obedience “ought to be given by the disciple with a ready will, because “God loves a cheer-ful giver”.” Doesn’t this sound like the seventh and the eighth points of the Law? Chapter 6 could be entitled “Of Scout Style”. Indeed, it recom-mends that moderate way of talking that is not silentium, rather taciturnitas, i.e. that self-controlled talking which avoids profanity and whatever may cause excessive and coarse laughter. Chapter 31 introduces the “cellarer”, the person in charge for the pantry, who looks very much like a caboose man, a wise figure of good manners and loyal to the saying: “a good word is above the best gift”. “Let him distribute to the brethren their appointed al-lowance of food without arrogance or delay”, so “that no one may be troubled or grieved in the house of God.” The whole Rule emits a nice scent of brotherhood and care for the neighbours, especially for the weak, the sick ones and for whoever is in need, and this scent recalls the fourth point of our Law.

Chapters 39 and 40 share the same topic: measure of food and drink, the very topic described by B.P. as one of the rocks from “Rovering to Success”. The teaching is identical: avoid excesses. The composure of St. Benedict is surprising, as he allows wine con-sumption; “if either the nature of the place, or the labour, or the heat of summer requires more, it shall be in the power of the supe-rior to grant it, care being taken in all things that self-indulgence or drunkenness does not creep in”. Not to be overseen is the image given by Chapter 43, which depicts the monks hearing the bells tolling for the Divine Office (i.e. the communal prayer) and “responding with all speed, yet also with gravity”, two rather contradictory attitudes! “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labour, and at other fixed hours in holy reading”. So the introduction to Chapter 48, an ex-traordinarily cultural and educational one. Who does not know the need of Unit Leaders for keeping Wolfcubs and Scouts always ac-tive during their summer camps? It is all aimed to avoid idleness, which weakens the mind and provides every kind of temptations. Benedictines’ Motto is not “Ora et labora”, rather Ora, lege et labora”. Indeed St. Benedict instructs as follows: “[The brethren] are to labour at whatever is necessary from the first to about the fourth hour (i.e. from 6 to 10am; for some of them this means also labour as copyist in the scriptorium, a room close to the library). From the fourth until about the sixth hour let them apply them-selves to reading. After the sixth hour, on rising from table, let them rest on their beds in all silence; or if perhaps one should wish to read alone, let him so read as not to disturb anyone else. Let None be said somewhat earlier-at the middle of the eighth hour; then let them again work at whatever is to be done until Vespers”. Monastery’s life alternates physical and mental labour and prayers, recited seven times by day and once by late night, each of them with the joy of a supernatural longing. Remarkable are also the rules for the reception of guests. “Let all guests arriving at the monastery be received as Christ Himself, for He will one day say, “I was a stranger and you took Me in.” And let due honour be paid to all, especially, however, to those who are of the household of the faith – and to strangers.” It recalls the fourth point of the Scout Law and that subtle difference between “friend” and “brother”, doesn’t it? Another clear parallelism of the manner of receiving the brethren and the novitiate time, one year before the young novice takes his oaths before the entire community.

He shall promise his dwell in the monastery, the conversion of his habits and full obedience to God and his Saints. How close all of this is, to the Scout Promise and the Rover Commitment! St. Benedict, we feel you are so close to our world and we salute you full of respect and joyful friendship: Buona Strada!