Saints of Italy – San Benedetto

[Saint Benedict of Nursia]There was a holy man, whose name was Benedetto, which is to say blessed, and rightly was he so called, being abundantly blessed by the grace of God. From his earliest youth he had the mind of a sage, and, though rich and of noble rank, cared nothing for earthly things, looking upon the flowering garden of the world as an arid desert. His parents brought him to Rome, that he might address himself to liberal studies; but, seeing how many were led by profane learning into vice, he withdrew himself hastily from the path of knowledge. Troubled, moreover, by the evil lives of his companions, he resolved to abandon his home and possessions, and seek a habitation far from the busy ways of men, where he might lead a life pleasing to God. So, bidding farewell to his parents and friends, and accompanied only by his old nurse, who loved him tenderly, he departed from the city, and went forth into the wilderness.

After a journey of some days they came to a place where, close beside a church, dwelt a company of pious men and women, who lovingly compelled them to stay their weary feet and abide with them. Benedetto was at first well pleased to dwell there. He exercised himself continually in prayer and meditation, watching far into the night, fasting three times a week, and on the other days partaking only of bread and fruit. One day the nurse, having borrowed a vessel wherein to cleanse some corn, that she might make bread, incautiously let it fall, and it was broken in two pieces, whereupon she began to weep bitterly, not knowing how she might restore it to her neighbour. The pious and kind-hearted youth, pitying her grief, took up the two pieces, and with eyes full of tears began to pray, and when he rose from his knees he was astonished to behold the vessel whole and sound, so that no man could have discerned that it had been broken. Going up to the nurse, he gave it into her hands with sweet words of consolation. This thing becoming known to all in that place, was had in great wonder and esteem, and the people took and hung the vessel over the door of the church, that all men might see to what perfection of grace the boy Benedetto had attained, beholding his prayers thus marvellously answered.

But Benedetto longed to suffer for Christ’s sake, rather than to be praised for his goodness, and that life which others would have judged too hard to be endured, he despised for its overmuch comfort and ease. His discontent increasing, one night, when his nurse lay fast asleep, he rose from his bed and, bidding her a silent farewell, took his staff in his hand, and went forth from that place. He wandered for many days in the wilderness, suffering hunger and thirst, and wounding his feet upon the sharp rocks, till at last he came to a desert country, where an abundance of clear water poured forth from a lake, and flowing down in a river, watered all the plain beneath. Here he met a monk named Romano, who gave him food and drink, and then led him to a secret place in the mountain beside the lake, where there was a deep cave. Benedetto hid himself in the cave, and lived there in solitude, serving God, unknown to any man except Romano. This gentle monk, who lived in a monastery not far off, stole secretly out each day, and carried to his friend a little bread, which was all he could spare from his own scanty meal. And because there was no path from his cell to the cave, which was overhung by a great rock, Romano was used to let down the bread in a basket by a long rope from the top of the rock, and he tied a little bell beside the basket, that at the sound of its ringing Benedetto might come forth to receive the offering. One day, as Romano was performing this act of lovingkindness, the Evil One, moved by envy at the sight of his charity, appeared in the form of a horrible bat with a man’s head, and throwing a stone at the basket, broke the bell. Romano, terribly frightened, continued, nevertheless, to bring the bread at the accustomed hour; and the Evil One, vanquished by his constancy, molested him no more.

After three years had passed away, a certain priest, who dwelt at some distance, was preparing for himself a feast wherewith to celebrate Easter, and mixing and compounding the delicacies with much care, when an angel appeared and cried, saying, “Thou preparest good things for thyself, and the servant of the Lord yonder is tormented with hunger.” The priest, wondering greatly, rose, and taking with him the food, set forth to seek the place pointed out by the angel. After wandering a long while over steep mountains, and through valleys and rough ways, he came at last to the cave, and found Benedetto sitting on the threshold. They embraced one another tenderly, and knelt down to pray, and afterwards had much sweet discourse together. Then the priest said, “Arise, let us eat, for to-day is the feast day.” Benedetto answered, “For me it is indeed a feast day, seeing thou hast come to visit me.” But he knew not that it was Easter Day, for so long had he dwelt apart from men that he had lost count of the seasons. The priest said, ” Verily, to-day is the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, therefore it behoves thee to leave off from fasting, and for that cause am I sent unto thee.” And he related how the angel had appeared, and continued, ” Now let us enjoy together the gifts of Almighty God.” Then Benedetto rejoiced greatly, and gave praise to the Lord, and the priest having meanwhile spread the feast, they sat down and ate; and on the approach of night the priest rose, and bidding the holy man farewell, departed and returned to his church.

Soon after this a company of shepherds came that way, and, seeing something moving among the thick bushes, they took it to be a wild beast, but on approaching nearer they were amazed to find it was a man, clothed in the skins of animals, and of such a sweet and gentle aspect that they were compelled to kneel down and entreat his blessing. Benedetto spoke to them holy words of exhortation, and so tamed their wild and savage hearts that many of them forsook their evil ways and were turned to piety and grace, coming often to the cave to seek comfort and advice from the holy man. In this manner his name and his sanctity became noised abroad in that country, and many began to visit him. God was thus pleased to relieve Romano from the labour of feeding the saint, for Benedetto was now abundantly provided by the gifts of the faithful, who, bringing him food for his body, received in return bread for their immortal souls.

A little way off dwelt a community of monks who lived a careless and evil life. Their abbot being lately dead, they were desirous, from a spirit of pride and vainglory, to have a saint for their father, and came and besought Benedetto to rule over them. He refused them many times, declaring that his ways would not agree with theirs. At last he yielded to their importunity, and with great ceremony and rejoicing they brought him to the monastery. But when he began to govern, and would allow none to depart either to the right hand or to the left from the narrow path of righteousness, the monks began to rage together, and each to accuse the others of having proposed him for their abbot, so offended were they by the uprightness of his rule. Alas! hard it is for the evil to make themselves new hearts, and to walk in the ways of the good. At last they took counsel together to kill him, and one day they mixed poison with his wine. When the cup was offered to the holy father to be blessed, according to the custom of the monastery, he stretched forth his hand and made the sign of the cross, whereupon the cup split into fragments. Benedetto, perceiving that it had contained a deadly potion, since it could not endure the sign of life, rose with placid countenance and tranquil mind, and, assembling the monks, spoke as follows:

“May the Almighty God have mercy upon you, brethren! Wherefore did you desire to do me this evil? Said I not rightly that your ways and mine would not agree together? Go and seek an abbot like unto yourselves, for me you may have no longer.”

So saying, he rose, and, taking his staff, went out from them and returned to his cave, where he lived in his beloved solitude once more, with his eyes turned night and day to the silent heavens above him.

But he might not enjoy undisturbed peace, for the Evil One, envious of the increasing virtue of the saint, sought every occasion to tempt him. One summer evening, as Benedetto was sitting outside his cave, refreshing his brow in the sweetscented air, a little blackbird began to tease him, fluttering round his face, as if it would have him take it in his hand. He, fearing it to be of evil omen, made the sign of the cross, and straightway the bird flew off. And immediately a terrible temptation assailed him; for the devil caused to appear a beautiful maiden, whom Benedetto had known long ago in the world; and she stood there gazing at him with sorrowful eyes, as it were beseeching him to return to her. And the holy man was filled with such an exceeding great love and longing that he almost resolved to abandon the hermitage and return to the city. Terrified at his own weakness, he rose hastily, and wandered about all night among the rocks and the thickets, wounding himself grievously upon the savage thorns; yet he could not drive her image from him. At last, when the first cold light of dawn appeared, he fell exhausted on the ground, and she vanished. From that day she came no more; and the Evil One, overcome by his constancy, ceased to vex him.

Time went on, and the fame of the saint grew ever greater, so that multitudes came to visit him, and many abandoned the world and congregated near his dwelling, that they might profit by his teaching. Noble and religious persons from the city of Rome flocked thither bringing their sons to him to train up in the fear of God. He built twelve monasteries round about that place, and appointed twelve abbots to rule over them, giving them a set of laws for the guidance of the monks. Now, in one of the monasteries there was a young brother who would never stay at his prayers—for scarcely had the monks begun to pray but he would go quietly out and wander about with his mind full of vain and worldly longings. When he had been often admonished by his abbot without result, he was brought to the holy Benedetto, who rebuked him sharply and bade him amend his behaviour. But for two days only did he keep the command of the holy man, and on the third, falling back into his old habit, he stole out of the chapel at the hour of prayer. This being told to Benedetto, he said, ” I will myself come and correct him;” and he rose and went to the monastery. The monks beginning to pray as usual, he watched carefully, and saw a little black boy enter and pull the restless monk by the edge of his garment, and draw him out of the chapel. Benedetto calling the abbot and a brother named Mauro, whom he trusted greatly, said to them, ” Do you not see who it is that draws forth the monk? ” and they answering ” No,” he bade them pray that their eyes might be opened. The next day the same thing happened, and this time Mauro saw, but the abbot remained blind. At the conclusion of prayers the saint went out and discovered the guilty brother standing against the wall. Then Benedetto took him and chastised him with rods, and drove the evil spirit out with abundant stripes, so that from that moment the little black boy came no more, and the monk remained each day motionless in the chapel praying with his companions.

The brothers from one of the monasteries on the top of the mountain complaining to the saint that they were compelled to make a painful and perilous descent to the lake whenever they had need of water, Benedetto comforted them, and bade them come to him again next day; and that very night he ascended the mountain alone with a young boy named Placido, and prayed on the top till dawn. Then, setting three stones there for a sign, he returned home, and bade the brothers go up the mountain, and when they came to the rock whereon were set three stones, to dig a hole. They did as he commanded, and immediately the hole was filled with fresh water, which flowed forth in such abundance that there was enough for all the monasteries.

And the saint performed many other wonders. One dayhe gave an iron instrument, such as the people use for reaping, to a poor man named Beppo, bidding him cut down a certain thicket which grew on the shore above the lake. Beppo began to hew with all his might, and suddenly the iron sprang out of the handle of the instrument, and fell into the water. The man coming with woeful visage to relate his misfortune, the holy Benedetto rose up, and went with him to the lake, and taking hold of the handle, held the end thereof in the water, whereupon the iron rose up from the bottom, and entered of itself into the handle, and the saint restored it to Beppo, saying, ” Behold the sickle. Now return to thy labour, and grieve no more.” On another occasion, the child Placido went to draw water, and incautiously letting the bucket fall in, fell in himself after it. The strong flood seized him, and he was drawn from the shore with the swiftness of an arrow. Benedetto, shut within his cell, was miraculously made aware of what had happened, and calling Mauro in great haste, said, “Run, run, Brother Mauro, for the child is fallen into the water.” Now mark this marvel which came to pass. For, hurrying at the bidding of the holy man to the place where the boy had been swept away, and thinking himself to be still on dry land, Mauro ran over the surface of the water, and, taking Placido by the hair, returned with all speed the way he had come, drawing the child after him. As soon as he touched the ground his understanding returned to him, and he perceived, to his exceeding great amazement, that he had walked upon the water, and, leading Placido by the hand, he went and told Benedetto. The saint rejoiced over the rescued boy, and gave much honour to Mauro, judging the miracle to have been done because of his obedience, but Mauro said that it was not so, for he had not known what he did, and that Benedetto had himself endued him with the power, by commanding him to save Placido. In the midst of this loving contention, each desiring to give the praise to the other, the child interposed, saying, ” When I was being drawn out of the water I saw above my head the face of the holy father, and I believed it was he who was bringing me forth.” Thus was judgment proclaimed by the mouth of a babe, and the merit given to him to whose virtue it was due.

Benedetto dwelt for many years in the cave, but the time came when he was to quit it and go forth to fight battles against the heathen and the powers of darkness, and his departure came about in this wise. The priest of a neighbouring church, Florentio by name, filled with envy of the saint, began to speak evil of his life, hoping to persuade the people not to visit him, and, finding these wiles fail, sent him a gift of poisoned bread, with the purpose of killing him. Now, a crow out of a wood close by was accustomed to come at the hour of dinner and take food from the hand of the saint, and Benedetto, knowing full well what was concealed in the bread which Florentio had sent, took and threw it on the ground before the bird, saying, ” In the name of the Lord, carry this to a place where no man shall find it.” The crow, opening its beak and extending its wings, began to flutter and hop round the bread, plainly meaning to tell him that it desired to obey, but was not able. The holy man bade it fear nothing, and perform his command, and the bird, after hesitating a long time, at last took the bread in its beak and flew away. After three hours it returned, flying heavily, as if very weary, and ate greedily from the hand of the saint, so that it was evident that it had flown a great distance and accomplished the task.

The holy father, giving thanks to the Lord for having preserved his life, began to grieve deeply that Florentio’s mind was kindled against him, and he called his monks together and gave into their care his chapel and all he had built, and, taking only a few brothers, went forth to seek another habitation. No sooner had he thus withdrawn himself from the hatred of his enemy, than it pleased God to smite that Avicked man in a fearful manner, for he was standing upon his housetop when they brought him news that Benedetto had departed, and he began to exult exceedingly, when suddenly that portion of the roof whereon he stood, though all the rest of the house remained unshaken, fell with a great crash, and he was destroyed beneath the ruins. Benedetto had scarce gone ten miles on his way when Mauro came running after, with a joyful countenance, and cried, saying, “Turn back, O father, for the priest who persecuted thee is dead.” Whereupon the holy man began to weep and lament grievously, sorrowing for the death of his enemy, and because his own disciple had dared to rejoice, and he rebuked Mauro, bidding him do penance for his revengeful spirit.

Knowing that it was the Lord’s will that he should quit the cave, he did not turn back, but journeyed onwards for many days, till he came to a high mountain, where, hid within dark groves of trees, stood an ancient temple, and within it an altar whereon the ignorant people made sacrifices to Apollo, after the customs of the heathen. Benedetto and his followers broke the idol, overthrew the altar, and burnt down the trees, and for this they suffered much persecution from the inhabitants, who strove to drive them away with sticks and stones; but the soldiers of Christ fought and endured manfully for their faith, and, after a time, the gentleness of Benedetto softened the hard hearts of the people, and they began to listen to his words.

The saint, compassionating their benighted condition, resolved to stay there and convert them, and he began to build a chapel in the place where the temple had stood, and habitations for the monks close by. The evil one, vexed at being driven from his old haunts, sought every occasion to annoy Benedetto and hinder the work. One day he sat himself upon a stone, which the monks were about to raise to its place in the wall, so that by no effort could they move it, till they cried to the saint, and he coming and making the sign of the cross over it, the devil flew away with a horrible screech. Another time the enemy overthrew a wall and crushed a young monk, so that not one bone of his body was left whole. The saint bade the weeping brothers bring the dead boy to his cell, and putting them all out, he shut the door and prayed earnestly, whereupon the boy was restored to life as strong and sound as ever. Continually, in the night, the devil would appear to Benedetto, with flaming eyes and mouth, raging horribly, and lamenting with a loud clamour, saying, “Benedetto, Benedetto;” and the servant of God making no answer, he would cry, “Maledetto ” (which is to say, cursed), “not Benedetto, wherefore dost thou persecute me?” and forthwith disappear with a hideous groan; but the saint, putting all his trust in God, feared him not, and persevered in his work, till a beautiful church and monastery rose in that place.

Benedetto had a sister, whom he loved dearly, named Scholastica, who, like him, had dedicated herself to the service of God. Their parents being dead, he brought her to the mountain, and made her a dwelling not far from his own, and, in course of time, many pious women abandoned the world, and gathered about her, and the saint himself visited and taught them. There came among these from the city of Rome three women of noble birth, who had so imperfectly cast off the bonds of worldly vanity, that they could not refrain their tongues from gossip and slander, but chattering all day long, instead of giving themselves to prayer and meditation, they provoked their companions to wrath. This being told to the saint, he immediately sent and bade them correct their tongues, lest evil should befall them, but they persisted in their evil speaking, and in a short time all three died, and were buried in the church. Their nurse being present during holy service, was astonished to see them rise every day from their graves and go out of the door one by one, as if unable to endure the Word of God, and, remembering how they had disobeyed the servant of God, she ran to him, weeping bitterly, and implored his help. Benedetto went to the church and prayed earnestly before the high altar, and blessed their graves, and from that time they were no more seen to rise—whereat all the women marvelled greatly, and took heed to control their tongues and to behave with modesty and meekness,

Years went on, and the holy man began to be filled with the spirit of prophecy, so that he was able to foretell the future and read the secret hearts of men. One evening, at the vesper hour, he was partaking of food, and a young monk named Paolo stood behind him holding a lamp. The spirit of this brother began to swell with pride, and he said to himself, ” Who is this man that I should stand behind him as he eats, and spend myself in serving him?”

Benedetto immediately turned round and rebuked him, saying, ” Open thy heart, brother. What is it that thou sayest to thyself?” Then he called Mauro and Placido, and commanded Paolo to give them the lamp and to go out and remain idle during that hour. Paolo went out and wept bitterly, and being afterwards questioned by the brothers, he told them everything, and they were filled with a great awe, perceiving that nought could be hid from him, who was able to hear even unspoken words.

Now, shortly afterwards, a terrible visitation fell upon the land, for Totila, the King of the Goths, came down with a mighty host and ravaged all the country round about, slaying the inhabitants, and burning their cities. Hearing men speak of the great prophet Benedetto, he determined to visit him, and halting his army a little distance away, sent messengers to the monastery to announce his coming. The servants having returned, and told him that Benedetto was ready to receive him, it entered the perfidious mind of the King to try and prove whether the saint were, indeed, a prophet. Calling his chamberlain, he bade him put on the royal robes, and take with him three nobles of high rank, who were wont to wait closely upon the monarch himself, together with a great following of horsemen and servants, and to present himself before the saint as the King in person. When the chamberlain arrived at the monastery, he was brought with great honour into the presence of the servant of God, who, as soon as the false king was come near enough to hear, cried, with a loud voice, ” Son, put off thy robe, for that which thou wearest is not thine own.” Immediately the chamberlain and all his followers fell terrified to the earth, and, rising up, they dared not approach the holy man, but fleeing as fast as they could, returned to the King.

Then Totila came himself, and seeing Benedetto from far off, placed upon his lofty seat, he was afraid to proceed, and humbly prostrated himself to the earth. Three times the holy man spake, saying, ” Rise,” yet Totila dared not lift his head. Then the saint rose from his seat and deigned to go himself to the monarch, and raising him up, he rebuked him severely for his evil deeds, and foretold what should befall him, saying, “Much evil thou doest, much evil hast thou done. Henceforth thou shalt refrain from iniquity. Thou wilt shortly enter Rome, and afterwards cross the sea, and reigning nine years, in the tenth thou shalt die.” The King, amazed and terrified at these words, humbly implored Benedetto to pray for him, and took his departure. And everything came to pass as the saint had foretold, for from that day Totila was less cruel, and soon after he besieged and occupied Rome, and crossed the sea to Sicily, and in the tenth year of his reign he lost both kingdom and life.

Much time passed away, and the saint grew old in years and in grace. And a great famine visited the land, and the people in their hunger came and besought the holy man to help them. He gave them everything he could, till nothing was left for himself and the monks but a little oil in a glass vessel. Then there came a poor man, who begged exceeding piteously for some oil, and Benedetto bade them give him the portion that remained. But it was not done as he commanded, and when the saint inquired about the matter, the brother who kept the larder excused himself, saying that it could not be spared from their own needs. Then Benedetto was wroth, and ordered them to take the vessel with the oil and throw it out of the window, that nothing might be saved by disobedience. Below the window there was a precipice, and at the bottom many sharp rocks, whereon the vessel fell, yet, to the astonishment of all, it was not broken nor the oil spilt out. Thereupon the servant of God told them to pick it up and give it to the poor man, according to his first command, and he rebuked the disobedient brother before them all. Then they knelt down and prayed. Now, there was set there a great jar, with a tiny drop of oil at the bottom, and as the holy man prayed the oil began to increase and bubble up in the jar, and rising and rising, at last it overflowed the brim, and inundated all the pavement where it stood. Thereupon Benedetto left off praying, and the oil immediately ceased to flow. Then he took that same monk aside and admonished him long in secret, bidding him consider the mercy of the Lord and be of greater faith.

Scholastica was, like her brother, growing old, and began now to feel her end approaching. The day came on which Benedetto was accustomed to visit her, and he rose and went down to her dwelling, with Mauro and Placido, and spent the whole day with her in prayer, and praise, and sweet discourse. When the shades of evening began to gather round them, they sat down to eat, and the hour growing late, the pious woman said to her brother, ” Do not leave me this night, I beseech thee, but let us talk till morning of the joys of the heavenly life.”

He answered, “What is this thou askest of me, sister? I may in no wise abide out of my cell.”

And the sky was so serene, that not a cloud could be seen. Scholastica, hearing her brother’s words, clasped her hands upon the table and bent over them, as if in prayer, and when she raised her head there broke forth such a terrible tempest, with thunder and lightning and pouring of rain, that, on issuing forth, neither the venerable saint nor the monks were able to stir their feet for the mud upon the way. Benedetto, returning to his sister, said, “God has given thee thy wish, sister. What is this that thou hast done?”

She answered, ” Behold, I prayed to thee, and thou wouldst not hear me; I prayed to my God, and He has heard me. Now, if thou canst, go forth and leave me.”

Then Benedetto, seeing he might not return to the monastery, stayed with her, and they passed the whole night in vigil, with holy colloquy, and in the morning he departed. Three days after, the saint, being in his cell, with his eyes raised to heaven, saw in a vision his sister’s soul, in the form of a dove, issue from her body and penetrate to the uttermost heaven. Thus was it made manifest to him that she was dead, and, rejoicing in her glory, he gave thanks to God, and sent and fetched her body, and caused it to be laid in the sepulchre which he had prepared for himself.

Not long after, knowing the hour to be at hand when he should be called to join his sister in heavenly glory, the holy Benedetto began to prepare to quit this sorrowing world. He called all the brothers round him, and foretold to them the day of his death, and they, falling on their knees, wept bitterly, and besought him not to leave them. Then he comforted them with sweet and loving words, and exhorted them to continue in faith and obedience to God after he was gone. Six days before that one on which he was to die, he bade them make ready his sepulchre, and soon after fell into a grievous fever. On the sixth day he was borne by the brothers into the chapel, and there, supported by their arms, he breathed his last.

That very hour two of his disciples, being upon a journey, saw in a vision a shining as of innumerable lightnings, and in the midst thereof a golden pathway stretched from the cell of the saint up to the farthest heaven, and the holy Benedetto passed over the path, and was received out of their sight. Full of astonishment, they ran in haste to the monastery and told what they had seen, and thus it was made known to all that the servant of God had obtained the reward of his long patience and obedience. Then, with chanting and prayer, they took the body and laid it in the sepulchre within the chapel, and for three days and nights they ceased not to keep watch there, continually praising and glorifying God that He had been pleased to deliver His servant from the tribulations of this present world and receive him into celestial glory.

And the funeral rites being fully accomplished, they returned to the monastery, chastened and comforted in their souls, and resolved henceforth to walk with God’s help in the steps of the blessed Benedetto.

- from Saints of Italy, by Ella Noyes; J M Dent and Sons, London, 1901