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How St. Benedict Reshaped the Culture

July 11, 2018


In the year 480 AD, the last of the rulers of what remained of the western Roman Empire, a man by the name of Julius Nepos, died, leaving one Roman Emperor in the far off eastern city of Constantinople (for the first time in ninety-five years), and the old Roman Empire in Europe in the midst of a deleterious decline. In this era of ever diminishing expectations, Saint Benedict was born.

He was, of course, not Saint Benedict immediately; this would take some time. Benedict was first the child of well-off Roman nobility, who lived in the Umbrian town of Nursia. In the year 500 AD, Benedict experienced something of a religious awakening, an aching sense that the promises of the Gospel were unattainable in a culture that he came to experience as decadent. This awakening compelled him to abandon the privileges afforded by his family’s status and wealth. He retreated to the wilds of Subiaco, becoming a hermit. The young man who should have been a “somebody” made himself a “nobody” and should have been forgotten. 

Benedict would retreat from the world, but his retreat did not prevent the world from coming to him. 

Soon, a community formed around him as his reputation as a mystic and wonderworker spread. It was to this community that Benedict imparted a “rule” or a way of life, in which fidelity to Christ would be expressed in vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. These vows would become a crucible through which the soul would be conformed to Christ.

In the year 530, Benedict journeyed to the height of Monte Casino and established there what would become the spiritual center of the movement that bears his name: the Benedictines.

Benedict would die in the year 543. In the years following his death, as the last vestiges of the Roman Empire gave way to factionalism and strife, and warlords struggled violently to establish kingdoms hacked out of the corpse of Rome, the Benedictines would offer an alternative way of life, a distinctively Christian culture.     

The pall cast by the fall of Rome would be transformed by St. Benedict’s spiritual sons and daughters into what the historian Kenneth Clark referred to as a white garment of churches.

For centuries, the Benedictines would be the mover and shaper of culture, the provider of most of what we know as “social services,” the innovators of technology, the source of learning, and the creators and sustainers of civilization. From the Benedictines the arts would be reinvigorated with life, and with the arts, also the sciences.

It was from this distinctively Christian cultural matrix that what was once appreciated and esteemed as Western civilization would be created anew.

Saint Benedict’s inspired insight was that the Church was not supposed to simply ape the cultures into which she would be embedded, assimilating her people and accommodating her witness to whatever the culture desired. Instead, the Church was a source of cultural transformation, whose radical way of life would participate in the transformation of all things in Christ. It was not the role of the Church merely to give sanction to a culture, but to sanctify it, and if necessary, offer a distinctively Christian alternative.

Saint Benedict interpreted the signs of his own times as necessitating the founding of a new movement, and as the structures of the old Roman system were giving way, this new movement would lay the foundations of a new kind of civilization.

I dare think that the Church, vis-à-vis the cultures of the West (which includes our own), could learn much from St. Benedict. The culture should not see in the Church merely a mirror image of itself or consider the Church a sanctioning body for its aspirations and goals. Instead the culture should see in the Church a different way—a way that engages the culture in its unique identity and mission and imbues the cultural milieu with things ancient and ever new. This way of life is the way that leads people to the Church—and through the Church to Christ—and does so in ways that challenge people with a radical witness to Gospel.

This radical witness is exemplified in lives of sacrifice and service, to Christ and to our neighbor, and even beyond this, in forgiveness for those who have wronged us and prayers for those who have persecuted us. 

Can we become this for others, for the culture? Can we display, in our own witness to Christ, in the midst of our culture, what St. Benedict displayed to his?