Monday, July 28, 2008

The Story of St. Benedict

Many hundreds of years ago there lived a boy called Benedict. He lived in Italy. His father and mother were rich people, and lived in a beautiful house on a beautiful estate. St. Benedict and his twin sister must have been very happy playing among the olive-trees and vines of sunny Italy, where the sky is nearly always blue, and where there are all sorts of lovely wild-flowers and fruits we don't get in England, and lizards and butterflies and all sorts of things.

St. Benedict was brought up a good Christian, though lots of the people round were still pagans in those days. There were terrible wars and troubles going on in Italy and in all the countries round, like there have been in our days. But the boy Benedict in his happy home knew little of these. Little did he know that the beautiful fields of Italy were being left to be overgrown with weeds and over-run with wild beasts; that the children had never heard of God; that the poor were dying of starvation. To him the world was a happy place, where one played and had a good time, and where people loved Christ and obeyed His words. But some day he was to learn the truth. For God was going to use the boy Benedict to do more than any one man has ever done to civilize the world. This story I'm telling you is the story of how St. Benedict discovered all God's great plan for him, and worked it out, bit by bit.

When St. Benedict had learnt all that his tutors could teach him at home his father sent him to the great city of Rome to learn there from the scholars and learned men, and attend lectures and classes. St. Benedict was a very clever boy, and he must have got on very quickly and pleased his masters very much. He could probably have carried off all sorts of prizes and won great fame and praise for himself, but there was something which stopped him caring for things like that. In the great city of Rome he saw two things—one of them was all sorts of wicked, selfish, horrible, and ungodly pleasures in which men wasted their lives and altogether forgot God; and the other was the beautiful, holy lives of the Christians, many of whom could tell wonderful stories of the martyrs who had been killed in Rome not so very long before, and whose bodies lay in the Catacombs. There were some beautiful churches in the city, and St. Benedict loved to go to the solemn services. As he knelt there in the holy stillness, or listened to the chanting, he began to think. And more and more he felt that all the glamour and selfish pleasures and greediness of the people was stupid and wrong, and that what was really worth having was a good conscience, and peace, and the friendship of God. And as he thought, he began to care less and less for his learning and his chances of glory, and he began to feel as if he wanted to get right away from people and have the chance of thinking about God.

When St. Benedict had these feelings he knew they came from God, and so, instead of not listening and just letting himself get keen on his study and his amusements, he made up his mind that he would always do his best to follow God's will, and would keep his heart always listening, so that if God did want to call him away to some special kind of life he would be ready to hear and to obey.

Well, when anybody does this God does not fail to tell him what to do, and so, when St. Benedict had been seven years in Rome, and was still only a boy, God made known to him that he must leave Rome, and his friends and his masters, and go right away into the mountains. His old nurse, Cyrilla, had always stayed with him, faithfully; and now she decided to go with him wherever it was that God was leading him.

So, one day, St. Benedict and Cyrilla set out secretly, and made their way by hidden paths towards the mountains. At last they reached a certain village, and St. Benedict went into the church to pray God to make known His will. When he came out the peasants who lived near the church pressed him to stay with them. St. Benedict took their kindness as a sign that it was God's will, so he and his old nurse settled down in the village.

It was while the boy was living here that (so the old books tell us) a miracle happened which made people feel sure that God was specially pleased with him. One day, as St. Benedict returned home from the church where he had been praying, he found his old nurse very unhappy; in fact, she was crying. This distressed him very much, because he hated to see other people miserable. At first he wondered why Cyrilla was crying, and then he saw the cause. She had accidentally broken an earthenware bowl that one of the good villagers had lent her. Full of pity for his old friend, St. Benedict took up the two pieces and went outside the house with them, and knelt down. Then he prayed very hard that the bowl might be mended. And, as he opened his eyes and looked at it, sure enough, it was whole! Very pleased, and thinking how good God is to those who really trust Him, he ran into the house and gave it to Cyrilla.

St. Benedict had not thought of himself, but only of God's wonderful power and kindness. But Cyrilla and the village people to whom she told the miracle all began to talk a lot about St. Benedict, and say he was a young saint, since he could do miracles. People even came in from the places round to stare at him. Do you think this pleased him? No; he wasn't that sort of boy. If he had been, God would never have done anything for him. He was very distressed at the way people went on; and more and more he felt that God was calling him away, and had something very important to say to him. And one day it came to him that he must leave even his faithful old nurse and go away. You can imagine how terribly sad he must have been at that thought, not only because he loved her and had always had her near him since he could remember, but because he knew how very, very much she loved him, and that if he left her she would be sad and lonely, with no one to comfort her. But you remember what I told you about how St. Benedict had made up his mind to do his best always to carry out God's will, and not give in to himself and pretend he had not heard; so, because he knew that it is more important to be faithful to God than to any person on earth, he made up his mind to go away. He did not tell his old nurse, but one day he set out, alone.

He must have felt very strongly that it was God's will, otherwise he would not have dared go out all alone and unarmed into the mountains, and with no money or food. Don't you think it was very brave of him? Perhaps you think it was foolish? Well, people have often been thought fools for doing God's will faithfully, but in the end God proves that really they were quite right. Anyway, something very soon happened to St. Benedict to show that God was with him.

As he tramped on, along the mountain-sides, between the flower-covered banks and thickets full of birds' songs, he prayed to God to guide him in the right way. And so when, after some hours of solitary tramping, he saw a man coming towards him out of a lonely mountain pass, he felt sure this was someone sent by God to help him.

The man's clothes showed that he was a monk. As he drew near he looked curiously at St. Benedict, wondering who this noble-looking boy could be walking all alone among the wild mountains. He, himself, had come out there to meditate and be alone with God and his thoughts. Stopping St. Benedict, he asked him kindly who he was and where he was going. St. Benedict quite simply told him the truth: that he had come out to seek God's will, and didn't know where he was going, except that he was seeking some place where he could live hidden from the whole world.

At first the monk Romanus tried to argue with him and show him that it was foolish to come out like that[13] alone. But St. Benedict spoke so wonderfully about God's call that Romanus saw he was right, and made up his mind to help him find somewhere where he could live alone for a while. So he led him up a steep winding path, and showed him a cave opening into the rugged mountain-side. The cave was about seven feet deep and four feet broad, and there was just room on the rocky ledge outside to make a little garden. St. Benedict stepped into the cave with his heart full of joy, feeling sure that at last he had found the place he was seeking. Before going away, Romanus gave him a long garment made of sheep-skin, which was what the monks of those days used to wear. He also promised to supply him with food. His monastery was far up, on the top of the great rock in which the cave was. He said that every day he would let down a basket with bread in it for St. Benedict, and he promised faithfully to keep his secret. Then he went away.

What happened in the time that followed no one knows—it is a secret between God and St. Benedict. But we can guess that God made known many wonderful things to His faithful young servant—things that later he was to teach to thousands of men; and that He filled him with grace and strength to do what he would have to do, to make the world a better place. Also, we can be sure that he was very, very happy, in spite of the loneliness, and the dark, cold nights, and the hard ground he had for his bed.

Three years St. Benedict lived like this, and then one sunny Easter morning God made known St. Benedict's secret to a certain holy man who lived in those parts, and told him to go to the cave and take St. Benedict some of his Easter fare. St. Benedict was very pleased to see him, but surprised to hear it was Easter, for he had lost all count of time. So the priest laid out the good things he had brought, and they said grace, and then they had a meal together, and then a talk. After the priest had gone some shepherds and country-folk climbed up the steep little path to see where he had been, and they found St. Benedict. He welcomed them, and spoke so wonderfully to them that they saw he was a man specially taught by God. They felt he was their true friend and loved them for God's sake, and so they often climbed the steep path to visit him and ask his help and advice. But very soon news of him spread beyond the mountain shepherds, and people of all sorts from far and near flocked to see the holy man and ask his prayers and his advice. Sad, wicked people went away with sorrow for their sins, and became good. Cowards went away full of strength and courage. And many people began to learn a new way of serving God truly, always doing their best for love of Him, and never "giving in to themselves."

It was then that God allowed St. Benedict to have a terrible temptation, to test him. Suddenly he felt within him a great desire to give up all he was doing for God and return to the wicked city he had left and live a life of ease and pleasure. It was the Devil who put this thought into his mind, but God's grace in St. Benedict was stronger than the Devil. With all his heart he vowed that he would never give up doing God's will, and, to punish himself for the thoughts that had entered his mind, he threw himself into a mass of sharp, thorny briars and stinging-nettles, so that his flesh was all torn and stung. After that he was so strong that no temptation was ever able to conquer him, and he was able to lead thousands of souls to victory.

The time had come when God wanted St. Benedict to leave his cave. He had learnt what God had to tell him in secret, and now his great work was to begin.

A large number of men who wished to serve God with all their hearts began to collect round St. Benedict. Gradually they formed twelve monasteries, all within about two miles, and got St. Benedict to rule over them all. This was the beginning of St. Benedict's great work for God. He drew up a Rule which showed men how they could live in the way most pleasing to God. It was not so terribly hard as to be impossible for ordinary men, like some of the holy hermits and Saints in the past had taught. And so thousands and thousands of men began to promise to keep this Rule and to live together in monasteries, doing good. St. Benedict had many wonderful adventures during the rest of his life, but I must keep those stories to tell you another time. The end of this one is that after God had called St. Benedict to Heaven, his great work went on. His followers began to travel all over the world as missionaries, teaching the pagans about Christ, and bringing peace and goodness to the poor, sad, wicked world. They cultivated the land and made it fruitful; and built churches and hospitals and schools; and taught the children, and looked after the poor, and civilized the world. It was they who brought the Christian Faith to England, for St. Augustine was one of St. Benedict's monks, and did more than anybody else to make England the great country which she became; for before St. Benedict's monks came the country was all wild and the Saxons were heathen. So, you see, by listening for God's voice, and doing his best to obey faithfully, the boy Benedict became one of the men who have done very great things for the world.

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