(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Sophronios, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Benedict of Nursia
Although monastic retreats were never intended for any purpose other than prayer and meditation, they were often used by invaders for military purposes because of their strategic sites and formidable walls. The monastery atop Mount Cassino was no exception; during World War II the Germans transformed the monastery into a fortress. The citadel of peace was sacrificed to the bombs of the Allied Forces so that it unwittingly became a factor in shortening a terrible war and in bringing peace to all the world. The World War II bastion that had been the handiwork of St. Benedict had originally been erected as a tribute to the Messiah as well as a haven for those who chose to give their lives over to God. Benedict himself could not have foreseen what lay in store for his stout cloister in a great war, but its very durability is conclusive evidence that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” The unseen hand that went into making a holy place in the interest of liberty in the twentieth century gave it the added strength to withstand the assault against the hardy Christians who defended Christianity and oppression in a manner beyond Benedict’s concept of man in God’s image. But the principles for which he stood were gallantly upheld by young men not in monk’s garb but in uniforms of a Christian country for which many gave their lives.
The monastery of Cassino was founded by St. Benedict and stood for centuries as one of the monuments to his Christian piety and dedication. That it was to be a battleground fifteen centuries later could not have been anticipated, but perhaps Benedict himself would have willed that the walls crumble under bombs so that peace might be restored. At any rate, the monastery has since been rebuilt and is as sacred now as it was before its demolition.
St. Benedict was born in the city of Nursia (Umbria) in 480 of the noble family known as Aniccii – a great family that was to Nursia what the Medici were to be in Florence. The influence of affluent merchants, who were very cultured, brought to young Benedict every known advantage, including an education in Rome. However, the decadence of Rome and its society disenchanted Benedict. For this reason he turned his back on all that his family stood for and took to the hills in search of a meaningful life.
Abiding in caves and grottoes, Benedict allowed himself the luxury of one friend, upon whom he depended for his sustenance. Otherwise he chose to seek the real truth,beauty and closeness to God in the complete seclusion which allowed concentration without distraction. Over a span of three years as an eremite, Benedict discovered an approach to the service of God by isolation of not one, but groups of men. From this concept grew the monasteries that evolved into the order bearing his name.
Here was no martyr, no heroic gesture, no romantic journeying to foreign lands to propagate the faith. The quiet, humble ways of the monks of Benedict did God’s work in obscurity, often with little recognition of their efforts toward peace on earth. It is said that they also serve who only stand and wait, but Benedict and his monks did more than stand and wait.
Young people from all walks of life were entrusted to the care of the monks, who saw to their spiritual needs together with their education. The ranks of the monks were swollen by those who had come to learn and had chosen to stay.
St. Benedict developed the rules of Western monasticism with such administrative and procedural perception that to this day there has been little or no change in the daily application of his concepts. With his two closest disciples, Maura and Placid, St. Benedict founded a monastery that became renowned and was named after him, the Monastery of St. Benedict on Mount Cassino. This institution worked with the Church to the glory of God.
His mission fulfilled, St. Benedict’s life came to a peaceful end on March 14, 547.