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The Sanity of Saint Benedict
Queen Victoria left this world almost at the moment that I chanced to enter it. Her memory, when I was old enough to identify it, fell thinly across my earliest childhood. People still spoke of “the Queen”, as if in all history there had been only one and everybody must know at once that Queen Victoria was meant. Somewhat later, I sensed that her going had stirred a deep-set uneasiness, as if with her a part of the mainland of human experience had sunk into the sea and no one quite knew what further subsidences and commotions to expect. Yet, in those far off days, no one ever chanted to me that grim line of the Queen’s favorite poet 2:
And the great aeon sinks in blood 3
though I was not very old when I had the “Death of Arthur” read to me in full, and, after the depressingly long glories of the winter moon, I noted with relief that
The new sun rose, bringing the new year. 4
With the rest of my generation, I grew in that sun’s illusory light. For the historical skies of my boyhood were only in frequently troubled, chiefly by a triad of figures powerful and unpredictable enough to thrill from time to time the nerve of reality. They were, of course, in America, Theodore Roosevelt; in England, King Edward VII; and, on the continent of Europe, bestriding it like a self-inflated colossus, the German Kaiser. 5 Each had a characteristic motif; too, like a Wagnerian hero: a little repetitive phrase that set the historic mood or forecast that each, for good or ill, was about to vault again upon the world stage, to give some new tingling turn to the plot. Thus, from the heart of Europe, would come characteristic variations on the Bismarckian theme of Blut und Eisen 6 7. In America, rose blithe shouts of “Bully! It’s bully!” 8 While Edwardian England had reversed the plea in which Swinburne exhorted Walt Whitman to “send but a song oversea to us”, and both shores of the Atlantic rocked to the surge and thunder of Tarara-boom-de-ay.
Long before I had the slightest notion what the barbaric sounds might mean, as language or destiny, I listened fascinated to people chanting:
A Brussels carpet on the floor:
An elevator at the door:
It was not only because of its gayness that it embedded it self in my memory. For what others found gay, I found indefinably ominous, as fixing a tone, a touch of dissolution that, even as a sensitive child, I could not possibly have explained to myself or anybody else. But one day, much later, the echo of Tarara-boom-de-ay fused itself unexpectedly with something that would seem to have nothing to do with it–a more or less random remark by one of my college instructors in Contemporary Civilization. Contemporary Civilization, a course required for all freshmen at Columbia College, was taught by several young men whom I remember chiefly as rather lugubrious–disillusioned veterans of the First World War, and a conscientious objector who had refused to take part in it. One day, the objector, staring at some point far beyond the backs of our heads, observed that “the world is entering upon a new Dark Ages.”
It was one of the few things that I carried away from Contemporary Civilization, required for all freshmen. And it was not so much the meaning of the words, which I was far too unfledged to understand, as the toneless despondency with which they were uttered that struck me. That, and their acceptance of the Dark Ages as something relevant, and possibly recurrent in history.
For under the sunlit skies of my boyhood, the Dark Ages were seldom mentioned: if at all, chiefly by way of contrast to the light of our progress. For the voice of that time was, at least as it reached me, wholly incapable of the irony with which, little more than a decade later, Jean de Bosschére would ask: “Qui se leva pour dire que nous ne sommes pas en plein jour?“ 9
The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable–a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.
If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” 10 If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without under standing what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery–a distressing turn to popery.
I was no such bright boy (or youth). I reached young man hood serene in the knowledge that, between the failed light of antiquity and the buzzing incandescence of our own time, there had intervened a thousand years of darkness from which the spirit of man had begun to liberate itself (intellectually) first in the riotous luminosity of the Renaissance, in Humanism, in the eighteenth century, and at last (politically) in the French Revolution. For the dividing line between the Dark Ages is not fast, and they were easily lumped together.
To be sure, even before Queen Victoria died, the pre-Raphaelites had popularized certain stage properties of the Middle Ages. And on the Continent there had been Novalis, to mention only one name (but no one in my boyhood mentioned Novalis). There had been Huysmans (we knew Huysmans, but his name was touched with decadence). There was a fad of the Gothic and figures like Viollet-le-Duc: while an obscure American, Henry Adams, was even then composing Mont St. Michel and Chartres, and inditing certain thoughts on the Virgin and the Dynamo that would echo briefly above the clink of their swizzle sticks in the patter of my generation.
I was in my twenties, a young intellectual savage in college with thousands of others, before the fact slowly dawned upon me that, for a youth always under the spell of history, the his tory I knew was practically no history at all. It consisted of two disjointed parts–the history of Greece and Rome, with side trips to Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: and a history of the last four hundred years of Europe and America. Of what lay in between, what joined the parts and gave them continuity, and the pulse of life and breath of spirit, my ignorance was darker than any Dark Age. Less by intelligence than by the kind of sixth sense which makes us aware of objects ahead in the dark, I divined that a main land mass of the history of Western civilization loomed hidden beyond my sight.
I turned to medieval history. But the distinguished teachers who first guided me into the Dark Ages seemed, even to my blindness, not too sure of their own way. They knew facts, more facts than I would ever know. Yet in their understanding of the facts something was missing, something that would enable them to feel that the life of the times they were exploring was of one tissue with the life of ours, that neither could be divided from the other, without an arterial tearing, that neither could be understood without the other. Their exposition, even of so obvious a problem as the causes for the fall of the Roman West left me with a sense of climbing railless stairs above a chasm at night. Rome fell, I learned, because of the barbarian hordes and a series of great barbarian leaders. H. G. Wells would presently startle me with the information that the hordes had been comparative handfuls among the populations they conquered, while, somewhat later, I would come to believe that the barbarian leaders were scarcely more barbarian than the Romans, that many of them were disaffected officials of the Roman state and their conduct was not so much that of invaders as what we should now call Fifth Columnists.
Or I was taught that Rome’s collapse was due in part to the disrepair of the Roman roads and the breakdown of communications. Or the resurgence of the Pontine marshes and the high incidence of malaria at Rome. Or that the conquest of the East had introduced alien and indigestible masses into the Empire, and corrupted Rome, and so it fell. But even a collegiate savage could scarcely fail to note that it was precisely the corrupt Eastern half of the Empire that survived as a political unit, and, for another eight hundred years, stood against the vigorous East, and was the bulwark of the fallen West.
There were other facts and factors. My ignorance could question them only so far, and then not their reality for the most part, but their power to explain by themselves an event so complex and so thunderous as the crash of a civilization. Some more subtle dissolvent, I sensed, must also have been, undivined, at work. I thought I had caught a hint of it in Salvianus‘ moritur et ridet: “The Roman Empire is luxurious, but it is filled with misery. It is dying but it laughs–moritur et ridet.” But Salvian, we learned with a deflecting smile, was an extremist, though, in the hindsight of disaster, his foresight would scarcely seem overstated. What interested me was that men had smiled complacently at Salvian’s words when he spoke them, and men still smiled at them complacently a thousand years later–the same kind of men, I was beginning to suspect, upon, I also suspected, a similar turning point of history.
In any case, for me it was too late. What the missing some thing was in the crisis of Rome I was not to learn in classrooms. The crisis of civilization in my own time had caught me in its undertow and soon swept me far beyond that earlier Dark Ages. Not until it had cast me back upon its rocks, by grace a defeated fugitive from its forces, would I again find peace or pause to seek to determine what, if anything, that mortal experience had taught me about the history of our own time, or any other.
This century was half gone, and with it more than half my life, that at that moment seemed all but to have ended in an ordeal with which my name is linked, when someone, seeking only to comfort me, once more directed my eyes to that point in the past from which, some thirty years before, I had abruptly taken them. Anne Ford, my friend of many years standing, sent me from the Monastery of Gethsemani a little silver medal, blessed in my family’s name and mine, by Father Louis–Thomas Merton of The Seven-Storey Mountain, who, as a later student, had sat in the same college classrooms, listening to some of the same instructors I had known. On the medal was an image of St. Benedict.
I found myself asking who St. Benedict had been. I knew that he had founded a monastic order, which bore his name, and that for it he had written a famous Rule. I knew that he had uttered a precept that I had taken for my own: Laborare est orare — to labor is to pray. I had once written a little news story about plans for the restoration of his monastery of Monte Cassino after its destruction in the World War of 1939. What I had written had presumably been read at least by one hundred thousand people (so much for journalism in our time). But a seeker after knowledge at any age, certainly one fifty years old, must begin by confessing that he probably knew less about St. Benedict than many a pupil in parochial school. Nor, had I asked a dozen friends, regarded as highly intelligent by themselves and the world, could one of them have told me much more about St. Benedict than I knew myself. The fact that such ignorance could exist, could be taken as a matter of course, was more stunning than the abyss of ignorance itself.
For the briefest prying must reveal that, simply in terms of history, leaving aside for a moment his sanctity, St. Benedict was a colossal figure on a scale of importance in shaping the civilization of the West against which few subsequent figures could measure. And of those who might measure in terms of historic force, almost none could measure in terms of good achieved.
Nor was St. Benedict an isolated peak. He was only one among ranges of human height that reached away from him in time in both directions, past and future, but of which, with one or two obvious exceptions, one was as ignorant as of Benedict: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis of Assisi, Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII).
Clearly, a cleft cut across the body of Christendom itself, and raised an overwhelming question: What, in fact, was the civilization of the West? If it was Christendom, why had it turned its back on half its roots and meanings and become cheerfully ignorant of those who had embodied them? If it was not Christendom, what was it? And what were those values that it claimed to assert against the forces of active evil that beset it in the greatest crisis of history since the fall of Rome? Did the failure of the Western World to know what it was lie at the root of its spiritual despondency, its intellectual confusion, its moral chaos, the dissolving bonds of faith and loyalty within itself, its swift political decline in barely four decades from hegemony of the world to a demoralized rump of Europe little larger than it had been in the crash of the Roman West, and an America still disputing the nature of the crisis, its gravity, whether it existed at all, or what to do about it?
Answers to such questions could not be extemporized. At the moment, a baffled seeker could do little more than grope for St. Benedict’s hand and pray in all humbleness to be led over the traces of the saint’s progress to the end that he might be, if not more knowledgeable, at least less nakedly ignorant. The biographical facts were synoptic enough and chiefly to be found in the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great or inferred between the lines of St. Benedict’s Rule.
Benedict had been born, toward the end of the fifth century, of good family in the sturdy countryside of Nursia, which lay close enough to Rome to catch the tremors of its sack, in 410, by Alaric‘s West Goths (the first time in eight hundred years that the city had fallen) and the shock of its sack by the Vandals, who, in 455 completed the material and human havoc that the West Goths had begun. To a Rome darkened by such disasters, Benedict had been sent to school as a boy of fourteen or fifteen. There he was shaken by the corrupt customs of his schoolmates, it is said. But we may surely conjecture that he was touched, too, like sensitive minds in our own day, by a sense of brooding, indefinable disaster, of doom still incomplete, for the Dark Ages were scarcely more than begun.
The boy fled from Rome, or, as we might say, ran away from school, and settled with a loose-knit congregation about thirty miles from the city. There he performed his first miracle. When, as a result, men called him good, he fled again. For, though he was a boy, he was clearly old enough to fear the world, especially when it praises. This time he fled into the desert wilderness near Subiaco, where for three years he lived alone in a cave. To those who presently found him, he seemed more like a wild creature than a man. Those were the years of the saint’s conquest of his flesh, his purgation, illumination, and perhaps his prayerful union with God. They must also have been the years when he plumbed all the perils of solitary austerities and the hermit life, by suffering them.
At any rate, the saint left Subiaco to enter on his first experience in governing a community of monks. He returned to Subiaco, and, in twelve years, organized twelve Benedictine communities. His days were filled with devotion and with labor and touched with miracles. But again human factors threatened failure. St. Benedict with a few companions withdrew to Monte Cassino, some eighty miles southeast of Rome. There he overthrew an ancient altar of Apollo (for paganism was still rooted in the countryside), and there he raised his own altar. On those heights, he organized his community, ruled his monks, performed new miracles, distilled his holy experience in his Holy Rule. There he died at a date which is in dispute, but was probably about 547, when the campaigns of the Eastern Roman Empire to recover Italy from the East Goths had so permanently devastated the Peninsula that the irruption of the Lombards into the ruins brought a new horror rather than any novelty in havoc.
Against that night and that ruin, like a man patiently lighting a wick in a tempest, St. Benedict set his Rule. There had been other monastic Rules before–St. Pachomius’ and St. Basil’s, for example. St. Benedict called his the Holy Rule, setting it down and setting it apart from all others, with a consciousness of its singular authority that has led some biographers to speculate whether he had not been prompted by the Holy See to write it. Perhaps it is permissible to hazard that his authority need have proceeded from nothing more than that unwavering confidence which commonly sustains genius.
What was there in this little book that changed the world? To us, at first glance, it seems prosaic enough, even fairly obvious. That, indeed, is the heart of its inspiration. In an age of pillar saints and furiously competing athletes of the spirit, when men plunged by thousands into the desert, in a lunge toward God, and in revulsion from man, St. Benedict’s Rule brought a saving and creative sanity. Its temper was that of moderation as against excesses of zeal, of fruitful labor as against austerities pushed to the point of fruitlessness, of discipline as against enthusiasm, of continence of spirit and conduct as against in continence.
It has been said (by T. F. Lindsay in his sensitive and searching St. Benedict) that, in a shattered society, the Holy Rule, to those who submitted to its mild but strict sway, restored the discipline and power of Roman family life.
I venture that it did something else as well. For those who obeyed it, it ended three great alienations of the spirit whose action, I suspect, touched on that missing something which my instructors failed to find among the causes of the fall of Rome. The same alienations, I further suspect, can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.
These alienations St. Benedict fused into a new surge of the human spirit by directing the frustrations that informed them into the disciplined service of God. At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages. For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.
So bald a summary can do little more than indicate the dimensions of the Benedictine achievement and plead for its constant re-examination. Seldom has the need been greater. For we sense, in the year 1952, that we may stand closer to the year 410 than at any other time in the centuries since. If that statement seems as extreme as any of Salvian’s, three hundred million Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and all the Christian Balkans, would tell you that it is not–would tell you if they could lift their voices through the night of the new Dark Ages that have fallen on them. For them the year 410 has already come.
- This article was published originally in Saints For Now, edited by Clare Boothe Luce, 1952, Sheed and Ward – Commonweal editor ↩
- Alfred Lord Tennyson was Queen Victoria’s favorite poet ↩
- “In Memoriam A. H. H.” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson ↩
- Last line of “Idylls of the King” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson ↩
- Wilhelm II ↩
- [“Blood and Iron,” a phrase attributed to Bismarck to mean that war, not parliamentary manuevers, would decide the great issues of the day — Commonweal editor]. ↩
- Blut und Eisen, literally “blood and iron,” was the title of a famous speech by Otto von Bismarck ↩
- “Bully!” was a famous phrase of Roosevelt’s ↩
- Translation: “Who stood up to say that we are not in broad daylight?” ↩
- “Rome did not fall in a day” refers to the title of Edward Gibbon‘s highly influential history The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ↩
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