Friday, March 21, 2014

In Honor of St. Benedict, St. Thomas, and Benedict XVI

A meditation in honor of Saint Benedict, born into eternal life on March 21, 543 (or 547).

For the traditional feastday of the Patriarch of Western Monasticism and the Patron of Europe, it seems appropriate to recall these beautiful words from the Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict written by a great disciple of his, the Right Rev. Dom Paul Delatte, O.S.B., Abbot of Solesmes from 1890-1921.
St. Benedict of Nursia was above all else a man of tradition. He was not the enthusiastic creator of an entirely new form of the religious life: neither nature nor grace disposed him to such a course. As may be seen from the last chapter of his Rule, he cared nothing for a reputation of originality, or for the glory of being a pioneer. He did not write till late, till he was on the threshold of eternity, after study and perhaps after experience of the principal monastic codes. Nearly every sentence reveals almost a fixed determination to base his ideas on those of the ancients, or at least to use their language and appropriate their terms. But even though the Rule were nothing but an intelligent compilation, even though it were merely put together with the study and spiritual insight of St. Benedict, with the spirit of orderliness, moderation, and lucidity of this Roman of old patrician stock, it would not for all that be a commonplace work: in actual fact, it stands as the complete and finished expression of the monastic ideal. Who can measure the extraordinary influence that these few pages have exercised, during fourteen centuries, over the general development of the Western world? Yet St. Benedict thought only of God and of souls desirous to go to God; in the tranquil simplicity of his faith he purposed only to establish a school of the Lord’s service: Dominici schola servitii. But, just because of this singleminded pursuit of the one thing necessary, God has blessed the Rule with singular fruitfulness, and St. Benedict has taken his place in the line of the great patriarchs.
Dom Delatte’s splendid characterization of the “unoriginal originality” of Benedict reminds me strongly of St. Thomas Aquinas, himself a Benedictine oblate as a child and, later, a Dominian friar of whom quite the same thing could be said: he was determined to collect and harmonize the teachings of the ancients and bring them to bear on every problem, so that his solutions often seem like the work of an elegant host who manages, at the table, to get all the guests talking to one another and to reach a consensus that keeps the best of each while gracefully ignoring the rest. Aquinas, in that sense, “was above all else a man of tradition … who thought only of God and of souls desirous to go to God.” To paraphrase Delatte, “Who can measure the extraordinary influence that the works of Thomas, particularly his Summa, have exercised, during seven and a half centuries, over the general development of the Western world?”

But I am also reminded here of our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who chose the name Benedict for so many of the reasons for which Dom Delatte praises the patriarch. How often did we thank the good Lord for sending us a pope who “was above all else a man of tradition”? How could we fail to see that he sought neither originality nor glory, but pursued a steady course of reviving the wisdom and language of the ancients, bring to his difficult task the “orderliness, moderation, and lucidity” of the best kind of German scholar? It is as if he had been handed the keys to a mansion in which many rooms were closed off and falling apart, one in which the domestic staff had turned suspicious and unaccommodating, and had taken it upon himself to begin the long process of repairing physical structures and healing spiritual breaches. God willing, it will someday be said of him: “Who can measure the extraordinary influence that the few pages of Summorum Pontificum have exercised over the reconstruction of the Church after the destruction wreaked by postconciliar storms?” Yet in all this, Pope Benedict “thought only of God and of souls desirous to go to God; in the tranquil simplicity of his faith he purposed only to restore to the faithful the first and greatest school of the Lord’s service, the sacred liturgy.”

May the teaching and legislation of Pope Benedict be blessed over the centuries with a fruitfulness comparable to that of the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Summa of Saint Thomas.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: