“At dinner time,” Gregory the Great writes of Saint Benedict, “a raven daily used to come to him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands.” One day, the saint’s friend the raven stopped by as usual, only this time, the raven swooped in to save his life. The raven knew that the bread on Benedict’s plate was poisoned. The bird hopped about and cried out, “as though he would have said that he was willing to obey,” that is, to take the bread, “and yet could not do what he was commanded.” Benedict reassures the raven, and bids him to take the poisoned bread far away where no one can find it. Later, the raven returns for his usual blessing and meal. Benedict reflects on the priest who wished to poison him and, according to Gregory, “the venerable father…was far more sorry for him than grieved for himself.” (Gregory the Great, Dialogues Book Two: The Life of Benedict, Ch. VIII)
I have deep affection for this story about Benedict, and deep affection for his friend the raven. Many ancient hagiographies feature friendships between saints and animals, as if everywhere the saint walks is an anticipation of Eden’s recovery. I love this one because I love this saint, and because I think that, in their ways, Benedict and his raven rescued me – and continue to rescue me. There is profound life to be found in the pragmatic rigour of monasticism; there are deep wells of wisdom dug in the sensible earth. The Benedictine tradition contains the heights of mystical extravagance anchored by quiet simplicity.
Benedict has dealt with me as he dealt with his monks, applying the appropriate tactic at the appropriate time. The abbot, Benedict says in his Rule, “must vary with circumstances, threatening and coaxing by turns, stern as a taskmaster, devoted and tender as only a father can be” (2.24). An abbot must have prudence (prudens): “He must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate” (64.17). Discretion (discretionis) is the mother of virtues (64.19). “He must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from (ibid). So Benedict has treated me, even when he is more sorry for me than grieved for himself. Perhaps especially then.
I, impatient creature, am “thoroughly tested in all patience” (58.11). Probetur in omni patientia: “probetur,” probed, searched, tested. All so that I might learn exactly what I lack most: stability, firmness. The deep reaches of the deep wells in the earth.
The Benedictine tradition has treated the world in much the same way: with patient, deliberate attention and prudence. It is not that the world is entirely bad or entirely good. Benedict built his monastery on the ruins of an ancient temple to Apollo, purifying a foundation that he transformed by relying upon (Gregory, Dialogues, Ch. IX). Benedictine history in particular came to live the allegory more sharply, carrying the wealth of the pre-Christian world into the Middle Ages by copying the texts, by reading them, by creating works inspired by them. It is a strangely worldly tradition for all its remove.
It can be so because it is a tradition animated most of all by love. “The love of Christ must come before all else” (4.21), and it is a love that the abbot must have for his monks (2.17), that they must have for him (72.10), and they all must have for all others (4.72). It is love that made Benedict weap over his nurse’s broken vessel, restoring it to wholeness again (Gregory, Dialogues, Ch. I). I think he weaps with love over me, and wants me whole again. Tears, as far as the monastic tradition is concerned, are holy.
So it has been odd, even disconcerting, to hear my saint mentioned so often in the news lately. To see him characterized as this and that, as if he were one thing. As if he could mean one thing for the present age, or as if he ever meant one thing for any age. In this Benedict Option conversation and controversy, Benedict becomes something of a stranger. The saint is made a symbol for a movement – and how disappointing he is then, how underwhelming.
I don’t know that Benedict would follow the “Benedict Option.” I don’t know that he wouldn’t, either, though I have my doubts. The saint of patience and of discretion might well have more than one thing to say about it, and I imagine these things might place him in some different position – neither for nor against, but something more complicated. If faith requires prudence, after all, it is because its decisions are rarely easy.
Saint Benedict is a figure of strict compassion. A holy paradox. He follows at my side as I walk forward and back, losing my way and finding it again. He follows and says, “Never lose hope in God’s mercy” (4.74).