A message from Father Nick 17

Building a continent

On 11th July we keep an annual commemoration of St Benedict, whose influence has been both lasting and profound. In 1964 Pope Paul VI declared him to be patron saint of Europe and, although since then five other saints have also been included in this distinction, he remains for us a kind of prototype of dedicated Christian life.

Benedict’s importance is shown in the title sometimes given to him: “Midwife of the West” (we will have more to say about the East again). Born around 480 AD, he came to study in Rome just before the year 500. The seat of empire had long since moved to Constantinople, and Rome was by now a “paradoxical mixture of vitality and decay”. The spiritual and moral aspects of that decay affected Benedict deeply.

Resolved to lead a life of prayer, he left the city accompanied at first by his loyal nurse and went to a place called Enfilde, forty miles away. From there he moved to Subiaco, a rather gloomy valley where the emperor Nero had once had a villa. Benedict was not the first “monk” (the word means single or solitary). Egypt was the motherland of monasticism, and Anthony of Egypt was regarded as its “father”. But Benedict had a special gift for leadership, and men came to him asking to be led.

In Subiaco, and after that famously in Monte Cassino, he formed a community based on prayer and work and study.  He produced a “rule” acclaimed for its moderation and still followed today by Benedictine men and women. And with his way of life he gave old Rome a new serenity and vision.

The effect of that vision is incalculable. Even fierce “Barbarians” were deeply impressed by Benedictine houses of prayer. And each such house became a place of learning too, handing on to future generations the treasures of the past. Towns grew up around monasteries, and roads were built to connect towns – in a way the landscape of Benedictine life became the infrastructure of an emerging mediaeval world.

And the great rhythms of prayer have never ceased, reminding us of God’s purpose for peace. During the Second World War, at the height of the battle of Monte Cassino, a handful of monks remained to sing the office. Nothing could be heard above the shell- and gunfire, but one monk ran his finger along each psalm line and his colleagues prayed the words with him in their heart. “Midwife of the West” – it seems a title well deserved.