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Posted September 20, 2006

Book: A Life of St. Benedict: Man of Blessing
Author: Carmen Acevedo Butcher
Paraclete Press, Brewster. MA. 2006. Pp. 180

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Saint Benedict’s life is shrouded in mystery. Disturbed by the immorality of urban life in Rome around AD 500, he left the city to become a hermit. Disciples later jointed him, and within a few decades the hermit became an abbot, and his great Rule has guided Western monasticism ever since.

Known to history primarily through Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, written a century after Benedict’s death, this great medieval figure is now made known to us in new depths of understanding by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. She explores all aspects of his unusual life, illuminating important episodes in the foundation of Western monasticism at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Early in his Mount Cassino abbacy, around 530, Benedict put his Rule to vellum. His decades-long contemplation of this work shows in every word of its brief prologue and seventy-three pithy chapters. Benedict probably continued to revise his Rule until his death. Written specifically for the brothers there, benedict’s Rule has wide appeal because it was originally intended for this diverse audience: the rich noble, the poor slave; the Roman, the barbarian Goth; the Christian, the pagan. It dialogues with them all, with anyone desiring intimacy with God, as the Abbot says in his prologue, “My words are meant for you specifically, whoever and wherever you are, wanting to turn from your own self-will and join Christ, the Lord of all.”

Benedict’s style also shows that he envisioned a universal audience for his Rule. He composed it – not in the erudite ancient classical Latin nor in the bookish scholarly Latin of his own day – but in the Lingua Vulgaris, the Latin spoken by the educated person of this time. His Rule sounds like the speech of an ordinary person, then, though its language is also graceful in every sense of that word. The young Roman student of rhetoric is always in evidence. He learned his lessons well, because, above all, the Rule is not preachy. Instead, its honest voice and kind simplicity draw the reader in completely.

This voice was honed during Benedict’s Subiaco years. He never forgot the pure taste of God’s goodness that he had experienced in his cave cell, and this genuine communion was inculcated into the Rule that guided his communities. Balance was the main aim – ora et labora (“Pray and Work)”. In addition to the Opus Dei, Benedict stressed the dignity of work for all, both the wealthy and the indigent. In his day, this was a revolutionary idea. Those born into noble homes expected servants to manage the annoying minutiae of their lives, but in Benedict’s monasteries, all tilled the fields, watered the crops, harvested the corn, weeded the gardens, worked in the kitchen, and served others in a variety of intellectual, educational, manual, or service-oriented ways.

His Rule also advocates divine peace. Living in a world of greedy Roman rulers, rapacious pagan Goths, and the concomitant bloodshed, Benedict would have viewed earthly combats as the outward sign of each person’s invisible spiritual struggles between good and evil. His Rule teaches how to successfully fight these inner wars: “Give up you own will, once and for all, and pick up the strong, noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.” To this end, Benedict explained in concluding his Prologue, “We’re going to found a school for the service of the Lord.” For school here, he chose the Latin scola, a special fighting unit or corps d’elite. This military diction indicates that Benedict’s monastery was not primarily a spiritual sanctuary or a place for intellectual growth, but a school training individuals how to bravely conduct and win the oldest war that each person wages: with “Me.” Above all, the Rule teaches prayer is the mightiest weapon and sincere kindness the strongest strategy.

Table of Contents:

1. Medieval biography
2. Gregory and Benedict
3. A golden Roman
4. In a dark time
5. Family and education
6. School of rhetoric
7. Disinheritance and a cracked sifter
8. Unwanted celebrity
9. The rock and the bell
10. Solipsistic hermithood?
11. Vicovaro and Subiaco
12. Miracles of lake and spring
13. A bored monk and bad bread
14. Turning pagan rites into Monte Cassino
15. Writing down a little Rule
16. How Benedict heals a boy
17. Scant bread, scarce olive oil
18. King Totila’s farce
19. Totila’s genuine visit
20. Greed and a lamp
21. Impolite pride
22. Tarracina
23. The poor and oppressed
24. Resurrection child
25. Benedict’s final heartaches
26. Conversation and a cloud
27. The death of twins
28. A posthumous touch