Benedict’s Bio

Gregory the Great’s biography of Benedict portrays not only a holy man, but a wonder worker. Whether or not the miracles in Gregory’s life of Benedict happened exactly as related is beside the point. The fact is, they are fun. They are full of didactic entertainment and earthy humour. It is both entertaining and instructive that Benedict thought the blackbirds were demons. Perhaps they were. There is something demonic about blackbirds, and it makes a good story—like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. In the legends there’s one soberingly funny story about an enemy of Benedict’s who sent seven ladies to dance in the monastery garden to tempt the young monks. Later a building fell down and killed the evil man. Of course the saint was sorry for his enemy’s death, but it does sound like the time Elisha summoned a bear to maul the lads who mocked his bald-headedness.

It’s fun to think the miracles happened, but the main problem is not whether they happened or not, but whether they matter. Certainly Benedict himself would have taken a sanguine attitude to such phenomena. As Theresa of Avila was annoyed and embarrassed by her levitation, so Benedict would probably have been more concerned about the novices being late for matins than about making an iron pruning hook float for a Gothic peasant. Benedict would have been unconcerned about difficulties of miracles because he was more concerned with the difficulties of real life. He could have rephrased the Lord’s command and said, ‘Take no thought for miracles, today has enough worries to concern you.’

Benedict’s concern for the detail of daily life comes through his rule. There we have his portrait, and the person we meet is a wise, dignified and loving man. He is thoughtful and compassionate while also being shrewd and strict. The mystic side of his character is shown in his experience one night when praying. Suddenly it seemed to him that ‘the whole world seemed to be caught up into one sunbeam and gathered thus before his eyes.’ He died in the monastic chapel where he received communion, and then passed away like Moses, standing erect for battle with his outstretched arms supported by his monks.