Not the popes. The saints.
Today, I was able to head to the small mountain town of Subiaco, famous for the cave in which Saint Benedict spent his first three years as a monk. That part I knew. But I didn’t know that Saint Francis had made a pilgrimage to Subiaco in the last years of his life.
Subiaco is a breathtaking spot, away from the hustle and bustle of Roman life. That is my reality, but it was also the reality of the young student, Benedict. He came to Rome to receive an education in rhetoric at the end of the 5th century, but fled the life of vanity there to become a hermit in the wilderness. He came to Subiaco, a large cave that is now filled with paintings and chapels. In this lonely place, Benedict gave himself over to prayer. Romanus, a hermit who lived on the mountain above the cave, used to lower food to him. Soon, however, the local shepherds and farmers would come to learn something from this man, exchanging food and other necessities for a bit of wisdom.
The monk who gave us the tour today brought out one aspect of the story that was new to me. Benedict composed his famous Rule for these simple people who always came to him seeking wisdom and advice. His Rule for the monasteries that he would found throughout this region of Italy, was also a rule of wisdom for the daily life of ordinary Christians. We see in this little aspect of the tale two beautiful realities: the desire of the people for the wisdom of God and the desire of Benedict to share what he had received from God in his life of prayer and dedication. And we must remember the context in which all this happened. The Roman Empire had just collapsed in the West, leaving a huge vacuum which the barbarian–which mainly means un-educated–peoples would fill. The Benedictine monasteries would be set up throughout Europe as “cities on a hill”, places of civilization and beauty in the midst of the Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome.
Which brings me to a second thing that struck me in this trip to Subiaco: Saint Benedict is the patron saint of Europe. In the picture above, which was taken in a part of Benedict’s cave, there is a candle with the most unique candlestick I have ever seen. It is a part of a bomb! The bomb landed near the shrine during World War II but never exploded. It was placed there (diffused!) in 1964 when Pope Paul VI named Benedict the patron saint of Europe. At the base of the bomb-candlestick it says “Europa Una”, “One Europe”. We were reminded that the motto of the Benedictine order is “Pax”, “Peace”.
Benedictine monasteries are always places of peace. But more importantly, the life of prayer, study, work, and community that characterized those monasteries is a sure path to peace. The peace of God, which is the only true peace, is not meant just for monks, but also for ordinary Christians, those for whom Benedict originally wrote his Rule. It is the life of the Gospel that brings peace to our troubled souls, and makes us “instruments of peace” for the world around us.
The sanctity and message of Saint Benedict brought thousands of pilgrims to Subiaco in the years following his death. We saw at the entrance to the cave a painting of Mary and Jesus that dates back to the 7th century! The painting is at the bottom of a staircase that leads up to the cave of Benedict, and it was these stairs that Saint Francis climbed in the year 1223.
In one of the side chapels of the cave, there is a painting of Saint Francis that commemorates the pilgrimage that he made. It is a rather unique painting, because Francis is not depicted with the stigmata. The monk who was giving the tour asked us why he was not pictured with the wounds of Christ, whereas most paintings of Saint Francis show him with these wounds. And then he reminded us of the year Francis a had visited Subiaco, 1223, one year before he received the stigmata (1224) and three years before his death (1226). The artist had seen Saint Francis, and painted him as he remembered him, which means that this is a very accurate depiction of the saint from Assisi. The Benedictine monk was quick to point out: more accurate than even the paintings at Assisi, which were done by men who had never met Francis!
Needless to say, we were all struck by this trip to Subiaco, and inspired by these saints–giants of the faith–who gave themselves entirely to the Lord’s service. Where would the world be today if it weren’t for men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis? Benedict used his learning and wisdom to mark out a path to peace and friendship with God that continues to shape the world today. Benedictine monks are incredible people, and gave Europe and, through Europe, the world, so many gifts of culture and faith. They were truly lights in the midst of the Dark Ages, and in every age the darkness of sin has need of men and women who bring the light of Christ. Saint Gregory the Great, himself a Benedictine monk, would send the monks Saint Augustine of Canterbury and Saint Boniface to the English and German peoples. The list of saints, scholars, and missionaries reaches all the way to our day.
Francis would set the world on fire with his burning heart, burning with the love for Lady Poverty, to show the Church and the world “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). He found a great treasure, Christ, and was willing to give up everything to buy it. His communion with Christ went so far that he would receive the marks of Christ’s passion on his own body in 1224. Franciscan priests and brothers have had such a profound impact on the Church not only in Europe, but throughout the world. They were largely responsible for the evangelization of the Americas, and it was a Franciscan, Junipero Serra, who founded the missions of California.
And of course, my mind turns today to our two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, who also have the same desire that moved our two saints–to bring us into relationship with Jesus Christ, our true peace. In this reflection, we can understand a little better the depth behind the names chosen by these men, and we are grateful that the popes call our attention to these great saints.
Where would we be without men like Saint Benedict and Saint Francis? Where would we be without the saints? These men astound us by their lives, but they also show us a path, the path to the peace that does not pass away and to the essential in life. This peace and this essential thing have a name and a face: Jesus Christ. That is what saints do; they make Christ present!
Saints Benedict and Francis, pray for us!