Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
 WHEN it was reported in Rome that a man was living in a cave
in a wild gorge by the river Anio, forty miles away,
people were interested but not surprised. It was not
at that time an uncommon thing to live in a cave.
The monastic life, whose joys Jerome had preached to
the ladies of Roman society, had by this time attracted
great numbers of people, in the West as in the East.
This was due in part to two exceedingly popular books
which everybody read: the "Life of St. Anthony," by
Athanasius, and the "Life of St. Martin," by Sulpicius
Severus. The patience and devotion of Anthony in Egypt
were equalled, if not
surpassed, by the spiritual
 virtues and adventures of Martin in France.
It was Martin who, in his youth, a cavalryman in the
army of the emperor Julian, saw a shivering beggar by
the roadside, and cutting his military cloak in two
flung half over the beggar's back, and that night in
vision saw the Lord in heaven wearing the garment which
he had thus given in compassion. It was Martin to whom
once appeared a vision of the Lord in shining apparel,
with a chariot of fire, and invited the saint to ride
with Him to the gates of Paradise; and Martin, looking
attentively at Him, said, "Where are the marks of the
nails?" There were no marks of the nails, and the
vision, which was a trick of the devil, vanished in a
cloud of evil smoke.
The marks of the nails were evident in all the life of
Martin, who put himself to much privation, gave his
days and nights to prayer, went about his great
 pagan diocese on foot, braved a savage emperor who had
behaved unjustly, and a whole community of wild heathen
whose sacred tree he cut down with his own ax, and alike
by his courage and his gentleness appealed to the
imagination of earnest youth.
St. Anthony and St. Martin, then, were the heroes of the
devout life of the fifth century. The man in the cave
knew by heart the books which told about them.
And, as another and still stronger argument for the
forsaking of the world, was the condition of the world
itself. All things were in confusion. Alaric the Goth
and Genseric the Vandal were followed by Attila the
Hun, and by a thousand other lesser captains. The
Lombards were settling in the north of Italy. The
Franks were taking France. The old laws were no longer
a protection, the old customs were giving place to new,
the wealthy and educated Latins were thrust out of
 their pleasant houses and these conquerors, uneducated,
only partially civilized, speaking strange languages,
took possession. The Goths, indeed, had become
Christians; but their Christianity was of the Arian
kind. And when the Franks, under their king Clovis,
were converted and became Catholic Christians, the
Franks and the Goths fell to fighting, and the miseries
of the times were multiplied. No peaceful citizen
could be sure when he went to bed at night that his
house would not be burned down before morning. Under
these circumstances, even a cave in a dark gorge, while
it might not be very comfortable, had at least the
advantage of being safe.
So thought Benedict when he hid himself beside the
river Anio. He belonged to a noble family in Rome, and
spent his youth there. And when he had had enough, and
more than enough, of the hard world, he put it all
behind him, and found
 peace and the presence of God in his cave. He had a
friend who every day lowered over the face of the cliff
to the mouth of the cave a little basket of bread. A
bell tied to the basket informed the hermit that his
dinner was approaching.
The reports which were carried about by neighboring
shepherds concerning the holiness of the man in the
cave caused the monks of a monastery in that region to
invite him to be their abbot. "You don't want me for
your abbot," said Benedict, when they appeared at the
mouth of the cave with their request. "You don't know
what sort of man I am. You would not be willing to
live according to my rule." But the monks were full of
enthusiasm at the idea of a holy abbot and a better
life, and they insisted till Benedict consented. So he
took command, and at the end of the first week they
tried to poison him.
This experience disclosed the fact that the monastic
life needed reforming. A
 hundred other houses of religion were like the abbey
whose monks had found the discipline of Benedict too
hard. Men had gone into monasticism for a great number
of reasons: because they were afraid of Franks and
Goths, because they had failed in business or in love,
because they did not wish to work. And, having become
monks, they were living pretty much as they pleased,
some starving and some feasting; some saying their
prayers, some breaking the Commandments. There was no
order, or regularity, or common discipline. There was
no accepted rule.
When Benedict returned to his cave beside the Anio, his
former solitude had become impossible. Good people
were greatly interested in the abbot who was so strict
that his monks had put poison in his cup. Disciples
gathered about him. Noble Roman families sent their
sons to him to be instructed in religion. Presently,
on the wild hills in the
neighbor-  hood of Benedict's cave were twelve groups of men in
twelve monastic houses, living according to his regulations.
But the world was still too near, and the monks sought
a more secure retreat. To the south was a range of
mountains, and on the summit of one of them, called
Monte Cassino, they found a little temple with an altar
dedicated to Apollo, standing in a grove. There were
still a few country people who came to offer their
sacrifices in the old way. It was one of many hidden
places, among the woods and in the high hills, where
the Roman gods were still remembered. These simple
people Benedict converted. Their temple to Apollo he
destroyed, and on its site he began the building of a
monastery, which became the most famous and influential
in all Europe.
For the monks of Monte Cassino, Benedict wrote a rule
of life, which was so good that all other monks adopted
 Even to-day, wherever there is a monastery, the conduct
of its life is still governed by St. Benedict.
He found the monks, following the example of the East,
devoting themselves to pain and prayer, living their
own religious life for the good of their own souls.
Benedict brought them back to save the world which they
had abandoned. He stopped the old tortures. He
forsook all that starving and beating of the body which
good men had undertaken in the deserts of the Nile in
the hope of improving their souls. For pain he
substituted work. The fare of the monks was to be
plain and frugal, but not to the extent of hardships.
Their work was to be, in part in the field, cultivating
the soil, and in part in the cloister, reading, and
studying, and teaching.
The influence of these provisions was far-reaching and
of vast importance.
The Latins had despised all labor of
 the hands. They had had slaves to do that, and it was
associated with slavery. It was accounted a disgrace
for a free man to work. Benedict and his monks put a
stop to that mischievous prejudice. Men saw these gentlemen and
saints planting their fields, mowing their grain,
gathering their fruit. The sight dignified all the
humble life of the farm. The first thing which the
monks did when they established a monastery in a wild
place was to clear the land, and they got their
barbarian neighbors to follow their example.
As for the labor of the mind, the Goths and Franks were
unaccustomed to it. When they came on their fierce
invasions they brought no books, and those which they
found they could not read. For many years they were
too busy fighting, and then settling, making themselves
the new masters of the old empire, to pay attention to
learning. The reading monks did that.
 They preserved the ancient Latin books. They saved
Virgil and Horace and Cicero, and all the Latin
classics from destruction. They were the teachers of
the new generations.
Thus, when Benedict wrote in his rule, "Idleness is the
enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to
employ themselves at certain times in the work of the
hands, and again at certain times in divine reading,"
the words were such as to exercise an influence for the
good of the world greater than that of all the books
which had been written since the New Testament.
It is the province and privilege of the men who come
first to clear the way and build foundations. Thus
Cyprian was the pioneer of the Church: he first brought
the Christian society into its place of future
importance in the Christian religion. Athanasius was
the pioneer of the creed: he first insisted on the
 importance of an accurate statement of the faith.
Ambrose and Chrysostom were splendid examples of the
leadership of religion against unrighteousness. Jerome
gave Western Christendom the Bible in its own language.
Augustine contributed a system of theology, partly true
and partly untrue, which, for good and evil, governed
the minds of men during the succeeding centuries.
Benedict set in order that monastic life which carried
religion and civilization through the confusion of the
fall of the Roman Empire.
ST. JOHN AND ST. BENEDICT
Beside the monastery in which Benedict lived his good
life, his devout sister, Scholastica had a holy house,
filled with praying and working women. The rules which
they had made permitted the brother and sister to see
each other only once a year. So Benedict came, one
time, in his old age, to visit Scholastica, and when he
rose to go, she begged him to stay longer, and talk of
 And when he persisted, feeling that he had already
stayed his time, the sky, the monks said, became black
with a great storm, and the rain fell so that he could
not go. That was their last visit.