July 18 – Macrina of Nyssa

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Benedict of Nursia, person of prayer

Benedict of Nursia was born around the year 480CE in Umbria, Italy. Four years before his birth the Roman Empire had fallen, and the world into which Benedict was born was one of violence, turmoil, uncertainty and insecurity. Around the age of 19-20 he travelled to Rome to study the liberal arts. However, he found life in the city dissolute and immoral, not to his liking at all. So around the year 500CE he abandoned his studies and went to live in an isolated place near Effide (modern Affile). After living here for about two years he sought deeper solitude. He took up residence in a cave at Subiaco. Romanus, a monk who lived nearby, encouraged him to live the hermit life, supplied him with a habit and on occasions brought him food. Over time he gradually became known for his piety.

When the abbot of a nearby monastery died the monks asked Benedict, even though he was only about 25 years old, to come and be their abbot. Knowing of their way of life, and being unimpressed by it, Benedict was reluctant to go. Eventually he went and unfortunately found his misgivings were confirmed. Their way of life was very different from Benedict’s and they were in no mood to be reformed by him. After two attempts to poison him failed, Benedict returned to his solitude. But he was by now well known and people would come to him for spiritual guidance. It was at this point he began the monastic life that would later flourish. In the valley of Subiaco he established 12 small monasteries each with 12 monks and a superior. This success was not received well by the nearby priest who tried to undermine Benedict’s efforts. Eventually this opposition got the better of him and he moved the monks to the famous Monte Cassino, which became and has remained the central home of the Benedictine family. It was here he wrote his famous rule and it was where he died on March 21st 543. Benedict’s feast day is July 11th.

Benedict is known mostly for the rule of monastic life that he wrote and which has been the most influential document on Western monasticism. It is very short, about 9000 words, but renowned for its moderation, balance and gentleness, containing as Benedict said, ‘nothing harsh, nothing burdensome’. His aim in writing the Rule was that it should be a guide to living the Gospels. Thus it is saturated with Biblical references and images. The best known parts of the Rule are Chapter 7 on humility and Chapter 53 on welcoming guests to the monastery as Christ.

In our world, which perhaps reflects something of Benedict’s with the violence and uncertainty, the voice of this monk is speaking in a fresh way in our time. He calls us to a balance of prayer and work, of seeking to be aware of God’s presence everywhere and seeing in all others the presence of Christ. In a world where we can feel life is out of balance, where our environment is in a perilous state and where human divisions abound, perhaps it’s a good time to learn the wisdom of Benedict again.

Contributed by Gary Stuckey