‘Men Who Hold Their Gaze Directly Towards God’
On April 1, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave a conference at Subiaco, the cradle of Benedictine life. Nineteen days later, as bishop of Rome, he assumed the name of Saint Benedict. Pope Benedict’s message at Subiaco identifies what the world needs above all else. “We need,” he said, “men who hold their gaze directly towards God.”
Given that our monastery professes a Benedictine life marked by the particular charism of adoration of the Eucharistic Face of Christ, these words of Pope Benedict XVI are, for me, very compelling. What does one do in Eucharistic adoration if not hold one’s gaze directly towards God? The other component of this particular charism is that if I seek to hold my gaze fixed on the Eucharistic Face of God, it is, first of all, for my brother priests, and especially for those whose gaze has, for one reason or another, been distracted — literally, pulled away from — the One Thing Necessary. This is where adoration and reparation meet.
With Unveiled Face
People are drawn to Saint Benedict because in him they see a man who “held his gaze directly towards God.” People are drawn to Benedictine monasteries because in them they expect to find men and women who “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). People come to monasteries in search of a place where there is evidence of a divine inbreaking: traces of the Kingdom of Heaven, glimmers of the glory of God shining on the Face of Christ.
Those Who Seek God
More often than not the search for God begins with a search for those who seek God. It has always been thus in the life of the Church in both East and West. The faithful come to monasteries looking for fathers and mothers for their souls. People seek out monks and nuns hoping to see on their faces a reflection of the brightness of God. By virtue of monastic profession, we are called to hold our faces directly toward God. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
In Saint Benedict we monks and nuns and oblates venerate a man who held his face directly toward God and who teaches us to do the same. We call him our father: Holy Father Benedict. There is, in this custom of reverent affection, a certain sweetness. We affirm, beyond any doubt, that, by a mysterious design of Providence, we are children of Benedict, the vir Dei, the man of God.
A Holy Father
Saint Benedict’s fatherhood over us is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift not only for a limited space, a single lifetime, and a small number of disciples. When we call Saint Benedict our Holy Father, we are not giving mere lip service to a formula of conventional piety; we are expressing a mysterious and abiding reality. Saint Benedict cares for each of us with the solicitude of a spiritual father. Even in heaven, he “bears in mind what he is and what he is called” (RB 2:30-31). From his place in glory, “he adapts and fits himself to all, so that not only will he not lose any of the flock entrusted to him, but he will rejoice as his good flock increases” (RB 2:32). About thirty-five years ago, precisely on a July 11th, while taking my place in the refectory for the evening meal, I was absolutely smitten by a profound personal awareness of the real paternity of Saint Benedict over my soul. It so affected me that, being young and impressionable, I salted my soup that evening with tears. It is something that I have never forgotten.
The Care of Sick Souls
Saint Benedict has not forgotten in heaven what he taught on earth: that an abbot undertakes “the care of sick souls, not a despotic rule over healthy ones” (RB 27:6). He continues in heaven to search “for the sheep gone astray” (RB 27:8), and he has such pity for its weakness that he is ready to carry it back to the flock on his own shoulders.
It is as important for us to read and re-read Saint Gregory’s Life of our holy father Saint Benedict as it is for us to read and re-read his Rule. Saint Gregory allows us to see a young man, blessed by grace and by name, disillusioned by the empty pursuits he saw all around him, and moved by the Holy Spirit to seek the habit of monastic conversion. The young Benedict goes to live alone in the savage beauty of Subiaco, far from the disquiet and turmoil of Rome.
Saint Benedict of the Sacro Speco, the sacred grotto of Subiaco, is the model of all who, by choice or circumstances, live alone. His solitude was by no means absolute; he related to the rustic shepherds of the locality and, by his teaching, restored their human dignity. Saint Gregory says that many, having known Benedict, passed from a life that was beastly to the life of grace. By offering a spiritual hospitality, the solitary Benedict refreshed all who sought him out with nourishment drawn from his heart.
Saint Benedict was tempted in his solitude. He was no stranger to struggles of the mind, heart, and flesh. This makes him very close to us. The devil seeks, by means of temptations, to drag us into the pit of bitterness, dejection, despair. God, for his part, permits temptation, because temptation makes the saints compassionate, humble, and wise. The seeds of Holy Father Benedict’s compassion, humility, and wisdom were planted in the temptations he endured at Subiaco.
The second period of Saint Benedict’s life is characterized by his foundations at Subiaco. These monasteries were outposts of the Kingdom of God in the wilderness. Their very presence threatened the kingdom of darkness. It was at Subiaco that he began to wield masterfully the tools of the spiritual craft that he passed on to us in the Rule: “Not to give way to anger. Not to abandon charity. To rest one’s hope in God. To fall often to prayer. To love chastity. Not to cherish bitterness, And never to despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4: 22, 26, 41, 56, 64, 66, 74).
Listening carefully to circumstances, and seeing the will of God in events, Saint Benedict discerned a call to depart from Subiaco, to move on. He obeyed a call to uproot himself and his monks. He embraced change. While requiring stability of his monks, Holy Father Benedict was remarkably supple, ever ready to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the paradoxes of Benedictine life: the vow of stability dovetails with that of conversatio morum. By the one, we commit ourselves to persevere in a given context, to put down roots, and endure in spiritual combat; by the other, we commit ourselves to change, always to begin afresh, and to move on in obedience to the Holy Spirit. These are not conflicting vows, but complementary ones. Stability without conversion is a kind of spiritual fossilization. Change without stability is superficial and sterile. Saint Benedict can help us, will help us, to integrate stability into change, change into stability, always in obedience to the Spirit speaking to us through the wisdom of the Rule and in the counsel of the Abbot.
The third period of Saint Benedict’s life took place on the heights of Monte Cassino. There, he reached a fullness of maturity in Christ that was revealed when, lifted out of himself, he saw the entire world gathered into a single ray of light before his eyes (cf. Life XXXV). This signifies, of course, that Saint Benedict had come to see all things as God sees them; he had passed into the light of God while yet in the shadows of this world.
Saint Benedict died standing, surrounded by his disciples, with his hands raised to heaven in the gesture of the Suscipe, becoming in that hour an icon of Love Crucified in the mystery of His Passover to the Father. Benedictine life is, in the end, a mysterious and life-long configuration to the obedient, humble, and silent Christ, a ceaseless passage out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of time into eternity. “Yearn for eternal life,” he says, “with all possible spiritual desire” (RB 4:46).
Our Holy Father Benedict is attentive to each of us in the struggles and questions that invite us to turn, again and again, from the darkness to live facing the “deifying Light” (RB Pro:9). And should this be too difficult, it is enough that we should have the desire of the Light. Every good work begins in holy desire and in humble prayer to God, a prayer of few words and of “repentance with tears” (RB 20:4). He who inspires the desire for continual conversion is alone capable of bringing that desire to completion.
Seek the prayer of Holy Father Benedict today. Claim his fatherhood over you. Ask him to intervene in all the “hard and repugnant things” (RB 63:8) by which we go to God. Saint Gregory says at the end of his Life of Saint Benedict that “even today, when the faith of the faithful asks for it, he works miracles” (Life XXXVIII). I believe that.
I am confident that Holy Father Benedict will not forsake us in our needs. Rejoice, then, that we have been given so compassionate, so wise, so loving a father in God, and desiring nothing so much as to pass over with him, already here and now, into the everlasting liturgy of heaven where the praise of all the saints is perfect and without end.Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, Prior