As I’m due to become a father in the near future, I’ve been casting around looking for names for both boys and girls. Given my interests in the medieval and classical worlds, it was inevitable I’d look at a saints’ calendar or two, even if not entirely in seriousness. And so it was that I discovered I had missed the feast of St Benedict of Nursia by a day – sorry Ben.
Benedict – who died in the sixth century and for whom the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, is ultimately named – is important in my research, even if he’s not a figure I study directly. His monastic rule was the most influential of all in early medieval times, with a great many monastic houses following it even if the name “Benedictine” had yet to come into play.
A monastic rule was a set of guidelines that instructed the brethren in appropriate behaviour and duties, both religious and temporal. It was the cornerstone of any monastery, because it enforced collegiality and discipline. It was vital because while the ideal might be to spend all one’s time in prayer or divine contemplation, there were everyday requirements for maintaining a religious order: They needed to be fed, clothed, educated, kept in line. The latter is not so much oppression as pragmatism. Monasteries were by definition made up of people from all over the place, and so a uniform code of conduct was necessary. Everybody needed a role because everybody depended on one another to some extent. So it’s not surprising then that many monastic saints were able to govern well, preach to swathes of people, found numerous monastic houses, be a skilled diplomat within their own monastery (this didn’t always work out), and yet still maintain inner sanctity beyond that of most people – you had to be a skilled multitasker in those days. Western monasticism is rooted in Benedict’s rule, which not only governed an individual’s behaviour but taught how to efficiently run a monastery.
(Video: Benedictines from Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick)
Gregory the Great, who would go on to profoundly influence the Anglo-Saxon writer Bede, was in turn shaped by Benedict, and wrote what amounts to a vita or hagiography (biography of a saint) of the Nursian. He is a exemplary saint, demonstrating faith and good works and working a number of miracles, as one would expect of a saint. They are both rock stars and aspirational characters.
Catholic saints are intercessory figures. They are not worshipped in their own right but are supposed to bridge the gap between humans and God; if you are in need you pray to a saint who then carries the message to God, presumably adding some influence to your request. If you read articles about medieval Christianity you will see references to saints’ cults – these involved venerating and promoting the memory of a particular saint, often for political reasons (“our monastery’s saint is better than yours because he could do this” sort of thing). Some were related to royal houses, and so their veneration served a propaganda as well as religious function.
The thing that particularly struck me about Benedict is that he is the patron saint of a good many seemingly unrelated things, according to his Wikipedia entry:
- Against poison
- Against witchcraft
- Agricultural workers
- Civil engineers
- Dying people
- Gall stones
- Heerdt (Germany)
- Heraldry and Officers of arms
- the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
- Inflammatory diseases
- Italian architects
- Kidney disease
- Nettle rash
- Norcia (Italy)
- People in religious orders
- Servants who have broken their master’s belongings
Some of these are understandable. He lived in a cave for three years, hence being a patron saint of caves and spelunkers. He miraculously survived several attempts to poison him by his monks, hence poison. But Italian architects? Servants who have broken their master’s belongings? Surely that last one is the most specialised form of patronage in Christendom (it’s probably not, mind).
Like highly decorated generals, saints tend to pick up accolades over the centuries based on their life, where they went, and any reported miracles or achievements. Saints are fascinating because of how contemporaries and later generations use them as mirrors for the present day as well as a bridge to the divine. Is it any wonder, then, that they can become all things to all people?