On Barbarism and Benedict


April 17, 2014

For those who have the courage to plunge headlong into the great sea of history, their minds accustomed to taking long views, the attractions of Protestantism are few and never fatal.   But for those who know nothing of the past, whose minds are unwilling to travel to such places, the allure of Protestant piety with its security blanket of Sola Scriptura thrown over everything, renders them peculiarly susceptible.

When John Henry Newman found himself immersed in the study of the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, he realized that by Augustine’s reckoning he too was in a state of revolt, having refused to heed the principle laid down by the Bishop of Hippo that it is not well for any man to separate himself from the secure and certain judgments of the whole world, i.e., the Catholic Church.  Securus judicat orbis terrarium, Augustine had thundered.   And why is that?  Because the judgments of the Church are both binding and everlasting.   And so the future Cardinal and now Blessed John Henry Newman, awakened by the grace of God amid wheel upon wheel of history, could no longer function in the Anglican church, membership in which having left him no less a schismatic in his relation to Rome than the Donatists had been fifteen hundred years before.  Thus he turned to the Church of Rome for the certainty of truth and holiness for which he had always longed.  “The Fathers made a Catholic of me,” he would exclaim years later.

Success in securing the various forms and permutations of Protestant religion, therefore, depends on keeping the levels of historical illiteracy as high as possible.  Allow but the slightest shaft of light to fall upon the early centuries of the Christian world and, straightaway, the scene is illumined by a blaze of Roman Catholic glory.  Indeed, to set out along the historical corridors of all that followed in the wake of the Church’s beginnings—from the founding of hospitals and monasteries, orphanages and universities, to the anointing of kings and princes—is to brush up continually against the sheer intractable fact of The Catholic Thing.  What else was there in a world where all the lights had gone out?  The world of high paganism could hardly be expected to preserve and protect its own patrimony.  During the ages of darkness that fell upon the Greco-Roman world, the centuries following its collapse and dissolution, someone had to baptize and convert the northern barbarians.  If the decent drapery of life (to recall Burke’s image) were not to be completely stripped away, leaving only untutored savages to manage the chaos, something would have to be done.  In a word, Rome became the culture of the West.

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But who knows any of this stuff anymore?  Can there be many Catholics out there (besides faithful readers of Crisis), whose awareness of their faith includes an understanding of the whole historical matrix in which it took shape?  Who can provide an accurate plot line for all that amazing growth?  Does the average churchgoer know, for example, who St. Benedict was?  Or Martin of Tours?  What about Ambrose and Augustine, Popes Leo and Gregory the Great?   Have we taken the measure of the impact such men had in catechizing a culture that would last a thousand years?

“It is always dangerous,” warns Alasdair MacIntyre on the last page of After Virtue, a wonderful and provocative work that first appeared in 1981, “to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another.”  Nevertheless, he concedes, such parallels do in fact exist, on the strength of which it becomes all the more necessary for us to know something of these seminal figures and the far-reaching effect of their lives on the civilization they had a hand in creating.  This is especially true with Benedict, on whom MacIntyre concludes his book, reminding us that today’s world is waiting, “not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

So what do we know of this man for whom we are waiting?  About the age in which he lived, too, inasmuch as the wickedness of it is what first drove him as a boy of fourteen or fifteen to flee Rome for the fastness of a cave near Subiaco.  Whereupon the example of his sanctity would draw others to the same life of prayer and sacrifice so that, before long, an entire movement of monasticism had been loosed upon the world, the ultimate flowering of which being the public profession of the Catholic faith by the peoples of Europe.

We are obliged to study these things, it seems to me, not only to prevent ourselves from falling prey to Protestant theology, which knows nothing of history and, given its fundamentalist fixations, disdains those who do.  But because, as MacIntyre reminds us, new and even more sinister dark ages have arrived, against which we shall need to take up arms.  The lesson of Benedict can help show the way.  Especially since, this time around, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”   Our not knowing this, MacIntyre adds, “constitutes part of our predicament.”

And so, seizing upon the example of St. Benedict, who was he and what do the lineaments of his time and place offer to teach us?  Born near the end of the fifth century in Nursia, a town near enough to Rome to have felt the convulsive effects of its sack, in 410, by Alaric, the Visigothic King (the first time in eight centuries Rome had fallen), Benedict grew up in a world whose moorings had been completely uprooted.  (Less than a half-century after Alaric, the Vandals would finish the job he’d begun, leaving Rome looted and in ruins once more.)  Sent to Rome as a student, Benedict experienced first hand the trauma of its loss and, recoiling from its depravities, fled into the wilderness to pursue an undistracted life of union with God.

And there amid the prayer and the fasting and all that attend the struggle to obtain self-mastery, young Benedict made an important discovery, one which would enable him to become a great light upon an age whose descent into darkness could not to be dispelled in any other way.  He saw that by his very exertions to overcome himself, to draw nearer to God, to respond to those promptings of grace that Christ had come to dispense, the world that he’d fled was itself becoming a better and more wholesome place.  In other words, by turning his back on the world in order to turn his face to God, Benedict had become, quite unwittingly, an instrument of the world’s regeneration.

As if the world could only be saved by those who turn their backs upon it.   

Joined by others equally determined on a life of transforming intimacy with God, Benedict soon made his way to Monte Cassino, some eighty miles to the southeast of Rome, where, having demolished the altar of Apollo, he raised up his own altar, consecrating it to the glory of the God and Father of Jesus Christ.  Here the ideals of Benedictine life, enshrined in the famous Rule with its exhortation to ora et labora  (pray and work), were first struck.  “Turning the earth into a garden,” declared Cardinal Ratzinger back in 2000 (five years before assuming his namesake to become Pope Benedict XVI), “and the service of God (were) fused together and became a whole…. Worshipping God always takes priority…. But at the same time, it’s a matter of cultivating and renewing the earth in an ethos of worship…. Manual labor now becomes something noble … an imitation of the Creator’s work.  [And] along with the new attitude toward work comes a change in our ideas about the dignity of man.”

From such a modest outpost as this, never mind the titanic figure who organized and sustained it, a handful of monks would in due course set about the creation of the Christian West.  “At the touch of his mild inspiration,” writes Whittaker Chambers in a very moving essay on St. Benedict written more than sixty years ago, “the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages.  For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.”

If it is not too late—and how fortunate for us that Mother Church continues to make provision for late conversions—then there is still time to revisit the life of this remarkable saint, whose moment in history remains uncannily like our own in its rapid and seemingly unstoppable descent into barbarism. And thus galvanized by his example, the exercise of which succeeded in evangelizing an entire continent, we too may confidently set about the re-conquest of those whose ancestors he and his monks first introduced to Christ.

To undertake this great work, however, it should not be necessary to enter a monastery, or even to move into a neighborhood where one or two may be found.   One is not required to scorn the world, nor the lawful pleasures thereof.  A spirit of detachment, after all, is the obligation of all, not the prerogative of a few.  We are Catholics, after all, not Cathars.

Like the vastness of the Bernini colonnade, whose arms reach out to embrace the whole world, the call to holiness is no less universal in its summons to all the baptized.   Bloom where you are planted, as they say.   Thus it follows that the only thing necessary will be for each of us to become that tiny little flame of sanctity, which even the violence and the chaos of the world cannot blow out.  And annealing ourselves thus to Christ, who is the world’s salvation, we may join with our wives and children, our neighbors and friends—and, yes, the stranger who wishes to become our brother—and learn once again to sing the Lord’s Song in a strange land.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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