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 neighborhood 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 it. 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 essential 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.
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 heavenly things. 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.