Story type: Essay
If any pilgrim monk come from distant parts, if with wish as a guest to dwell in the monastery, and will be content with the customs which he finds in the place, and do not perchance by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds: he shall be received, for as long a time as he desires. If, indeed, he find fault with anything, or expose it, reasonably, and with the humility of charity, the Abbot shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God had sent for this very thing. But, if he have been found gossipy and contumacious in the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not to be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.
As the traveler journeys through Southern Italy, Sicily and certain parts of what was Ancient Greece, he will see broken arches, parts of viaducts, and now and again a single, beautiful column pointing to the sky. All about is the desert or solitary pastures, and only this white milestone, marking the path of the centuries and telling in its own silent, solemn and impressive way of a day that is dead.
In the Fifth Century a monk called Simeon the Syrian, and known to us as Simeon Stylites, having taken the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience, began to fear greatly lest he might not be true to his pledge. And that he might live absolutely beyond reproach, always in public view, free from temptation, and free from the tongue of scandal, he decided to live in the world, and still not be of it. To this end he climbed to the top of a marble column, sixty feet high, and there on the capstone he lived a life beyond reproach.
Simeon was then twenty-four years old.
The environment was circumscribed, but there was outlook, sunshine, ventilation–three good things. But beyond these the place had certain disadvantages. The capstone was a little less than three feet square, so Simeon could not lie down. He slept sitting, with his head bowed between his knees, and indeed, in this posture he passed most of his time. Any recklessness in movement, and he would have slipped from his perilous position and been dashed to death upon the stones beneath.
As the sun arose he stood up, just for a few moments, and held his arms out in greeting, blessing and prayer. Three times during the day did he thus stretch his cramped limbs, and pray with his face to the East. At such times those who stood near shared in his prayers, and went away blessed and refreshed.
How did Simeon get to the top of the column?
Well, his companions at the monastery, a mile away, said he was carried there in the night by a miraculous power; that he went to sleep in his stone cell and awoke on the pillar. Other monks said that Simeon had gone to pay his respects to a fair lady, and in wrath God had caught him and placed him on high. The probabilities are, however, Terese, as viewed by an unbeliever, that he shot a line over the column with a bow and arrow and then drew up a rope ladder and ascended with ease.
However, in the morning the simple people of the scattered village saw the man on the column. All day he stayed there. The next day he was still there.
The days passed, with the scorching heat of the midday sun, and the cool winds of the night.
Still Simeon kept his place.
The rainy season came on. When the nights were cold and dark, Simeon sat there with bowed head, and drew the folds of his single garment, a black robe, over his face.
Another season passed; the sun again grew warm, then hot, and the sand-storms raged and blew, when the people below almost lost sight of the man on the column. Some prophesied he would be blown off, but the morning light revealed his form, naked from the waist up, standing with hands outstretched to greet the rising sun.
Once each day, as darkness gathered, a monk came with a basket containing a bottle of goat’s milk and a little loaf of black bread, and Simeon dropped down a rope and drew up the basket.
Simeon never spoke, for words are folly, and to the calls of saint or sinner he made no reply. He lived in a perpetual attitude of adoration.
Did he suffer? During those first weeks he must have suffered terribly and horribly. There was no respite nor rest from the hard surface of the rock, and aching muscles could find no change from the cramped and perilous position. If he fell, it was damnation for his soul–all were agreed as to this.
But man’s body and mind accommodate themselves to almost any condition. One thing at least, Simeon was free from economic responsibilities, free from social cares and intrusion. Bores with sad stories of unappreciated lives and fond hopes unrealized, never broke in upon his peace. He was not pressed for time. No frivolous dame of tarnished fame sought to share with him his perilous perch. The people on a slow schedule, ten minutes late, never irritated his temper. His correspondence never got in a heap.
Simeon kept no track of the days, having no engagements to meet, or offices to perform, beyond the prayers at morn, midday and night.
Memory died in him, the hurts became calluses, the world-pain died out of his heart, to cling became a habit. Language was lost in disuse. The food he ate was minimum in quantity; sensation ceased, and the dry, hot winds reduced bodily tissue to a dessicated something called a saint–loved, feared and reverenced for his fortitude.
This pillar, which had once graced the portal of a pagan temple, again became a place of pious pilgrimage, and people flocked to Simeon’s rock, so that they might be near when he stretched out his black, bony hands to the East, and the spirit of Almighty God, for a space, hovered close around.
So much attention did the abnegation of Simeon attract that various other pillars, marking the ruins of art and greatness gone, in that vicinity, were crowned by pious monks. Their thought was to show how Christianity had triumphed over heathenism. Imitators were numerous. About that time the Bishops in assembly asked, “Is Simeon sincere?” To test the matter of Simeon’s pride, he was ordered to come down from his retreat.
As to his chastity, there was little doubt, and his poverty was beyond question; but how about obedience to his superiors?
The order was shouted up to him in a Bishop’s voice–he must let down his rope, draw up a ladder, and descend.
Straightway Simeon made preparation to obey. And then the Bishops relented and cried, “We have changed our minds, and now order you to remain!”
Simeon lifted his hands in adoration and thankfulness and renewed his lease.
And so he lived on and on and on–he lived on the top of that pillar, never once descending, for thirty years.
All of his former companions grew a-weary; one by one they died, and the monastery-bells tolled their requiem as they were laid to rest. Did Simeon hear the bells and say, “Soon it will be my turn”?
Probably not. His senses had flown, for what good were they! The young monk who now at eventide brought the basket with the bottle of goat’s milk and the loaf of dry bread was born since Simeon had taken his place on the pillar. “He has always been there,” the people said, and crossed themselves hurriedly.
But one evening when the young monk came with his basket, no line was dropped from above. He waited and then called aloud, but all in vain.
When sunrise came, there sat the monk, his face between his knees, the folds of his black robe drawn over his head. But he did not rise and lift his hands in prayer.
All day he sat there, motionless.
The people watched in whispered silence. Would he arise at sundown and pray, and with outstretched hands bless the assembled pilgrims?
But as they watched a vulture came sailing slowly through the blue ether, and circled nearer and nearer; and off on the horizon was another–and still another, circling nearer and nearer.
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In humanity’s march of progress there are a vanguard and a rearguard. The rearguard dwindles away into a mob of camp-followers, who follow for diversion and to escape starvation. Both the vanguard and the rearguard are out of step with the main body, and therefore both are despised by the many who make up the rank and file.
And yet, out of pity, the main body supplies ambulances and “slum-workers,” who aim to do “good”–but this good is always for the rearguard and the camp-followers, never for those who lead the line of march, and take the risk of ambush and massacre.
But this scorn of the vanguard has its recompense–often delayed, no doubt–but those who compose it are the only ones whom history honors and Clio crowns. If they get recognition in life, it is wrung tardily from an ungrateful and ungracious world. And this is the most natural thing in the world, and it would be a miracle if it were otherwise, for the very virtue of the vanguard consists in that their acts outrun human sympathy.
Benedict was a scout of civilization. In his day he led the vanguard. He found the prosperous part of the world given over to greed and gluttony. The so-called religious element was in partnership with fraud, superstition, ignorance, incompetence, and an asceticism like that of Simeon Stylites, leading to nothing.
Men know the good and grow through experience. To realize the worthlessness of place and position and of riches, you must have been at some time in possession of these. Benedict was born into a rich Roman family, in the year Four Hundred Eighty. His parents wished to educate him for the law, so he would occupy a position of honor in the State.
But at sixteen years of age, at that critical time when nerves are vibrating between manhood and youth, Benedict cut the umbilical domestic cord, and leaving his robes of purple and silken finery, suddenly disappeared, leaving behind a note which was doubtless meant to be reassuring and which was quite the reverse, for it failed to tell where his mail should be forwarded. He had gone to live with a hermit in the fastnesses of the mountains. He had desired to do something peculiar, strange, unusual, unique and individual, and now he had done it.
Back of it all was the Cosmic Urge, with a fair slip of a girl, and meetings by stealth in the moonlight; and then those orders from his father to give up the girl, which he obeyed with a vengeance.
Monasticism is a reversal or a misdirection of the Cosmic Urge. The will brought to bear in fighting temptation might be a power for good, if used in co-operation with Nature. But Nature to the priestly mind has always been bad. The worldly mind was one that led to ruin. To be good by doing good was an idea the monkish mind had not grasped. His way of being good was to be nothing, do nothing–just resist. Successfully to fight temptation, the Oriental Monk regarded as an achievement.
One day, out on that perilous and slippery rock on the mountain-side, Benedict ceased saluting the Holy Virgin long enough to conceive a thought. It was this: To be acceptable to God, we must do something in the way of positive good for man. To pray, to adore, to wander, to suffer, is not enough. We must lighten the burdens of the toilers and bring a little joy into their lives. Suffering has its place, but too much suffering would destroy the race.
Only one other man had Benedict ever heard of, who put forth this argument, and that was Saint Jerome; and many good men in the Church regarded Saint Jerome as little better than an infidel. Saint Jerome was a student of the literature of Greece and Rome–“Pagan Books,” they were called, “rivals of the Bible.” Saint Anthony had renounced and denounced these books and all of the learning of Paganism. Saint Anthony, the father of Christian Monasticism, dwelt on the terrible evils of intellectual pride, and had declared that the joys of the mind were of a more subtle and devilish character than those of the flesh.
Anthony, assisted by inertia, had won the ear of the Church; and dirt, rags and idleness had come to be regarded as sacred things.
Benedict took issue with Anthony.
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The Monastic Impulse is a protest against the Cosmic Urge, or reproductive desire.
Necessarily, the Cosmic Urge is older than the Monastic Impulse; and beyond a doubt it will live to dance on the grave of its rival.
The Cosmic Urge is the creative instinct. It includes all planning, purpose, desire, hope, unrest, lust and ambition. In its general sense, it is Unfulfilled Desire. It is the voice constantly crying in the ears of success, “Arise and get thee hence, for this is not thy rest.” It is the dissatisfaction with all things done–it is our Noble Discontent. In its first manifestation it is sex. In its last refinement it means the love of man and woman, with the love of children, the home-making sense, and an appreciation of art, music and science–which is love with seeing eyes–as natural results.
Deity creates through its creatures, of which man is the highest type. But man, evolving a small spark of intellect, sits in judgment on his Creator, and finds the work bad. Of all the animals, man is the only one so far known that criticizes his environment, instead of accepting it. And we do this because, in degree, we have abandoned intuition before we have gotten control of intellect.
The Monastic Instinct is the disposition ever to look outside of ourselves for help. We expect the Strong Man to come and give us deliverance from our woes. All nations have legends of saviors and heroes who came and set the captives free, and who will come again in greater glory and mightier power and even release the dead from their graves.
The Monastic Impulse is based on world-weariness, with disappointed love, or sex surfeit, which is a phase of the same thing, as a basis. Its simplest phase is a desire for solitude.
“Mon” means one, and monasticism is simply living alone, apart from the world. Gradually it came to mean living alone with others of a like mind or disposition.
The clan is an extension of the family, and so is originally a monastic impulse. The Group Idea is a variant of monasticism, but if it includes men and women, it always disintegrates with the second generation, if not before, because the Cosmic Urge catches the members, and they mate, marry and swing the circle.
Ernst Haeckel has recently intimated his belief that monogamy, with its exclusive life, is a diluted form of monasticism. And his opinion seems to be that, in order to produce the noblest race possible, we must have a free society, with a State that reverences and respects maternity and pensions any mother who personally cares for her child.
Monasticism and enforced monogamy often carry a disrespect, if not a positive contempt, for motherhood, especially free motherhood. We breed from the worst, under the worst conditions, and as punishment God has made us a race of scrubs. If we had deliberately set about to produce the worst, we could not do better.
It will at once be seen that a penalized free motherhood is exactly like the Monastic Impulse–a protest and a revolt from the Cosmic Urge. Hence Ernst Haeckel, harking back to Schopenhauer, declares that we must place a premium upon parenthood, and the State must subsidize all mothers, visiting them with tenderness, gentleness, sanctity and respect, before we shall be able to produce a race of demigods.
The Church has aureoled and sainted the men and women who have successfully fought the Cosmic Urge. Emerson says, “We are strong as we ally ourselves with Nature, and weak as we fight against her or disregard her.” Thus does Emerson place himself squarely in opposition to the Church, for the Church has ever looked upon Nature as a lure and a menace to holy living.
Now, is it not possible that the prevalency of the Monastic Impulse is proof that it is in itself a movement in the direction of Nature? Possibly its error lies in swinging out beyond the norm. A few great Churchmen have thought so. And the greatest and best of them, so far as I know, was Benedict. Through his efforts, monasticism was made a power for good, and for a time, at least, it served society and helped humanity on its way.
That the flagellants, anchorites, or monks with iron collars, and Simeon Stylites living his life perched on a pillar, benefited the human race–no one would now argue. Simeon was simply trying to please God–to secure salvation for his soul. His assumption was that the world was base and bad. To be pure in heart you must live apart from it. His persistence was the only commendable thing about him, and this was the persistence of a diseased mind. It was beautiful just as the persistence of cancer is beautiful.
Benedict, while agreeing that the world was bad, yet said that our business was to make it better, and that everything we did which was done merely to save our own souls, was selfish and unworthy. He advocated that, in order to save our own souls, we should make it our business to save others. Also, to think too much about your own soul was to have a soul not worth saving. If this life is a preparation for another, as Simeon thought, he was not preparing himself for a world where we would care to go. The only heaven in which any sane man or woman, be he saint or sinner, would care to live, would be one whose inhabitants would be at liberty to obey the Cosmic Urge just as freely as the Monastic Impulse, and where one would be regarded as holy as the other. So thought Saint Benedict.
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There is a natural law, well recognized and defined by men who think, called the Law of Diminishing Returns, sometimes referred to as the Law of Pivotal Points.
A man starts in to take systematic exercise, and he finds that his strength increases. He takes more exercise and keeps on until he gets “stale”–that is, he becomes sore and lame. He has passed the Pivotal Point and is getting a Diminishing Return.
In running a railroad-engine a certain amount of coal is required to pull a train of given weight a mile, say at the rate of fifty miles an hour. You double the amount of your coal, and simple folks might say you double your speed, but railroad men know better. The double amount of coal will give you only about sixty miles instead of fifty. Increase your coal and from this on you get a Diminishing Return. If you insist on eighty miles an hour, you get your speed at a terrific cost and a terrible risk.
Another case: Your body requires a certain amount of food–the body is an engine; food is fuel; life is combustion. Better the quality and quantity of your food, and up to a certain point you increase your strength. Go on increasing your food and you get death. Loan money at five per cent and your investment is reasonably secure and safe. Loan money at ten per cent and you do not double the returns; on the contrary, you have taken on so much risk. Loan money at twenty per cent and you will probably lose it; for the man who borrows at twenty per cent does not intend to pay if he can help it.
The Law of Diminishing Returns was what Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when he said, “Because I like a pinch of salt in my soup is no reason I wish to be immersed in brine.”
Churches, preachers and religious denominations are good things in their time and place, and up to a certain point. Whether for you the church has passed the Pivotal Point is for you yourself to decide. But remember this, because a thing is good up to a certain point, or has been good, is no reason why it should be perpetuated. The Law of Diminishing Returns is the natural refutation of the popular fallacy that because a thing is good you can not get too much of it.
It is this law that Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he said, “I object to that logic which seeks to imply that because I wish to make the negro free, I desire a black woman for a wife.”
Benedict had spent five years in resistance before it dawned upon him that Monasticism carried to a certain point was excellent and fraught with good results, but beyond that it rapidly degenerated.
To carry the plan of simplicity and asceticism to its summit and not go beyond was now his desire.
To withdraw from society he felt was a necessity, for the petty and selfish ambitions of Rome were revolting. But the religious life did not for him preclude the joys of the intellect. In his unshaven and unshorn condition, wearing a single garment of goatskin, he dared not go back to his home. So he proceeded to make himself acceptable to decent people. He made a white robe, bathed, shaved off his beard, had his hair cut, and putting on his garments, went back to his family. The life in the wilderness had improved his health. He had grown in size and strength and he now, in his own person, proved that a religious recluse was not necessarily unkempt and repulsive.
His people greeted him as one raised from the dead. Crowds followed him wherever he went. He began to preach to them and to explain his position.
Some of his old school associates came to him.
As he explained his position, it began more and more to justify itself in his mind. Things grow plain as we analyze them to others–by explaining to another the matter becomes luminous to ourselves.
To purify the monasteries and carry to them all that was good and beautiful in the classics, was the desire of Benedict. His wish was to reconcile the learning of the past with Christianity, which up to that time had been simply ascetic. It had consisted largely of repression, suppression and a killing-out of all spontaneous, happy, natural impulses.
Very naturally, he was harshly criticized, and when he went back to the cave where he had dwelt and tried to teach some of his old companions how to read and write, they flew first at him, and then from him. They declared that he was the devil in the guise of a monk; that he wished to live both as a monk and as a man of the world–that he wanted to eat his cake and still keep it. By a sort of divine right he took control of affairs, and insisted that his companions should go to work with him, and plant a garden and raise vegetables and fruits, instead of depending upon charity or going without.
The man who insists that all folks shall work, be they holy or secular, learned or illiterate, always has a hard road to travel. Benedict’s companions declared that he was trying to enslave them, and one of them brewed a poison and substituted it for the simple herb tea that Benedict drank. Being discovered, the man and his conspirators escaped, although Benedict offered to forgive and forget if they would go to work.
Benedict adhered to his new inspiration with a persistency that never relaxed–the voice of God had called to him that he must clear the soil of the brambles and plant gardens.
The thorn-bush through which he had once rolled his naked body, he now cut down and burned. He relaxed the vigils and limited the prayers and adorations to a few short exercises just before eating, sleeping and going to work. He divided the day into three parts–eight hours for work, eight hours for study, eight hours for sleep. Then he took one-half hour from each of these divisions for silent prayer and adoration. He argued that good work was a prayer, and that one could pray with his heart and lips, even as his hands swung the ax, the sickle or the grub-hoe. All that Benedict required of others, he did himself, and through the daily work he evolved a very strong and sturdy physique. From the accounts that have come to us he was rather small in stature, but in strength he surpassed any man in his vicinity.
Miraculous accounts of his physical strength were related, and in the minds of his simple followers he was regarded as more than a man, which shows us that the ideals of what a man should be, or might be, were not high. We are told that near Benedict’s first monastery there was a very deep lake, made in the time of Nero by damming up a mountain stream. Along this lake the brambles and vines had grown in great confusion. Benedict set to work to clear the ground from this lake to his monastery, half a mile up the hillside. One day a workman dropped an ax into the lake. Benedict smiled, his lips moved in prayer and the ax came to the surface. The story does not say that Benedict dived to the bottom and brought up the ax, which he probably did. The next day the owner of the ax fell into the water, and the story goes that Benedict walked out on the water and brought the man in on his shoulders. We who do not believe that the age of miracles has passed, can well understand how Benedict was an active, agile and strong swimmer, and that through the natural powers which he evolved by living a sane and simple life, he was able to perform many feats which peasants round about considered miraculous. Benedict had what has been called the Builder’s Itch. He found great joy in planning, creating and constructing. He had an eye for architecture and landscape-gardening. He utilized the materials of old Roman temples to construct Christian churches, and from the same quarry he took stone and built a monastery. A Roman ruin had a lure for him. It meant building possibilities. He stocked the lake with fish, and then made catches that rivaled the parable of the loaves and fishes. Only the loaves of Benedict were made from the wheat he himself raised, and the people he fed were the crowds who came to hear him preach the gospel he himself practised–the gospel of work, moderation and the commonsense exercise of head, hand and heart.
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To Benedict came twelve disciples. But further applications becoming numerous, to meet the pressure Benedict kept organizing them into groups of twelve, appointing a superior over each group. In order to prove his sense of equality, he had but eleven besides himself in the monastery. He recognized that leadership was a necessity; but the clothes he wore were no better than, and the food he ate no different from, what the others had. Yet to enforce discipline, rules were made and instant obedience was exacted. Benedict took his turn at waiting on the table and doing the coarsest tasks.
Were it not for the commonsense methods of life, and the element of human service, the Christian monastery and probably Christianity itself would not have survived. The dogma of religion was made acceptable by blending it with a service for humanity. And even to this day the popular plan of proving the miracles of the Old Testament to have been actual occurrences is to point to the schools, hospitals and orphan asylums that Christian people have provided.
In the efforts of Benedict to combine the life of unselfish service with intellectual appreciation of classic literature, he naturally was misunderstood. Several times he came near having serious collisions with the authorities of the Church at Rome.
His preaching attracted the jealous attention of certain churchmen, but as he was not a priest, the Pope refused to take notice of his supposed heresies.
An effort was made to compel him to become a priest, but Benedict refused on the plea that he was not worthy. The fact was, however, that he did not wish to be bound by the rules of the Church.
In one sense, his was a religion inside a religion, and a slight accident might have precipitated an opposition denomination, just as the Protestant issue of Luther was an accident, and the Methodism of the Wesleys, another.
Several times the opposition, in the belief that Benedict was an enemy of the Church, went so far as to try to kill him. And once a few pious persons in Rome induced a company of wanton women to go out to Benedict’s monastery and disport themselves through his beautiful grounds. This was done with two purposes in view; one was to work the direct downfall of the Benedictines, with the aid of the trulls, and the other was to create a scandal among the visitors, who would carry the unsavory news back to Rome and supply the gossips raw stock.
Benedict was so deeply grieved by the despicable trick that he retired to his former home, the cave in the hillside, and there remained without food for a month.
But during this time of solitude his mind was busy with new plans. He now founded Monte Cassino. The site is halfway between Rome and Naples, and the white, classic lines of the buildings can be seen from the railroad. There on the crags, from out of a mass of green, has been played out for more than a thousand years the drama of religious life. Death by fire and sword has been the fate of many of the occupants. But the years went by, new men came, the ruins were repaired, and again the cloisters were trodden by pious feet of holy men. Goths, Lombards, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards, Teutons, and finally came Napoleon Bonaparte, who confiscated the property, making the place his home for a brief space. Later he relented and took it from the favorite upon whom he had bestowed it and gave it back to the Church. It then remained a Benedictine monastery until the edict of Eighteen Hundred Sixty-six, which, with the help of Massini and Garibaldi, made the monastery in Italy a thing of the past. The place is now a school–a school with a co-ed proviso. Thus passes away the glory of the world, in order that a greater glory shall appear.
Six hundred years before Benedict’s day, on the site of the cloister of Monte Cassino stood a temple to Apollo, and just below was a grove sacred to Venus.
Two hundred years before Benedict’s time the Goths had done their work so well that even the walls of the temple to Apollo were razed, and the sacred grove became the home of wild beasts.
To this deserted place came Benedict and eleven men, filled with a holy zeal to erect on this very spot an edifice worthy of the living God. Here the practical builder and the religious dreamer combined. If you are going to build a building, why not build upon the walls already laid and with blocks ready hewn and fashioned!
The Monte Cassino monastery of Benedict rivaled in artistic beauty the temple that it replaced.
Man is a building animal, and the same Creative Energy that impelled the Greeks and later the Romans to plan, devise, toil and build, now played through the good monk Benedict. His desire to create was a form of the great Cosmic Urge, that lives eternally and is building in America a finer, better and nobler religion than the world has ever seen–a Religion of Humanity–a religion of which at times Benedict caught vivid passing glimpses, as one sees at night the landscape brilliantly illumined by the lightning’s flash.
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The motto of Benedict was “Ecce Labora.” These words were carved on the entrance to every Benedictine Monastery.
The monastic idea originated in the Orient, where Nature placed no special penalty on idleness. Indeed, labor may have been a curse in Asia. Morality is crystallized expediency, and both, as we are told, are matters of geography, as well as time.
And truth it is, that north of the Mediterranean idleness is the curse, not labor.
The rule of Benedict was not unlike that of the Shakers, for near every monastery was a nunnery. The association of men and women, although quite limited, was better for both than their absolute separation, as with the Trappists, who regard it as a sin even to look upon the face of a woman.
The thrift and industry of the Benedictines was worthy of Ann Lee and our friends at Lebanon. A man who works eight hours, with fair intelligence, and does not set out to make consumption and waste the business of his life, grows rich. Thoreau was right–an hour a day will support you. But Thoreau was wrong in supposing men work only to get food, clothing and shelter. To work only an hour a day is to evolve into a loafer. We work not to acquire, but to become.
The group idea, cemented by able leadership and a religious concept, is always successful. The Mormons, Quakers, Harmonyites, Economites, and the Oneida Community, all grew very rich, and surpassed their neighbors not only in point of money, but in health, happiness, intelligence and general mental grasp.
Brook Farm failed for lack of a leader with business instinct; but as it was, it divided up among its members a rich legacy of spiritual and mental assets. In family life, or what is called “Society,” there is a constant danger through rivalry, not in well-doing or in human service, but in conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure. The religious rite of feet-washing is absolutely lost, both as a rite and as an idea. In truth, “good society” is essentially predatory in its instincts. In communal life, or the life of a group, service and not waste is the watchword. This must be so, since every group, at its beginning, is held together through the thought of service. To meet and unite on a basis of jealous rivalry and sharp practise is unthinkable, for these are the things that disintegrate the group.
It is an economic law that a group founded upon and practising the idea of each member giving all, wins all. Benedict’s idea of “Ecce labora” made every Benedictine monastery a center of wealth. Work stops bickering, strife and undue waste. It makes for health and strength. The reward of work is not immunity from toil, but more work–an increased capacity for effort.
De Tocqueville gave this recipe for success: Subdue yourself–Devote yourself.
That is to say, subdue the ego to a point where it gets its gratification in concentrating on unselfish service. He who does this always succeeds, for not only is he engaged upon a plan of life in which there is little competition, but he is working in line with a divine law, the law of mutuality, which provides that all the good you do to others, you do for yourself.
Benedictine monasticism leads straight to wealth and great power. The Abbot of the group became a Baron. “I took the vow of poverty, and it led to an income of twenty thousand pounds a year. I took the vow of obedience and find myself ruler of fifty towns and villages.” These are the words which Sir Walter Scott puts into the mouth of an Abbot, who became a Baron through the simple law of which I have hinted. And in his novel of “The Abbot,” Sir Walter gives a tragic picture of how power and wealth can be lost as well as won. Feudalism began with the rule of the monastery.
Benedict was one of the world’s great Captains of Industry. And like all great entrepreneurs, he won through utilizing the efforts of others. In picking his Abbots, or the men to be “father” of each particular group, he showed rare skill. These men learned from him and he learned from them. One of his best men was Cassiodorus, the man who evolved the scheme of the scriptorium. “To study eight hours a day was not enough,” said Cassiodorus. “We should copy the great works of literature so that every monastery shall have a library as good as that which we have at Monte Cassino.” He himself was an expert penman, and he set himself the task of teaching the monks how to write as well as how to read. “To write beautifully is a great joy to our God,” he said.
Benedict liked the idea, and at once put it into execution. Cassiodorus is the patron saint of every maker of books who loves his craft.
The systematic work of the scriptorium originated in the brain of Cassiodorus, and he was appointed by Benedict to go from one monastery to another and inform the Abbot that a voice had come from God to Benedict saying that these precious books must be copied, and presented to those who would prize them.
Cassiodorus had been a secretary of state under the Emperor Theodoric, and he had also been a soldier. He was seventy years of age when he came under the influence of Benedict, through a chance visit to Monte Cassino. Benedict at first ordered him to take an ax and work with the servants at grubbing out underbrush and preparing a field for planting. Cassiodorus obeyed, and soon discovered that there was a joy in obedience he had before never guessed. His name was Brebantus Varus, but on his declaring he was going to remain and work with Benedict, he was complimented by being given the name of Cassiodorus, suggested by the word Cassinum or Cassino. Cassiodorus lived to be ninety-two, and was one of the chief factors, after Benedict himself, in introducing the love of art and beauty among the Benedictines.
Near Monte Cassino was a nunnery presided over by Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict.
Renan says that the kinship of Scholastica and Benedict was a spiritual tie, not one of blood. If so, we respect it none the less. Saint Gregory tells of the death of Benedict thus:
Benedict was at the end of his career. His interview with Totila took place in Five Hundred Forty-two, in the year which preceded his death; and from his earliest days of the following year, God prepared him for his last struggle, by requiring from him the sacrifice of the most tender affection he had retained on earth. The beautiful and touching incident of the last meeting of Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica, is a picture long to remember. At the window of his cell, three days after her death, Benedict had a vision of his dear sister’s soul entering heaven in the form of a snowy dove. He immediately sent for the body and placed it in a sepulcher which he had already prepared for himself, that death might not separate those whose souls had always been united in God.
The death of his sister was the signal of departure for himself. He survived her forty days. He announced his death to several of his monks, then far from Monte Cassino. A violent fever having seized him, he caused himself on the sixth day of his sickness to be carried to the chapel of Saint John the Baptist; he had before ordered the tomb in which his sister already slept to be opened.
There, supported in the arms of his disciples, he received the holy Viaticum, then placing himself at the side of the open grave, but at the foot of the altar, and with his arms extended towards heaven, he died, standing, muttering a last prayer. Such a victorious death became that great soldier of God. He was buried by the side of his beloved Scholastica, in a sepulcher made on the spot where stood the altar of Apollo, which had been replaced by another to our beloved Savior.
In the very year, and at the same time, that Justinian and Theodora were preparing the Justinian Code, Benedict was busy devising “The Monastic Rules.” Benedict did not put his rules forth as final, but explained that they were merely expedient for their time and place. In this he was singularly modest. If one can divest himself of the thought that there was anything “holy” or “sacred” about these communal groups called “monasteries,” and then read these rules, he will see that they were founded on a good knowledge of economics and a very stern commonsense.
Humanity was the same a thousand years ago that it is now. Benedict had to fight inertia, selfishness and incipient paranoia, just as does the man who tries to introduce practical socialism today. A few extracts from this very remarkable Book of Rules will show the shrewd Connecticut wisdom of Benedict. To hold the dowdy, indifferent, slipshod and underdone in their proper places, so they could not disturb or destroy the peace, policy and prosperity of the efficient, was the task of Benedict.
Benedict says: “Written and formal rules are necessary only because we are all faulty men, with a tendency towards selfishness and disorder. When men become wise, and also unselfish, there will be no need of rules and laws.”
The Book of Rules by Benedict is a volume of more than twenty thousand words. Its scope reveals an insight that will appeal to all who have had to do with socialistic experiments, not to mention the management of labor-unions. Benedict was one of the industrial leaders of the world. His life was an epoch, and his influence still abides.
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