Stories and Curiosities

Saint Benedict of Nursia: history of the saint

Benedict of Nursia is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion and Old Catholic Churches. He is a patron saint of Europe.

Biography

He was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, the modern Norcia, in Umbria.
Benedict was sent to Rome to study, but was disappointed by the life he found there. He does not seem to have left Rome for the purpose of becoming a hermit, but only to find some place away from the life of the great city. He took his old nurse with him as a servant and they settled down to live in Enfide, in the Simbruini mountains, about forty miles from Rome and two from Subiaco.

On his way from Enfide, Benedict met a monk, Romanus of Subiaco, whose monastery was on the mountain above the cliff overhanging the cave. Romanus had discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco, and had given him the monk’s habit. By his advice Benedict became a hermit and for three years, unknown to men, lived in this cave above the lake.
During these three years of solitude, broken only by occasional communications with the outer world and by the visits of Romanus, Benedict matured both in mind and character, in knowledge of himself and of his fellow-man, and at the same time he became not merely known to, but secured the respect of, those about him; so much so that on the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighbourhood, the community came to him and begged him to become its abbot.

Veneration

He is believed to have died of a fever at Monte Cassino not long after his sister, Saint Scholastica, and was buried in the same place as his sister. According to tradition, this occurred on 21 March 547. He was named patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius.
In the pre-1970 General Roman Calendar, his feast is kept on 21 March, the day of his death according to some manuscripts of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum and that of Bede. Because on that date his liturgical memorial would always be impeded by the observance of Lent, the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar moved his memorial to 11 July, the date that appears in some Gallic liturgical books of the end of the 8th century as the feast commemorating his birth (Natalis S. Benedicti).

Rule of Saint Benedict

Benedict wrote the Rule in 516 for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. Seventy-three short chapters comprise the Rule. Its wisdom is twofold: spiritual (how to live a Christocentric life on earth) and administrative (how to run a monastery efficiently). More than half of the chapters describe how to be obedient and humble, and what to do when a member of the community is not. About one-fourth regulate the work of God (the Opus Dei). One-tenth outline how, and by whom, the monastery should be managed.

Following the golden rule of Ora et Labora – pray and work, the monks each day devoted eight hours to prayer, eight hours to sleep, and eight hours to manual work, sacred reading and/or works of charity.

Saint Benedict’s medal

This devotional medal originally came from a cross in honour of Saint Benedict. On one side, the medal has an image of Saint Benedict, holding the Holy Rule in his left hand and a cross in his right. There is a raven on one side of him, with a cup on the other side of him. Around the medal’s outer margin are the words “Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur” (“May we, at our death, be fortified by His presence”). The other side of the medal has a cross with the initials CSSML on the vertical bar which signify “Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux” (“May the Holy Cross be my light”) and on the horizontal bar are the initials NDSMD which stand for “Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux” (“Let not the dragon be my overlord”). The initials CSPB stand for “Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti” (“The Cross of the Holy Father Benedict”) and are located on the interior angles of the cross. Either the inscription “PAX” (Peace) or the Christogram “IHS” may be found at the top of the cross in most cases. Around the medal’s margin on this side are the Vade Retro Satana initials VRSNSMV which stand for “Vade Retro Satana, Nonquam Suade Mihi Vana” (“Begone Satan, do not suggest to me thy vanities”) then a space followed by the initials SMQLIVB which signify “Sunt Mala Quae Libas, Ipse Venena Bibas” (“Evil are the things thou profferest, drink thou thy own poison”).

This medal was first struck in 1880 to commemorate the fourteenth centenary of Saint Benedict’s birth and is also called the Jubilee Medal; its exact origin, however, is unknown. In 1647, during a witchcraft trial at Natternberg near Metten Abbey in Bavaria, the accused women testified they had no power over Metten, which was under the protection of the cross. An investigation found a number of painted crosses on the walls of the abbey with the letters now found on St Benedict medals, but their meaning had been forgotten. A manuscript written in 1415 was eventually found that had a picture of Saint Benedict holding a scroll in one hand and a staff which ended in a cross in the other. On the scroll and staff were written the full words of the initials contained on the crosses. Medals then began to be struck in Germany, which then spread throughout Europe. This medal was first approved by Pope Benedict XIV in his briefs of 23 December 1741, and 12 March 1742.

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