Sancte Pater Benedicte, intercede pro nobis. Holy Father Benedict, intercede for us.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
My Very Dear Sons,
According to Dom Delatte, the third abbot of Saint-Pierre of Solesmes in France, “Experience shows that no earthly fatherhood has ever so closely resembled the fatherhood of God as did St. Benedict’s” (Commentary on the Rule, Prologue). Indeed, Saint Benedict is known to us monks as “Our Blessed Father.” He has also been called by Church historians “the Patriarch of the monks of the West.” A patriarch, as we know, is the head of a family or of a family of families, the first of a line of fathers presiding over a whole people, as was the case with the Patriarch Abraham to whom God said,
I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand that is by the seashore: thy seed shall possess the gates of their enemies. (Gen. 22:17)
Saint Benedict is the patriarchal figure who looms larger than life over the whole history not only of monastic life in the West, but also over all of what we call Western Civilization or Christendom. In 1964, Blessed Pope Paul VI proclaimed him Principal Patron Saint of all of Europe, referring to this great monk as the “messenger of peace, molder of union, magister of civilization, and above all herald of the religion of Christ and founder of monastic life in the West.” The Supreme Pontiff went on to say that “[a]t the fall of the crumbling Roman Empire, while some regions of Europe seemed to have fallen into darkness and others remained as yet devoid of civilization and spiritual values, he it was who, by constant and assiduous effort, brought to birth the dawn of a new era” (Apostolic Letter Pacis Nuntius, 1964 Oct 24).
In our day patriarchs and patriarchy as an idea have acquired a rather bad reputation, and fatherhood itself is somehow in retreat. There was a time, not so long ago, when this would have seemed impossible, especially because it really is absurd. But here we are. This denial of patriarchy and of fatherhood among contemporary intellectuals is something very similar to previous efforts on the part of secular humanism to eradicate the very idea of God, by destroying the earthly image of God, whether in the political order (regicide) or in the sphere of social relations, by constantly humiliating the idea of authority.
Of course it is no use: fatherhood in the nature of things and will not go away. “Chase nature out, and it will return at a gallop,” says a French adage. In reality without fatherhood there is no motherhood or childhood—no human race. Without a worthy understanding of fatherhood, especially as understood in the light of the Christian faith, there can be no higher civilization, no culture worthy of mention. In this sense, the world stands or falls with the father. Even among the angels, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, there exists a certain paternity, as a superior angel will illuminate an inferior one:
[E]ven in heaven there is paternity, as the Apostle says: From whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is named. (Summa, I Pars, q. 45, a. 5, ad 1um. Cf. Eph 3:15.)
No doubt the world has more than once been the unwilling witness and sometimes victim of the unworthy father. A terrible evil, indeed, that one! But the solution for unworthy fathers is not to have no fathers at all, but rather to have good and saintly ones, to have fathers after the image and likeness of Our Father in Heaven.
It is consoling, perhaps, to note that, while the dignity of fatherhood is crumbling with the very social fabric of our modern (or so-called ‘post-modern’) societies in the West, monastic life at least, especially Benedictine monasticism, continues to preserve in great measure a solid sense of fatherhood. This sense is clearly inscribed in the very beginning of the Holy Rule, which Saint Benedict wrote for his monasteries:
Hearken, O my son, to the precept of your master, and incline the ear of your heart: willingly receive and faithfully fulfill the admonition of your loving father, that you may return by the labor of obedience to Him from whom you had departed through the sloth of disobedience. (Prologue.)
We might find that this picture, from the outset, has a certain shadow over it. This father of which Saint Benedict speaks is also a master and is obliged to give precepts and admonitions in a world marked by sin. If only, we think, the father, our father, could just be friends with his children! Well, there certainly does open up the perspective of life without constraint at the end of the road, for those who reach the destination, and there certainly will be a perfect friendship between God and man—not to mention that among all human beings who live eternally in God’s friendship—but along the way of our earthly pilgrimage to Heaven, we have to carry our crosses, and our fathers are given the terrible responsibility of reminding us of this.
So, let us all, monks and the friends of monks, (who have sometimes been called “un-tonsured monks”) heed the advice of Saint Benedict and hearken to the voice of our fathers, who teach us and give us life at different levels, always under that “paternity from whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). Perhaps, as in the time of Saint Benedict, a new era will dawn upon the world. Likewise let us not be unmindful of the blessed spiritual motherhood that God has sent to us in the double mystery of Holy Church and the Blessed Mother of God. The early monks had some notion of Our Lady’s role, but the Marian perspective only dawned on religious souls little by little, as did the importance of the Church as a Mother. We are far richer for this authentic development of doctrine and of life. May Our Blessed Father, Saint Benedict, Benedictus, pray for us his sons; and, of course, may Blessed Mary, Benedicta in mulieribus, ever interecede for us. Amen. Alleluia.