sk what a spelunker about to explore his deepest cave and a man about to undergo gall bladder surgery have in common, and the answer would be their Catholic patron saint, Benedict of Nursia. St. Benedict’s patronage, which comes to light in his biography, is large and varied. He is the third patron saint of Europe, the patron saint for servants who break their master’s things, the patron saint for gallbladders and other inflammatory ailments, and a patron saint for a happy death. The second rather lengthy title came about as a result of his first miracle. His old nurse, who accompanied him to Enfide, his initial out of the way dwelling-place, had broken a wheat-sifter that had been lent to her. She was so upset by the accident that Benedict lifted the pieces and prayed over them, and the article miraculously mended itself.
St.Gregory’s history of St. Benedict, found in volume II of his dialogues, is our only source of biography for him. It tells us that Benedict was born in Nursia, a town north of Rome, around 480 A.D. He must have lived a luxurious life in his early years and then went to study in Rome as did other nobles’ sons, taking, as was customary, his nurse with him. We don’t know how early in life he dedicated himself to God, but St. Gregory tells us that as a young man he left the riotous city of Rome and the loose life of his contemporaries to pursue a holy life near the quiet town of Enfide. He had become dissatisfied with the waywardness and worldliness of the people around him, and sought out a place to live a different life-style, through which he could grow closer to God.
St. Gregory tells us that Benedict met a monk named Romanus who lived a short distance from Enfide, and from him received his first monk’s habit and the inspiration to live the solitary life of a hermit. St. Benedict lived alone for three years, during which time he stayed by himself in a cave near Subiaco, visited occasionally by Romanus who brought him food. Legend has it that, during this period, he was also nourished by a raven. Interestingly, Benedict did not favor the life of a hermit for most people. He wrote that only a few are called to such a vocation, and then only if they have proven they can live within a community successfully.
At the end of the three year period, Benedict acquiesced to the entreaties of a nearby community of monks who wanted him to become their abbot. They, however, became jealous of him and tried to poison him. Benedict, blessing the poisoned cup, rendered it harmless, and left the abbey to go back to his cave. As God would have it though, Benedict was not meant to live his life alone. Many people were attracted by his holiness and the stories of his miracles, and wanted to follow him. Saint Benedict built twelve monasteries for his increasing numbers of disciples and lived himself in a thirteenth with a few favored followers. St. Gregory writes that a local priest, perhaps envious of the success of Saint Benedict, tried to bring shame on the Benedictine community by having naked women dance in their courtyard. St. Benedict, to spare his followers further humiliation, left the community and moved to Monte Cassino, where, most likely, he wrote his famous Rule. There, St. Gregory pens, Benedict overthrew a temple to Apollo, and built the Oratory of St. John where he and his sister, St. Scholastica, were later buried. He converted the people of Monte Cassino and founded a single large monastery there.
St Benedict died in 543 A.D. at Monte Casino, surrounded by his devoted monks. They held him up and helped him raise his arms in prayer as he was dying. Thus, he is prayed to by many for a death as happy and peaceful as his own. His feast day is on July 11, although it is celebrated on March 21.
Many artists over the centuries have drawn St Benedict, the most famous painting being by Pietro Perugino, from the Umbrian school. Now owned by the Vatican, it is, of course, not a likeness but a portrayal of how Benedict may have looked.
This brief biography of Saint Benedict is not to be confused with a history of St. Benedict the Moor, also known as St. Benedict the Black and St. Benedict the African. That saint, whose feast day is on April 4, was born a slave near Messina, Italy. He was freed by his master and eventually settled, along with other hermits, at Montepellegrino. He became a Franciscan lay brother at the late age of 38 and worked as a cook. This St. Benedict was so admired by his brethren that he was made superior, but he begged to be allowed to be a cook again, much preferring the more humble labor. The patron of black Americans, he was canonized in 1807. 1 He is called St. Benedict the Moor by an accident of language; "moro" means black in Italian.