The Communion of Saints: Consecrated Life

Well, we’ve finally done it – we’ve come to the end of this short series on the Desert Fathers.  In case you were too blown away by the obscure names of some of the monks to follow, I was trying to show the rise of the practice of religious life in the Church, from St. Anthony of the Desert leading up to St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.

What’s the point of all this, you might ask?  I’m not writing these to encourage you to wear camel skins or wander off into the desert to live in ancient tombs or monasteries.  I write to show you that the practice of religious life is a beautiful thing!  Men, and (especially in our region) dedicated women, who have offered their lives in prayerful service for each of us in the Church, and who have shown us the meaning of discipleship through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, are incredibly important to the life of the Church.  Please pray for vocations to the religious life, and if you know someone who you believe would make a good religious brother or sister, PLEASE tell them in love!

That being said, religious life is just one specific path in answering that universal call to holiness given to all of us.  If there’s one thing that we can take away from the Desert Fathers, I believe it is their extreme example of taking seriously the words of Jesus.  All of us are called to leave behind that which is keeping us from God, so that we can focus on what is good and right, and live our lives to please God.  Please, continue to pray, fast, and give generously (even if it’s not Lent right now), and maybe offer a special sacrifice on Fridays.  These are simple ways that we can offer our lives to God in a similar way to the lives of these holy Desert Fathers and Mothers.

The Communion of Saints: St. Benedict of Nursia

The Medal of St. Benedict
The Medal of St. Benedict

Hooray!  We’ve finally reached someone whose name we might recognize – the great St. Benedict of Nursia.  His image and influence are everywhere – from St. Louis Priory School and St. Anselm Parish (run by the Benedictines) to the little cross I use on the altar during Mass, which has a Benedictine medal on it.  He truly is everywhere, and had an incredible impact on the Church.

St. Benedict was born the son of a Roman noble in Nursia, Italy around 480, and shared his life with his sister, Scholastica.  As Benedict grew up, he found himself in the wrong crowd and the wrong group of friends who lived a very indulgent and sinful lifestyle.  Benedict realized the situation and knew he needed to get out of there, so he left his home in Nursia and journeyed into the mountains.

It was on his journeys that he met a man named Romanus, who belonged to a monastery after the style of St. John Cassian.  Romanus taught Benedict his ways, and under his encouragement and support, Benedict became a hermit, living in secrecy and solitude in a cave near Subiaco, Italy.  Romanus continued to guide Benedict by visiting him, counseling him, and bringing him food.  It was a time of incredible self-discovery and spiritual growth for Benedict.

As time went on, Benedict became very well known and well respected by other monks in the area, similar to the way St. Anthony had done in the desert years before.  In fact, when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, a group of monks begged him to take over as abbot.  It didn’t work out great at first – they tried to poison him (which makes you wonder what happened to the first abbot, right?) – but over time, he came to be a better leader, and other monks were attracted to his way of life.  St. Benedict founded several other monasteries, including the great monastery at Monte Cassino, which was destroyed in World War II, rebuilt, and is used to this day.

St. Benedict is most famous for his Rule.  Up to this time, monasteries were somewhat independent, and followed the example of their founder or abbot.  However, St. Benedict chose to establish a rule or order to unite his monasteries under one way of life.  The Rule of St. Benedict was heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Cassian, and I can’t do it justice in just one paragraph, but the order essentially outlines their way of life through the motto “Ora et Labora”, meaning “pray and work”.  Under the Rule, the monks would go to Mass and pray the Divine Office together, do physical labor for spiritual gain, share their resources as a community, and dedicate their lives to study, prayer, and community.  The Rule is incredibly detailed, and is still followed by Benedictine monks all over the world today.

St. Benedict is widely considered to be the founder of modern Western monasticism, and gave rise to the idea of religious orders as they exist today.  Let us all pray through his intercession that we would also grow in holiness and simplicity!  St. Benedict, pray for us!

The Communion of Saints: St. John Cassian

St_John_Cassian_the_Roman_ca_1800Finally! After a ton of crazy Egyptian monk names, we finally have someone who’s name we can pronounce with St. John Cassian! However, St. John isn’t just important because of his pronounceable name – he serves as the link between the East and the West. All these monks had been in Egypt, and maybe a few in Palestine or Syria, but St. John Cassian was the first to bring these practices to Europe in a concrete way.

St. John Cassian was born around 360 in the area now shared by Bulgaria and Romania. His parents were very wealthy, and they used this wealth to give him a top-notch education. St. John grew up learning the works of Cicero, and spoke both Latin and Greek.

While he was still a young man, he and his friends took a road trip of sorts to Palestine. While most teens and young adults would spend their road trip doing…other things…St. John and his friends stayed in a monastery near Bethlehem to study and pray. The monastery where they stayed was set up by one of the desert monks, and St. John Cassian loved the experience so much that he wanted to learn from the horse’s mouth. He and his friends travelled to Egypt and spent fifteen years learning from the monks.

Struggles in the Church in Egypt drove St. John Cassian and his brothers to flee to Constantinople, where they sought the protection and support of the famous Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom. And of course, as soon as they got there, St. John Chrysostom himself was exiled as well! Cassian chose to go to Rome, where he met with Pope Innocent I.

While he was in Rome, he received an invitation to begin a monastic community following the style of our old pal St. Pachomius in what is now Marseilles, France. He founded the Abbey of St. Victor in 415 to hold communities of both men and women who spent their lives following the style of prayer and simplicity that St. John Cassian had learned from the Egyptian monks. Today, we wouldn’t really think too much of that – there are thousands and thousands of monasteries throughout Europe and around the world, and some even in St. Louis! At the time, however, the ideas of a monastery and following a life of simplicity were brand new concepts to the Western World!

St. John Cassian died around 435, and was buried in his community. The Abbey of St. Victor was still active as a monastery until the 1700’s, and can be visited today in Marseilles as a museum.

Well, there you go! The ideas of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers finally made it to Europe. But it was all just the beginning!