What is the deal with Saint Patrick? For a guy who began his life story saying "I am the sinner Patrick, the most unsophisticated of people, the least of Christians, and for many people I am the most contemptible," he sure gets a lot of attention. In Dublin, half a million people marched in his honor Wednesday, with millions more in parades elsewhere around the world. And Patrick wasn't even Irish! In his defense against his ecclesiastic critics, he called the green island an "alien land … out beyond where anyone lives." Nevertheless, his work as a missionary bishop changed that land forever, and the Irish reward his memory with pilgrimages and revelry.
But on the Christian calendar, this isn't just the week where Patrick is remembered. It's also the traditional celebration week of Saint Benedict Day—this Sunday, or last, if you're Eastern Orthodox. (Actually, the Western church now honors Benedict on July 11, though Benedictines still observe March 21 as the traditional date of his death around A.D. 550.)
Still, while Patrick is celebrated with green beer, the father of western monasticism isn't even the namesake of the poached eggs and hollandaise dish (which was reportedly named after a Wall Street fat cat).
The two men were nearly contemporaries: Benedict was born around 480; records on Patrick are less credible, placing his arrival as a missionary to Ireland at 432 and his death at either 461 or 493. But they shared something else, as did several other Christian leaders of their day: A belief that lifelong service to Christ was best done full-time in a monastery.
While the popular image of Patrick has him out blasting druids, casting out snakes, and using the shamrock to teach eager Irish about the Trinity, Patrick's own writings don't include these dubious tales. Instead, he boasts that in Ireland, "they never had knowledge of God—and until now they celebrated only idols and unclean things. Yet recently what a change: they have become 'a prepared people' of the Lord, and they are now called 'the sons of God.' And the Irish leaders' sons and daughters are seen to become the monks and virgins (nuns) of Christ."
Patrick provides little detail about the life of these monks and nuns, but later Christians from Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere in the British Isles would begin to create monastic rules, many of which still exist today.
Still, no Celtic monastic rule has had an influence approaching that of Benedict. The first monks who tried to live under his direction hated his regimen—so much so they plotted to kill him. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict's biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.
Benedict, Gregory wrote, "perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death," called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, "Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you."
We don't know if Benedict was overly strict or if his first monks were simply obstinate. But years later, when Benedict wrote a rule of life for another group of monks, it turned out to be a model of monastic moderation and one reason monasticism blossomed in the West.
We have two writings by Patrick himself, along with several dubious hagiographies (saint-lives). But despite a full hagiography by Gregory, we know very little about Benedict. The story mostly tells of signs and wonders performed by Benedict (miraculously mending a broken sieve, calling forth water from a rock, raising the dead, and so on). We can piece together, though, a sketch of his life.
Benedict was born as the Roman Empire was disintegrating, and during his youth, the Italian peninsula was the scene of constant war between barbarian tribes. The young Benedict moved from his birthplace (Nursia in Umbria) to Rome but soon abandoned the "eternal city" when he became disgusted with the paganism and immorality he saw there. He retired to a cave at Subiaco, some 30 miles east of Rome, where he lived as a hermit and endured severe privations.
He sought as little contact as possible with others. An admiring monk delivered Benedict his food from above the cave, dangling it by a rope with a bell attached to get Benedict's attention.
He also disciplined his flesh. According to Gregory, he was once nearly overcome with lust as he remembered a certain woman. Benedict stripped himself and ran naked into thorn bushes so that "all his flesh was pitifully tom: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme smart, quenched that fire."
As his reputation for holiness—and perhaps for performing miracles—spread, more and more monks tried to attach themselves to him. He reluctantly agreed to become abbot of a small monastery, but after the attempted murder, he moved back into solitude.
Again monks sought him out, and before long he had established 12 monasteries with 12 monks in each. But the envy of local clergy (one of whom, according to Gregory, tried to kill him with a loaf of poisoned bread) so disturbed Benedict that he moved again, and with some disciples established another monastery, this time on the mountain above Cassino, about 80 miles south of Rome.
His fame continued to spread (even the king of the Goths, Totila, came to see him) as his reforms continued. Gregory says that when Benedict came across a local chapel devoted to the old Roman god Apollo, he "beat in pieces the idol, overthrew the altar, set fire to the woods," and made it into a Christian sanctuary.
It's unclear whether Benedict was influenced by Celtic monks, but he certainly borrowed ideas from a number of earlier monastic writings (and likely from his own experience) in writing a Rule for his followers, one that is today praised for its balanced approach to monastic life. Besides the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, it stressed communal living, physical labor, common meals, and the avoidance of unnecessary conversation.
At the same time, while some Celtic rules could be very rigid, Benedict made allowances for his monks—for differences of age, capabilities, dispositions, needs, and spiritual stature. There is a frank allowance for weaknesses and failure, as well as compassion for the physically weak. "In drawing up these regulations," he said, "we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome."
But he was no libertine: "The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love."
It is this combination of compassion and discipline that made the Rule a model for many later monastic orders besides the Benedictine, and one reason why monasticism became such a viable life for so many over the next centuries, during which the institution literally shaped the future of Europe.
Remembering Benedict doesn't mean we have to dye our rivers green and listen to Chieftains CDs on Patrick's Day, but he provides us with a reminder that it's a lot easier to wear green than it is to practice Benedict's call to "fear God and love [our neighbors] with sincere and humble affection … [and to] prefer nothing whatever to Christ."
This article is adapted in part from 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, by Ted Olsen and Mark Galli, who are now editors at Christianity Today. Olsen is also the author of Christianity and the Celts, part of the IVP Histories series with Galli's Francis and his World.
Christian History Corner is a weekly column from Christian History & Biography, a Christianity Today sister publication. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
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Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13,2004)
The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army | Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what's it all about? (Feb. 06, 2004)
Would You Like to Super-Size Your Ministry? | Joan Kroc's $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army promises to boost its admirable outreach, but history suggests new challenges and temptations lie ahead. (Jan. 30, 2004)
When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
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The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)