ST BENET BISCOP is one of the great Benedictine saints to whom England owes so much. His devotion and loyalty to the Holy See, his love of learning, his zeal for the beauty of the house of God, for the monastic observance and for the Church's chant, show him to be a true monk, though his influence extended far wider than the narrow limits of his monastery, and affected the social condition of the people and the whole life of the Church in England. His feast is kept in several dioceses in England, but as there is no uniformity with regard to the date, we have inserted it in our calendar on the day of his death.
St Benet stands out among the great travellers in the cause of religion. He visited Rome no fewer than seven times, not only to satisfy his own devotion, but to obtain from the mother of all the churches the purest traditions, the most correct books for use in the divine liturgy, and objects of piety wherewith to inspire the devotion of the faithful. These treasures were all destined to be used for the benefit of his own countrymen, who were unable to seek them for themselves at the fountain-head. He inspired all those with whom he came in contact with a more exalted idea of the dignity of the worship of God. With regard to the Divine Service, his ruling principle was that nothing but the best was worthy of use, whether it were in the carrying out of liturgical functions or the actual fabric of the church. In his day Britain was far behind the continental nations in industry and art, and stone buildings were hardly known. St Benet, therefore, journeyed into Gaul to procure stonemasons, who came to the monastery at Wearmouth in Northumbria, and, with the help of the monks whom they instructed, built a stone church for the Community. The making and use of glass was also unknown in these islands at the time, and again St Benet sent messengers to Gaul who brought back workers in glass to glaze the windows of his church.
The record of St Benet's life has come down to us as written by the Venerable Bede, who was a monk of the abbey founded by the saint at Jarrow. Bede was admitted into this monastery when a child, during the lifetime of St Benet Biscop, and thus in his Life speaks from personal experience. He records several charming incidents which are not included in the Breviary lessons, one of which is given here as being illustrative of the saint's zeal for the Divine Office.
The Venerable Bede records that once during a visitation of the pestilence the monks at Jarrow were all stricken with the sickness with such severity that there remained but two persons in the house who were able to go to the church to sing the Divine Office, the Abbot Benet and Bede, who was still a child. These two performed the duties of the whole choir with unflagging zeal until the monks gradually regained sufficient strength to resume their share of the work of God. One can well imagine the joy of the angels at the sight of the venerable Abbot and the innocent child, each intent upon performing his share of the psalmody with exactitude so that it might never be said that the praise of God had ceased to resound through the Abbey church.
The following is the life of the saint as given in the Breviary lessons.
Benedictus cognomento Biscopus nobili stirpe genitus, quum esset minister Osvii regio, annos natus circiter viginti quinque Romam adiit, et Apostolorum Beatorum loca visere curavit. Ad patriam mox reversus, quævidit ecclesiasticæ vitæ instituía, non solum diligere et venerari, sed prædicare non desiit. Quo tempore Alchfridus Osvii filius et ipse Romani venire disponens, eum comitem accepit. Quem quum pater revocaret, ipse cœptum explens iter Romam rediit tempore Vitaliani Papæ. Et post menses aliquot inde digrediens, ad insulam Lirinensem tonsuram accepit, et disciplinam regularem, monachi voto insignitus, servavit; ubi per biennium institutus, rursus beati Petri Apostolorum Principis amore devictus, sacram ejus corpore civitatem repetere statuit, nec post longum tempus adveniente nave mercatoria desiderio satisfecit.
Eo tempore Egbertus Cantuariorum rex electum ad Episcopatus officium virum nomine Vigardum Romam miserat, qui veniens defunctus est. Ast Romanus Pontifex, ne legatio fructu careret, elegit de suis, quem Archiepiscopum mitteret, Theodorum nomine, et quia Benedictum sapientem, industrium, religiosum, et nobilem compererat, huic ordinatum commendavit. Venerunt Cantium, Theodorus sedem episcopalem conscendit, Benedictus vero monasterium beati Petri regendum suscepit. Quod ubi duobus annis rexit, tertium de Britannia Romam iter accipiens, libros divinæ eruditionis vel emptos vel largitos retulit. Tandem ad patriam pedens convertens Egfridum Transumbranæ regionis regem adiit, tantamque apud eum gratiam invenit, ut terram septuaginta familiarum largitus, monasterium ibi primo Pastori Ecclesiæ facere præciperet.
Unius anni spatio post fundatum monasterium interjecta, Benedictus Gallias petens casmentarios, qui lapideam sibi ecclesiam facerent, accepit. Proximante ad profectum opere, misit legatorios Galliam qui vitrificatores artifices Britannis eatenus incognitos, ad cancellandas fenestras adducerent. Ea quoque, quæ nec in Gallia reperiri valebant Romanis e finibus ecclesiæsuæ ut conferret, quarta illa post compositum monasterium profectione, ampliori quam prius fenore cumulatus rediit. Inter alia ordinem psallendi juxta morem Romanæ institutionis suo monasterio tradidit ab Agathone Papa accepto archicantore ecclesiæ sancti Petri, Joanne, Abbate monasterii Sancti Martini. Attulitetiam epistolam privilegii a Papa, qua monasterium ab extrinseca irruptione perpetuo redderetur liberum.
Verum quarta vice de Britannia Romam accurrens, innumeris donis locupletatus rediit, magna copia voluminum sacrorum, sed non minori sicut prius, sanctorum imaginum. Haud multo post morbo cœpit fatigari et per triennium languere, paulatim accrescente tanta paralysi membrorum parte factus sit præmortuus: superioribus solum, sine quorum vita vivere nequit homo, ad officium patientiæ virtutumque reservatio. Satagebat interim Benedictus advenientes sæpius ad se fratres de custodienda, quam statuerat, regula firmare; et hoc sedulus iisdem solebat iterare mandatum ne quis in electione Abbatis generis prosapiam, et non magis vivendi, docendique probitatem putaret esse quærendam. Vero inquit, dico vobis quia tolerabilius mihi est hunc locum si sic judicaverit Deus, in solitudinem sempiternam redigi, quam ut frater meus carnalis quem novimus viam veritatis non ingredi, in monasterio regendo post me succedat. Sexto decimo postquam monasterium fundavit anno quievit in Domino pridie Idus Januarii, sepultus in ecclesia beati Petri Apostoli, ut quem degens in carne semper solebat amare, ab hujus reiiquiis ex altari post mortem nec longius abesset.
Benedict, surnamed Biscop, of noble parentage and a member of the household of King Oswy, journeyed to Rome when he was about twenty-five years of age to visit the tombs of the blessed Apostles. Upon his return to his native land soon afterwards, he endeavoured to introduce the customs of ecclesiastical life which he had seen and which he had not ceased to love and venerate. Alchfrid, son of Oswy, wishing also to visit Rome, took Benedict as his companion, but when Alchfrid was recalled by his father, Benedict continued the journey and arrived at Rome in the time of Pope Vitalian. After spending some months there, he went to the island of Lerins,. where he received the tonsure, and making his monastic profession, followed the regular observance. After two years, again overcome by the love of blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, he decided to revisit the city made holy by his body, and not long after, upon the arrival of a merchant vessel, he was able to satisfy his desire.
About that time Egbert, King of Kent, had sent to Rome as bishop-elect a man named Vigard, who died in the Holy City. In order that this embassy should not be fruitless, the Roman pontiff chose Theodore from those about him and nominated him to the Archbishopric, and having learnt that Benedict, was wise, diligent, devout, and of noble birth, he entrusted the bishop to him. When they arrived in Kent, Theodore took possession of his see and Benedict was placed at the head of the monastery of blessed Peter. He governed this monastery for two years, at the end of which time he took the road from Britain to Rome a third time, whence he brought back books of divine learning which he had either bought or been given. At length, returning to his native land, he went to Egfrid, King of Northumbria, with whom he found so much favour that he received land enough to support seventy families, and was enjoined to found there a monastery in honour of the first pastor of the Church.
A year after the foundation of the monastery, Benedict fetched masons from Gaul to build a stone church. Glass had been hitherto unknown in Britain, and therefore shortly before the completion of this work he sent messengers into Gaul to bring back artificers to glaze the windows. When the church was finished he set out for Rome (the fourth journey after the foundation of the monastery) in order to obtain those things which he could not procure in Gaul, and he returned even more laden than before. Amongst other things, he introduced into his monastery the method of psalmody according to the custom of the Roman Church, having received from Pope Agatho the Archcantor of the Church of St Peter, John, Abbot of the monastery of St Martin. He also brought back a letter of privileges from the Pope by which the monastery was made free for ever from outside interference.
For the fourth time he hastened from Britain to Rome, and, enriched with many gifts, he returned with a great store of sacred books and with no less store of holy pictures. Shortly afterwards he was attacked by his last illness, which lasted three years, for his body was a prey to paralysis in such wise that while his lower members became entirely dead, the upper part of his body, without the use of which life is impossible, remained unafflicted for the exercise of patience and virtue. Meanwhile Benedict was careful to confirm the brethren who frequently visited him in the observance of the rule he had instituted, and he often repeated the following injunction lest anyone should think that in the election of the Abbot one should be sought for among his relatives and not rather by the test of life and teaching. ‘Truly,' he said, 'I tell you that I should prefer that this place should be reduced to a solitude for ever, if God so wills, rather than that my brother according to the flesh who, we know, has not entered upon the way of truth, should succeed me in the government of the monastery.' He slept in the Lord on the day before the Ides of January sixteen years after the foundation of the monastery, and was buried in the church of blessed Peter the Apostle, that his remains might rest after death not far from the relics and altar of him to whom, during life, he had always been most devout.