To appear in a Festschrift for Robert Brentano, edited by Jason Glenn to be published by Columbia University Press.
The Avenging Abbot: Gregory’s Life of St. Benedict
Gregory’s Benedict is not particularly endearing. A resolute disciplinarian, Benedict always knows when monks sin; his omniscience is godlike. Nor does he ever fail to exact punishment, lest laxity encourage further rebelliousness. Gregory’s Benedict is much like the authoritarian abbot presented in The Rule of St. Benedict, written some sixty years before: both works are products of the troubled sixth century where peace, order, and prosperity were distant dreams. Monastic life, however, had not always been as harsh an ordeal before an awesome abbot.
In the fourth-century Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the patient kindness and mercy of the abbas so often reveals their likeness to God.
They said of the abbot Macarius the elder, that even as God protects all the world and bears the sins of men, so was he to the brethren as it might be an earthly God, for he covered up their faults, and what things he saw or heard, it was as though he saw and heard them not (Macarius the Great, 32).
Macarius would raise the dead to exculpate the innocent, but he refused to betray the guilty (56). While abbas cultivated self-rebuke in exquisite austeries, they forbore judging others. Abba Moses fled the assembly rather than judge the sins of another; Bessarion left the Church when a brother was excommunicated saying, “I too am sinful (96).” Forgiveness was reciprocal and therefore necessary: “In what moment we do cover up our brother’s sins, God shall cover ours” (97). With forgiveness, one dare have hope. If one could repair a torn cloak, thus sparing the garment, would not God have mercy on his own image? (129). Mercy did not mean laxity: these monks are always fighters, athletes in the contest (agon) for perfection. In the desert, one can find the tranquil confidence of Jerome’s Paul the Hermit, who dies having won the race, awaiting the crown of righteousness. Witnessing his death, Anthony “saw Christ is Paul and worshipped God in Paul’s heart.” Assimilation to divinity will never again seem so possible: “If a man willed it, in one day up till evening he might come at the measure of divinity” (108).
A generation later, Cassian wrote of these desert monks in his Conferences and Institutes (c. 425). Cassian’s works and the Sayings lay behind The Rule of the Master (c. 480), which in turn is the immediate source of The Rule of St. Benedict (c. 535). Harsher historical conditions have shaped the more severe and defensive world implicit in Benedict’s Rule. Theodoric’s overthrow of Odoacer in 493 did little to comfort Roman subjects, and it is not inappropriate to link the Rule’s emphasis on stability to the enormous economic and political upheavals of the times. The Rule would provide a safe haven, a “school for God’s service” (Pro. 45) where one would learn ”to fight under the commandments of holy obedience” (Pro. 40). The way to salvation lay in “patiently shar[ing] in Christ’s passion” (Pro. 50). The monk was to sacrifice himself in obedience as Christ sacrificed himself to the will of the Father, obedient unto death. “Self-will has its punishment, necessity its crown” the Rule quotes ominously from Acts of the Martyrs (7.33). In such self-abnegation, the monk indeed became successor to the martyr.
The Rule’s fearful images of God would pique obedience. God is the angered Father disinheriting his children, the dreaded Lord of worthless servants (Pro. 7). But who speaks for God? A conflation is likely: the monk would come to see himself as Christ sacrificing his will to the abbot who is analogous to God the Father. The commands of superiors must be obeyed as if they were the command of God (5.4); obedience to God is shown through obedience to superiors (5.15). The abbot may be God to the monk’s Christ, but the abbot must account for the souls of his monks before God and so must be certain that his monks behave. To strengthen the abbot’s hand, sins are categorized (lesser and graver) and punishments defined, ranging from admonitions, enforced fasting, to various degrees of excommunication and corporal punishment. In the Rule, the imitation of Christ is institutionalized to the extinction of the monk’s self-will in obedience to superiors.
It is Gregory the Great (590-604) who credits Benedict with writing a Rule “famous for its discretion”-- its moderation and adaptability to specific circumstances. Gregory’s Life of Benedict is the earliest and the chief source of our knowledge about Benedict. The Life is actually the second book of Gregory’s Dialogues (c. 594), a work that enjoyed much popularity in the Middle Ages. With Gregory and the Dialogues especially, we encounter a spirituality characteristic of the Middle Ages. The supernatural is mingled with the world of ordinary experience: visible and invisible, natural and supernatural, human and divine, carnal and spiritual are connected directly and causally as God disciplines his people with earthquakes, wars, or famine or blesses them with peace and prosperity. Supernatural, moral causes displace natural and neutral explanations. A nun has indigestion not from cabbage but because of the demon sitting on the cabbage; she neglected to sign the cabbage with the cross before eating it (Dial. 1.4.7). In this sacramental spirituality, tangible signs mediate this world and the next; the core of this mediation is the sacrifice of the Mass, when the heavens open linking earth with the world beyond. Masses and the Eucharist have power to change the fate of a soul after death, even as the human saint intercedes with God for sinners and transmits God’s messages to them, and earthly events communicate God’s grace or wrath. Gregory’s world is alive with spiritual meaning.
As a monk himself, Gregory was as familiar with Cassian and the Desert Fathers as he was with Augustine. Even when pope from 590-604, Gregory remained an ascetic, forever worried that the temptations of worldly power would be his undoing. When Gregory retired from secular life in 574, he turned the family estates on the Caelian Hill into a monastery. While scholars do not think that Gregory’s monastery followed the Rule (as it would be followed in its later sense), Gregory knew Benedict’s Rule and was inspired by it, finding in the Rule’s emphasis on stability a new compass charting the path of holiness.
Gregory focuses on the authority of Benedict, the godlike qualities that account for his power. Where Benedict’s Rule emphasized the monk’s sacrifice of his will, Gregory’s Life focuses on the transformation this sacrifice accomplishes. Through a sacrifice of will in humility, Benedict rises in sanctity. Benedict always imagines himself standing in judgment before God so preserves humility (3.7). He is “man of God” and “servant of God”; through this abnegation of will, Benedict becomes “one with God (15.2)” and “fixed in God”(23.1). “Uniting himself to the Lord [he] becomes one in spirit with him” (15.4). Earlier, in Dial. 1.9.9, Gregory calls the saint a temple of God indwelt by him: to provoke the holy man is to anger Him who dwells within and risk His considerable vengeance. Holy men have received miraculous powers from God, and can even hand them over to faithful servants, as Benedict does, allowing Maurus to save the drowning boy, Placid (7; 8.9).
This transformation of the saint has a logical place in Gregory’s theology. Through humility one enjoys “stability” such as Adam possessed before the Fall--that unity or fixity in God that made Adam “greater than himself.” But the Fall caused Adam to become “mutable” and “less than himself” as the condign punishment for his proud rebellion against God, his desire to follow his own will and be autonomous. Thus, the saint’s humility and obedience recovers stability, the ideal union and participation in God known in paradise and anticipated in heaven.
Gregory emphasis on Benedict’s supernatural qualities distances him from early monasticism. Where the Sayings warn: “If you see a monk levitate, catch him by the foot and throw him to the ground, for its does him no good” (107), Gregory expands on Benedict supernatural powers. This change of perspective reflects the increasing importance of the Church as an institution in the early Middle Ages, for in praising the saint, one honors less the individual than the Church he or she represents. The contest for perfection is no longer an individual quest as it was for monks of the desert, “alone into the alone” (108), or even with the Rule’s sacrifice of will in obedience to the abbot. With Gregory, the self-sacrifice demanded of the individual is inseparable from the sacraments. A later passage in the Dialogues (4.60-61) explains that as Christians receive the Eucharist at the Mass, they must replicate its sacrifice in their hearts: “We need to sacrifice ourselves to God in a sincere immolation of the heart whenever we offer Mass, because we who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s passion ought to imitate what we are enacting. The Sacrifice will truly be offered to God for us when we present ourselves as Victim.” When saints so “sacrifice themselves to Almighty God on the altar of the heart,” they become “true martyrs even in times of peace,” Gregory explains in Dialogues 3.26.9. The sacrifice and martyrdom of the monk seen in the Rule becomes set in the context of the sacraments and the Church as the institution of salvation in Gregory.
This mediation by the institution does not, however, end the need for human effort, for only when Christians offer themselves as Victim and sacrifices can they “activate” the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf. Free will and grace are balanced and complementary. Christians must do what they can to return to God the gifts he has given, to repay Christ for his sacrifice, for the universe operates reciprocally as Gregory sees it. Saints (and average Christians) owe Christ good works and must not obey this duty.
Through humility, saints are elevated; they act more perfectly and view the universe from a new perspective. Possessing stability, Benedict is sublimely self-controlled. Augustine would approve heartily: Benedict does not allow his attention to be scattered on worldly affairs, carrying him “outside himself.” Mindful of judgment, Benedict searches his own soul continually and keeping a close watch on his thoughts and actions; he lives “with himself” (habitare secum, 3.5-9). Benedict is “above it all” (as we might say), contemplation gives him the discretion to perceive the world as it really is, tiny and insignificant. With magnanimous tranquility, Benedict rises above this “little ball” and its noisome concerns.
Despite Gregory’s idealization of Benedict, his Life is not triumphal, but defensive and apologetic; the story of a fighter who does not always win. In truth, Benedict’s authority is mocked, defied, and tried; Benedict parries the devil’s insults constantly to save face. Gregory scrambles to convince his audience that God is on Benedict’s side, despite the many adversities Benedict encounters. Such chagrin was a frequent companion of spiritual authorities in the sixth centuries. Benedict’s trials reveal a fluid society where the Church is vigorously challenged by rebellious monks, invidious clerics, worldly laymen, stubborn pagans and ruthless barbarians. Power and authority are indeterminate and contingent upon unpredictable circumstances and personalities. Gregory tries to tilt the scales so the balance settles with the Church because leadership in society will fall to the strongest power, not necessarily the most worthy. The papal administration Gregory began (most evident in the Papal Estates) is the Church’s answer to the brute force of regional warlords and the corruption and indifference of the Byzantine bureaucracy represented in Ravenna.
Gregory is at pains to prove that abbot Benedict is nobody’s fool and quite capable of avenging those who would mock him, chief of whom is the devil himself. The specific character of the Adversary is telling; he is the trickster who taunts Benedict. These insults seem insignificant to moderns, but they are affronts to Benedict’s (and God’s) honor, an intolerable travesty of his authority. In his pride and hubris, the devil would overthrow just authority and supplant it with his own. Gregory’s Satan is the great simulator who apes God brazenly, the Pretender who disguises himself as an angel of light. The great deceiver would destroy the right order Benedict represents. Gregory sets obedience to a single authority against autonomy and anarchy. Benedict offers amnesty from the chaos created by those who live by their own will; the safety and security of God’s protection is granted those who would accept “God’s light yoke.” The devil’s subversion of just order reflects an age where usurpations of the rights, privileges, and even the regalia of others were commonplace, where “savage barbarians” could extort ransom from whole cities, where new men seized whatever opportunity afforded. Benedict offered the remedy of stability to the tumult of this “frontier” mentality ruled by the sword and bribery.
Like any competitive rival, the devil is “full of envy.” He snipes at Benedict, breaking the bell tied to Benedict’s bread basket, hoping to deprive Benedict of his meals (1.5). Mean-spirited, the devil sits on a rock simply to thwart the monks’ work building the abbey (9.11). When peeved that Benedict has turned the temple of Apollo into a chapel dedicated to St. Martin, the devil makes a ghastly appearance. With fire pouring from his eyes and mouth, he puns on the name, “Benedict, Maledict” (8.12). Gregory sees the most frightening manifestations of evil in such confrontations with the pagan idols. In these ultimate tests of powers, Gregory demonstrates that Christianity is indeed stronger than paganism simply because the devil is incapable of avenging himself. Benedict does not even see the fire that breaks out when a bronze idol is thrown in the kitchen. Wondering why the monks scurry to douse the flames with water, he prays that they will see their foolish error. The blaze is revealed to be an illusory work of the demon and vanishes (10).
Evil is petty and malicious, but this does not mean that good always prevails. Gregory’s world is a trial, an apocalyptic, black-and-white contest between good and evil. Yet, the devil is God’s servant and it is God who unleashes him to try Christians, even as he allowed the devil to smite Job within an inch of his life. Gregory’s God is as fearsome as Augustine’s, and Gregory is less convinced of mercy. Indeed, severity is so likely that in his Homilies on Ezechiel 2.34.5 Gregory proposes the ideal of the just penitent: those “who are guilty of no sins, yet afflict themselves as if guilty of every sin.” Thus, the divine sacraments are essential if hope is to exist; though more secure is one’s own self-sacrifice. “Let us do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death,” writes in Dialogues 4.60.1: one should offer oneself as victim to God in this life that one might not need the saving Victim offered death. Self-sacrifice means denial of one’s own will.
The struggle to secure salvation is formidable. While safely lies in abnegation of the will to authority, tests and challenges to Benedict’s leadership are constant, be they trivial or grave. Benedict’s powers are limited, and that is the point. Insofar as Benedict is one with God, he can know God’s thoughts, but in the degree that this union is imperfect, he is unable to grasp fully the designs of God (16.3-8). In the balance and cooperation of human and divine agencies typical of Gregory’s thought, he allows that Benedict is able to do some miracles without prayer, accomplishing them immediately with his own power (albeit a gift of God); for other miracles, however, Benedict must pray because they are beyond his own power (30, 32). (The speed with which the miracle is wrought reveals its source. Supplication takes time.) Nor does Benedict always get his way, even when he prays. St. Scholastica’s prayer for Benedict’s company wins God’s approval, overriding Benedict’s desire to depart (2.33.). Gregory’s Benedict is holy, but still human and imperfect. Gregory’s message is precisely that boundaries exist.
The effectiveness of Benedict’s authority is moot. In the battle between good and evil, Benedict prevails as strict enforcer; he “allowed [no one] to turn from the straight path of monastic discipline either to the right or the left” (3.3). That such severity stirred resentment is no surprise to Gregory, who observes pessimistically that “the wicked are envious of the holiness in others they are not striving themselves to acquire” (8.1). A sharp line separates the evil from the good: time and again Benedict’s experiences prove that “the very life of the just is a burden to the wicked” (3.4, cf. Ws 2:12-20). If Benedict fights and speaks on God’s behalf, his rivals represent the devil, such that when Benedict is driven out of his monastery by the invidious priest Florentius, Gregory will reflect, “Although [Benedict] moved to a different place, . . . his enemy remained the same. In fact, the assaults he had to endure after this were all the more violent because the very Master of evil was fighting against him in open battle (8.10).”
Evil looms large and can be given no quarter. Fierce discipline is necessary in a world so dubiously Christian and corruptible. Corporal discipline reveals the mingled reality of Gregory’s universe where supernatural and human intersect; where carnal, worldly actions evoke inner, spiritual results. Physical discipline exorcises the demonic from human beings in ways that presume intimate connections. Benedict does not spare the rod chastising a monk who wanders. It is as if the blow to the monk hits the Enemy himself, freeing the monk from the devil’s dominion (4.3; 30.1). When Benedict feels the stings of lust, he finds a remedy in nettles, throwing himself in a briar patch. The wounds drain the poison of temptation sent by the devil (2.2). Demons have wrought havoc with the humors of Benedict’s body; it is purified through a scouring by thorns. The soul is connected inversely to the body so that “when the body is abased, the goal of the soul is elevated” as Gregory writes in Moralia 7.15.19.
Benedict’s severity is indispensable and praiseworthy, but it inspires resistance. Retreating often, Benedict never overwhelms the enemy. His victories can be slow in coming and they are seldom spectacular. Benedict’s monks are sullen when they find him “trying to curb every evil habit.” They poison his wine, and when Benedict signs the wine pitcher with the cross, it shatters “as it could not bear the sign of life.” Benedict rebukes these murderous monks, but his chastisement does not heal and restore the community. Instead, Benedict dismisses the monks and returns alone to his hermitage (3.3-5). Gregory justifies Benedict’s retreat by citing Paul’s actions in Damascus: he left to save himself for more fruitful battles later (3. 11). “Battle” is the operative word. Recognizing his defeat, Benedict cuts his losses.
In a second instance, the jealous priest, Florentius, sends Benedict poisoned bread. Graciously, Benedict’s pet raven saves him by carrying it away. But when Florentius sends seven dancing girls to seduce Benedict’s disciples, Benedict “lets envy have its way” and again departs, taking a only a few disciples with him (2.8). In the battle for conversion, Gregory acknowledges that the Enemy sometimes cannot be conquered. In Moralia 33.14.29, Gregory mentions the mosaic of black and white God’s Providence creates. In Benedict’s Life one senses how frequently the black overshadows the white.
Few of Benedict’s miracles spring from sympathy and compassion; most avenge insults or otherwise vindicate his power, as those noted above. True, he does repair the broken tray of his faithful nurse (2.1.2), recover the blade of a Goth’s scythe (2.6.1-2); and send Maurus to save the boy, Placid, whom he has seen drowning in the lake (2.8.1-2). Yet, Benedict’s most breathtaking miracle, reviving the dead, turns out to be the vindication of an insult. When a sarcastic demon taunts Benedict that he is “off to work with the brethren” and causes a young monk to die when a wall collapses, Benedict raises the lad, defying the devil’s attempt to “mock” him (2.11.1-2).
Most of Benedict’s miracles are didactic, teaching that one dare not defy Benedict, for divine power will surely avenge him. None can escape Benedict’s searching vision. Benedict knows every infraction of the rule, a fact that might make all subordinates wary of testing their superiors, who are after all, God’s representatives on earth. Benedict’s remote vision allows him to monitor his monks’ behavior even when they leave his presence, for he is “always present in spirit” (12.2). Nothing can be kept secret from him (20.2) He chastises monks who have eaten when away from the monastery and when they dared to lie about it, he reveals his vision and they fall at his feet trembling with guilt (12.2). He rebukes Exhilaratus for his secret stash of wine; and when Exhilaratus dares press further to test Benedict’s admonition not to drink the hidden wine, he find himself terrified by a snake hiding in the flask—Benedict is avenged eventually and with some drama at that (2.18). Monks, Gregory assures us, cannot ignore Benedict’s commands: he even comes to them in dreams to chastise them when they doubt his presence and fail to carry out his orders (22.3). Because “nothing could be kept secret” from Benedict (16.2), he can discern souls with uncanny sensitivity. He reads the spiteful heart of a discontented monk and rebukes him for his envy (20.2).
Like God (or all-knowing parent), Benedict seems present always and everywhere, perhaps some medieval readers might conclude that the authority of every abbot might partake of such power as God’s representative—a sobering thought, to be sure. In the broadest sense, the saint’s power vindicates not only his authority but faith itself. Benedict chastises doubt, hesitancy, and uncertainty. When Benedict produces food in a famine, he does so the day after monks have gazed in dismay and despair at the five loaves remaining. He rebukes monks for their lack of faith that God would provide (21.1-2). When a niggardly cellarer refuses to give oil to the poor “to lay up riches in heaven,” Benedict rebukes his disobedience by making him throw a glass of oil out of the window. It does not break. Suspended between hope and fear, the monk must trust, and oil flows copiously from his cask (28). To quell those who complain that his monasteries should be moved for lack of water, Benedict again silences them. He prays and finds water, proving again that God provides for the faithful (6.23).
Gregory seems content with Benedict’s understated progress, even though such modest success would seem incongruous with the supernatural powers Gregory so glorifies. If victories are not dazzling, minor advances can be cherished. The cold-blooded Gothic king Totila tests Benedict’s gift of prophecy. Trying to deceive him, Totila sends a messenger disguised as himself. Benedict unmasks the fraud and those who tried to mock him fall to the ground in terror. Benedict foretells Totila’s demise and Totila, if not tamed, is at least “less cruel” after Benedict’s rebuke (14-15). Benedict can offer protection sometimes, but not all the time. Benedict prays assiduously, but he cannot prevail upon God to spare his doomed monastery; indeed, he barely persuades God to grant mercy for the lives of the monks (17.1-2). He does intercede with God, but his mediation on behalf of human interests is only partly successful.
Benedict’s intercession for those dying in unhappy circumstances is more effective because the Eucharist is part of these miracles. Secure and indisputable poswer exists in the Church and its sacraments. As with other miracles, those involving the Eucharist also point to transgressions of authority and remind Christians of their need for obedience. Overly attached to his parents, a young monk deserts the monastery. He dies suddenly and will not stay buried until Benedict reburies him with the Eucharist (24.1-3). The lesson is obvious, disobedience prevents entrance to heaven, but more important is Gregory’s argument that the Church holds the keys to the kingdom: God imparted to men who govern the Church the power to bind and loose, to pardon those in the mortal flesh judged before the invisible tribunal (23.5). In another miracle, Benedict rebukes two nuns for their insults, warning he will excommunicate them if they do not curb their tongues. They die, are buried in the parish Church, but leave their graves at communion, when the deacon announces that non-communicants must leave. Again, the Eucharist is the remedy. Benedict sends an oblation to be offered at the Mass to free the nuns from the threatened sentence of excommunication and they return peacefully to their graves (23.3-6). Significantly, the personal charism of Benedict is less effective than his role dispensing the sacraments. The sacraments have perfect and indisputable power to mediate; the holy man will always remain one with God, yet imperfectly transformed.
Benedict dies a good death, revealing the connections of heaven and earth. He foreknows his passing, and dies fortified by the Eucharist. Monks see a magnificent road stretching to heaven, glittering with lights signaling that Benedict passed that way. Miracles come from his tomb and cave, but are not limited to contact with them, for miracles come from a distance to those whose faith in God earns more merit. The very absence of the body teaches one spiritual love (38).
While Gregory emphasizes that Benedict participates in God’s powers and that God will avenge insults to his authority, Gregory also recognizes the limits of Benedict’s powers. Strategic accommodations soften Benedict’s more embarrassing retreats and failures. Gregory’s final message is not too different from Athanasius in his Life of Anthony: religious life is a trial and it is open to everyone. But one must always persevere, despite temptations and frustrations. “Age quod agis!” Gregory writes in Dialogues 4.58.1. “Do what you should do”; never cease striving. Progress is slow because human beings can be as dull and resistant as Benedict’s monks.
Gregory lived in a tumultuous century. Justinian’s reconquest had devastated Italy, and the Lombards invaded shortly thereafter. The plague returned at regular intervals, famine accompanied the nearly continual war. The country drifted further and further toward a natural economy. A new military aristocracy arose, as the civilian aristocracy declined. In Rome, as in other major cities in the West, civil government collapsed, and the bishop and the Church became heirs to the daily administration of the cities needs. Gregory rebuilt bridges, supplied the grain dole, and even paid soldiers to defend the city and even suggested strategies of defense. The Church would often find itself at odds with the new military aristocracy spawned by generations of war, and alternatively, the Church could find itself used by those of secular minds, as the road to power. The Church was definitely in the world, the challenge was not to be of it.
The issue was “genuine” Christianity to Gregory, and this meant the rejection of worldly corruption and true obedience to precepts taught by Christ. With Gregory, the Church as an institution and its sacraments becomes instrumental to salvation and central to Christian life in a way different from that of the past. With Gregory, the medieval Church with its cultural predominance emerges. Gregory’s saint is tied to the sacraments, and the mediation of the sacraments is glorified. The tenuous authority of spiritual leaders, be they abbots or bishops, is now fortified by sacraments whose success mediating with God cannot be doubted.
Willaim D. McCready, Signs of Sanctity: Miracles in the Thought of Gregory the Great, Studies and Texts 91 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1989), Robert Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (1997); Paul Meyvaert, Benedict, Gregory, Bede and Others (1977), Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God (1980); Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (1988).
Endnotes to The Avenging Abbot: Gregory’s Life of St. Benedict
 The Saying of the Fathers, or Apophthegmata Patrum are found in Migne, Patrologia Graeca 65. English translations are Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1966); Benedict Ward, The Saying of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, CS 59 (Kalamazoo, Cisterican Publications, 1975); Benedicta Ward, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers (Oxford, SLG Press, 1977). All citations given in parenthesis are from Waddell, except this first, located through the kind help of Philip Rousseau. An alternative translation can be found in Ward, Sayings, 113.
 All citations from the Life of St. Benedict are thus from Dial.2.
 See Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Transformation of the Classical Heritage 14 (Berkeley, 1988), 158-161.
 T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers (Rome, 1984), esp. 8-20.