St Benedict

Abbot, Patriarch of Western Monks (entered heaven around 547)

Dear Ben,

Your namesake would not be happy with you.  Just because it’s “natural” to feel certain urges doesn’t mean it’s healthy to follow them.  Please pause for a minute and think about it.  Every sin begins with some kind of an urge – for pleasure, for recognition, for comfort, for power, for success, or for whatever.  These are all natural desires for things that are in themselves, perhaps, fine.  But it is possible to desire good things too much, more than we are meant to desire them.  All these created things, all these things that are not God, are given to use as means to an end, the end being a life in communion with God.  Sin turns these means into ends; it unleashes our desires so they get out of control, so that we pursue them regardless of the higher, moral law that indicates how much of each of these good things is actually good for us.  So just because you experience a natural desire doesn’t mean you are therefore justified in acting it out contrary to the equally natural parameters that keep us humans from becoming like animals.  Maybe the example of today’s saint will help clarify things.

Benedict appeared to be a typical son of sixth-century Italian nobility.  Sent with his nurse to Rome in order to get an education, he was appalled by the moral and religious laxity all around him.  His fellow students caroused in every way and left their faith (those who had any faith to begin with) to wither for neglect or perish for pagan atrocities.  The deplorable behavior of Rome’s youth reflected the general disarray that had spread throughout the western Empire since the first waves of barbarians sacked the Eternal City.  Schisms, war, plague, and heathen comebacks afflicted a civilization that seemed to teeter on the verge of implosion (sound familiar?…).

By the grace of God, Benedict was not drawn in.  He left Rome and his aristocratic future behind and made his way to an isolated cave on a mountain called Subiaco.  There he lived in austerity and solitude, battling temptation and filling his soul with divine light for three years, coached in the spiritual life and materially aided by a veteran hermit named Romanus.  Once discovered, he began to receive numerous visitors seeking the benefit of his wisdom and his miracles (which were also numerous).  Then the disciples started trickling in, and he began the project that Providence had assigned him: the creation of a rule of life that would enable monasticism to spread throughout Europe, providing Christianity and western civilization with fertile ground not only to maintain the greatness of its past, but to grow a vast new garden of holiness, culture, and prosperity.

Benedict could have considered it natural to desire the pleasures of the aristocracy, but he recognized that what the aristocracy considered OK in the realms of pleasure and power was not OK in the eyes of God.  It’s an important distinction.  Remember our Lord’s warning: “How is a man the better for it, if he gains the whole world at the cost of losing his own soul?  For a man’s soul, what price can be high enough?” (Matthew 16:26)  I hope I’ve made myself clear.

Your loving uncle,


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