Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Review: The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great

The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great, translation and commentary by Terrence G. Kardong

Over a millennium ago, the biographies of saints were written in a far different style than today. Today, an author probably focuses on the challenges and failings of a saint rather than any miraculous or seemingly superhuman feats they accomplished. By contrast, the ancient tradition of hagiography (writings about the holy ones) reveled in miraculous events and conversions, almost like the saints were superheroes powered by grace rather than gadgets or gamma radiation. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote just such a biography of St. Benedict, founder of the monastic tradition in the western church.

The text follows Benedict's life from childhood and his first experiences at school in Rome. Living in the late 400s, life was decadent. Benedict was appalled at the behavior of his Roman classmates and fled to the countryside where he became a monk. People heard about him and came to him. A nearby community lost its leader and they invited Benedict to be the new leader. He wanted them to live a holy life, giving up their luxuries. They were unhappy with this and poisoned Benedict's wine. As they brought the pitcher, he blessed it according to the local tradition. The pitcher shattered; Benedict instantly knew they were trying to poison him. He upbraided them and told them to find another father more suited to them.

That's just one example among many along the way. The commentary by Terrence Kardong does a good job of explaining the ancient style and relating the stories both to other examples of hagiography and other writings by and about Benedict. Kardong is well aware and sympathetic with the modern discomfort over miracles, especially when they happen on almost every page. He also is very aware of the literary style of the work. Not only is the prose beautiful to read but the ordering of the stories sets up interesting contrasts or similarities between events in Benedict's life.

For those afraid of finding a miracle-laden text too unbelievable, this translation and commentary makes it much easier reading. The stories told are very interesting and vivid, making this book worth reading just as literature. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Sample Quote--the famous story when Benedict was tempted by lust:
A victim of lust, he almost decided to desert the hermitage. Suddenly, favored by grace from above, he came to his senses. Seeing a thicket of briars and nettles growing close at hand, he stripped naked and threw himself in the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. He rolled in them for a long time and as a result was scratched from head to toe. The physical wounds on his skin removed the wound of his mind, for it converted lust into sorrow. By means of an external punishing fire, he snuffed out what unlawfully burned inside. So he conquered sin by switching fires. [p. 13]

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