St Benedict was young, wealthy, and healthy at the time he decided to step back away from the world to pursue what he thought mattered most. Do parents and teachers value the same things today?
On 11 July, the Church commemorated the life of St Benedict of Nursia, one of the most well-known and respected saints in Christianity. Dubbed the founder of western monasticism, St Benedict is known most notably for writing his “Rule of Saint Benedict”, whose unique reasonableness, moderation and balance had become immensely influential in the formation of numerous religious orders throughout history.
However, apart from the inspirational deeds and miraculous events that happened in his life, there is one simple, historical fact about St Benedict that parents and teachers can draw special reflection.
The only authentic account of St Benedict is attributed to the writings of St Gregory, in the second volume of his four-book Dialogues, thought to have been written in 593.
St Gregory, who was pope at the time, based the authority of his writings on the first-hand accounts of St Benedict’s own disciples, who had succeeded him as abbots of the many monasteries the saint had establish in the vicinity of Subiaco, Rome, and Naples.
It is written that St Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia, and lived with his parents in Rome until he reached his higher studies. Despite being a young man, in good health, wealthy, and in great position to take after his father’s footsteps into a successful career as a Roman noble, St Benedict instead gave it all up to pursue what he thought was truly valuable.
“Giving over his books, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose; and in this sort he departed from Rome, instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom,” St Gregory writes.
Though St Benedict’s age at the time is widely disputed, a careful examination of St Gregory’s narrative makes it impossible to suppose him younger than nineteen or twenty. It is noted that St Benedict was old enough to “understand the real meaning and worth of the dissolute and licentious lives of his companions, and to have been deeply affected himself by the love of a woman. He was capable of weighing all these things in comparison with the life taught in the Gospels, and chose the latter.”
Now imagine… What would your first reaction most likely be, if you were the parent or teacher of St Benedict? How would you have felt and what would you say to him, if he approached you with his decision to leave everything? Why do you feel this way?
In the meritocratic society of 21st century Singapore, it is commonplace for parents and teachers to pay special attention to a child’s achievements and development. Extra tuition classes, multiple co-curricular activities, sports courses, and several other such programmes to aid a child’s growth have become a norm in children’s schedules.
It is indeed a natural and good thing to want the best for one’s child and student. But it is crucial to stop and reflect once in a while; when we hope for the best for them, what do we really hope for?
For St Benedict, a truly worthwhile life was the one he learnt in the Gospels, instead of the one according to the world’s standards; wealth, health, nobility, pleasures, and so on. St Gregory expresses, “he was in the world and was free to enjoy the advantages which the world offers, but drew back his foot which he had, as it were, already set forth in the world”.
As parents and educators, there is sometimes a dangerous tendency to tip the balance of our efforts and focus toward children’s academics and achievements, and forget to also spend time to develop them spiritually and morally.
Archbishop William Goh often echoes these sentiments in his homilies. In January this year for example, at a commissioning mass for four new principals of Catholic schools, Archbishop William asked, “Our young people here, what do we expect for them? A Catholic school has to provide beyond academic formation. We provide a holistic formation, in terms of human, moral, psychological, and most importantly, spiritual formation. This is what makes the person human.”
Highlighting the sacred responsibility of developing a human person, Archbishop William affirms again, at the recent SG50 Joy Mass, “Whether you like it or not, we are made of body and spirit. We have a mind that seeks the truth, a heart that seeks for love. Man cannot live fully without meaning and purpose. He must know his identity, where he comes from, where he goes after.”
For St Benedict who had seemingly given up a life of prosperity to follow God, his life had eventually become much more successful and blessed in the hands of God than it would have been. As parents and teachers who hold the task of developing a human person, let us pray that when we seek the best for our children, we may always be reminded that the source of such goodness pours forth from the Cross.