That inspiring Subiaco

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Recently Dame Inspiration drove me to Subiaco, Italy, which is about 40 miles east of Rome. Subiaco is a very sacred place for the Benedictine family because to this place a very young Saint Benedict came.

He had been a student in Rome. The teenager Benedict was so put off by the rowdy immorality of the city that he set out on his own. He came to Subiaco. There is still the cave where Benedict lived for about three years. Of course, it has now been encased as a monastic shrine. Today you can see part of it. Benedict lived in this encase for a time. Anyone coming by this area back in those days, if they heard that there was a kid living in a cave, they might have thought that this poor thing has lost his mind. However, the Benedictine movement came from that strange beginning which, in time, re-civilised Europe.

The order lost at the end of the Roman Empire was restored largely through the Benedictine movement. Who would have guessed that this kid, living in a cave on the hillside, was the seed from which the western civilisation would reflower? The fact that we still read texts by Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Sophocles, and Aeschylus is largely due to patient Benedictine monks. They were the ones who transcribed these works from the ancient world.

Prevalent in Subiaco is the master seed principle. In other words, how truly great things come from every small beginnings. Among the wonderful things present in Subiaco

Fresco painting of St Francis, in Subiaco

there are the frescoes that come from the thirteenth and very early fourteenth century. They are very much like those of the period of Giotto. In fact, their style is very similar. A short time ago, these magnificent frescoes were beautifully restored. In one of these frescoes there is a portrait of Pope Innocent III. This early thirteenth century Pope was one of the most important Roman Pontiffs in history. He was the Pope who called the Fourth Lateran Council and inaugurated the Franciscan movement. In these frescoes there is also a wonderful portrait of Saint Francis himself said to have been painted during his lifetime. So there he is! And it is very fresh looking still! It is incredible how one is struck by that powerful figure! One can find it totally credible that Francis would have come to a place like this.

What the Benedictines gather over many centuries the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Mendicant Orders scattered. Thus the grain that has been stored up by this great contemplative tradition was then spread by the Mendicant preaching Orders. In all this, there is a certain tidal equality within the Church’s life. There is a tide that comes in and goes out. There are certain moments in the Church’s life when we regroup and retrench. We hunker down so as to preserve revelation and the best of secular culture etc… And then comes the moment when we go out in a more missionary spirit.

Hence, by hunkering down in his cave, Saint Benedict and the whole Benedictine movement represents that sort of patient contemplative act of hanging on to the wealth of the tradition. But then there might be other moments in the Church’s life when we go forth. After the time of Vatican II the tide was very much that of going out. It was to go out to meet the world. It was to get out of the confines of the Church and be in dialogue with the culture. Having said that, one begins to wonder if there still is time for certain retrenchment now! Are we going through a time, to some degree, of a civilizational crisis, not unlike the one Saint Benedict faced when we too have to remember to hunker down, to hang down to what is good and true, beautiful and endurable in the great tradition?

Let us not forget that a too open attitude can lead to a loss of identity. Can we take from Subiaco a renewed inspiration and perhaps rededicate ourselves to a study, a prayerful consideration of our great Catholic tradition?

Thus, hunkering down and going out, the tide coming in and going out is part of the rhythm of the Church’s life.

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