Thursday, March 1, 2012

Up From the Ashes

We need men like Benedict of Nursia, who in an age of dissipation and decadence immersed himself in the uttermost solitude. Then, after all the purifications he had to undergo, he succeeded in rising again in the light. He returned and made his foundation at Monte Cassino, the ‘city on the hill’ where, in the midst of so many ruins, he assembled the forces from which a new world was formed. In this way, like Abraham, Benedict became the father of many peoples.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 52-3

Reflection – Well, now we see (if we didn’t before) just why Joseph Ratzinger took the name ‘Benedict’ for his papacy. There is a certain sense permeating all his writings that this passage encapsulates nicely.
The world is passing away. The world we knew, what has loosely been termed ‘Western Civilization’, is gone or its last remnants are swiftly going. It is roughly analogous to the situation of late antiquity, when the Roman Empire, at least in the West, passed away over a period of some centuries. The void was filled by host of barbarian tribes, and the ensuing centuries (I’m thinking of the 6th-10th) are rightly called the ‘Dark Ages’ – a time of political and social chaos and intellectual stagnation.

Except for these little Benedictine monks, you know. Fanning out across Europe, as they were able, building their monasteries, planting their orchards, clearing land. Perhaps they would labor half their lives doing this, and then see all their works destroyed by the latest wave of tribal warfare and bloodshed. Perhaps they would themselves be martyred in the midst of all this.

But they kept building and rebuilding. And patiently copying out by hand whatever manuscripts they had. And composing beautiful works of liturgical piety—many of the prayers of the liturgy date from these centuries.

Over and over, doing these things—for centuries. And slowly a new civilization rose amidst the ashes of the old, slowly the barbarian tribes became Christian, slowly Europe became a cradle of music, art, literature, scholarship, architecture, contributing so much beauty to the human patrimony.
So here we are, folks, in the year 2012. And that civilization, while its monuments surround us, is largely if not wholly passed away. What are we going to do? Ratzinger tells us here what he thinks we need to do. Ultimately it is not political action or social media campaigns or snazzy production values that will forge a new civilization from the ruins of the old.

It is prayer and fasting, seeking God in the depths of our hearts, building little communities of love as we are able, planting gardens, planting seeds, clearing the land. You know, this is the whole substance of what Madonna House is about: in our littleness and poverty we are building a new civilization of love on the ruins of the old one. We are truly a new Monte Cassino—small as yet, but really, how many monks were at Monte Cassino in the 7th century? It’s only in retrospect that we know the significance of what they were doing.

It’s kind of nice to have Pope Benedict agree with us that this is the truly necessary work of this time! Why don’t you come and visit us sometime?

Or, if that doesn’t work for you, start your own ‘Monte Cassino’ – seek the Lord in prayer and fasting, and then build what you can, where you are. Love and prayer are the two means by which this new world will come about. Our work may be ‘burnt down’ – we will rebuild. We may die without seeing the fruits of our labors; others will. What is asked of us is to be faithful, to be loving, to be praying, and to simply do what we can, according to the lights God has given us.

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