What to do When the World Falls Apart

Benedict of Norcia was born into a noble Roman family around the year 480, four years after the last Western Emperor, a teenage boy absurdly named Romulus Augustulus, was murdered by the Goth Odoacer. The Roman world, at least in the West, had come to an end. Making matters worse, it seemed that not only the state had fallen apart, but the church too: the Goths were not just barbarians, but Arians. As for the Catholics, many clergy were more notorious for their loose living than famous for their piety.

By all accounts Benedict was a smart young man and he would have been educated in the Roman fashion in literature and law. Even the Goths needed capable and educated administrators to run their kingdom, and Benedict could have a decent career under the rule of the Goth Theodoric. But young Benedict, who came from a devout family, was disgusted by the loose morals he found in Rome (why behave yourself in the middle of civilizational collapse) and he abandoned his studies and went to live as a hermit in the hills of Umbria, in Subiaco. He would have been 19 or 20 years old.

Hills of Subiaco near where Benedict founded his first monastery.

Hills of Subiaco near where Benedict founded his first monastery.

Rather than try to prop up a dying civilization, Benedict abandoned it for the wilderness. He spend several years in relative isolation and prayer, though he did keep a couple of servants on hand. Yet as much as he tried to distance himself from the world, the world came to him: he had a reputation for holiness, and disciples began to seek him out.

Monasticism had been a Christian phenomena for a few hundred years. Benedict was not the first man to seek Christ in the wilderness, and the hills of Subacio were lousy with oddball holy men. But Benedict, like Basil of Caesarea in the East, saw that hermits quickly became unbalanced. He began to organize his disciples into little households under the authority of a democratically elected abbot.

In this, the Benedict who abandoned Rome showed his thoroughly Roman genius for organisation. He wrote a little set of laws for his disciples, the rule of St. Benedict. It sets up a rhythm of work, community prayer, and personal study. The work is to be hard, but severe penances avoided. The community lifestyle was to be marked by modesty, hospitality and kindness. Its only reason for existence is to live the Gospel. The monastery is, in Benedict’s words, “a school of the service of the Lord.”

Even during his lifetime the monastery he founded at Monte Casino was a place of pilgrimage for rich and poor, Roman and Goth. The man who set out to escape the world not only had the world beating a path to his door, but ended up laying the foundations of a new civilization. Benedictine monasteries, with their intense dedication to agricultural labor, became the economic engines of post-Roman Europe. Monks would start a monastery in a wilderness, drain the swamps, fall the trees, and create farms. Benedictine monks copied and preserved what they could of Roman literature and educated the children of noblemen.  Missionary work among the various Germanic races was done by Benedictines. The order of course would not be perfect, no human endeavor is, and it also went through periods of decline and renewal.

Benedict is perhaps one model of how to engage a civilization in decline. Another might be his contemporary Boethius, also born into a noble Roman family around the year 480, who was conspicuous in the public eye, served the Gothic kingdom, and worked hard to make peace between Goth and Roman, Catholic and Arian, Western King and Byzantine Emperor. As a result Boethius was mistrusted by all and eventually imprisoned and condemned to death by an increasingly paranoid barbarian king.

After an intensely political life he too had to leave everything, and meditate in a prison cell, awaiting death. It is fair to say he died a failure, but Boethius too had a far reaching influence on the new civilization, not so much through his diplomacy as through his writing. In the midst of failure, death at the hands of the king, he writes that the goods of the soul, of honor, friendship, and trust in God remain. Had it not been for that failure and the writings it produced, Boethius would not have been remembered.

Neither man had any idea how their deeds or thoughts would echo through the centuries. They each, in their own way, wrote off the world. They each, in unexpected ways, reinvented the world.

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