Monastic Saints – Venerable Aligerno of Monte Cassino – 23 November

Venerable Aligerno (Aligernus) of Monte Cassino (died 986)

[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family (Benedictines, Cistercians—“the Benedictine order and its branches,” to attempt a translation of Peter Lechner’s “Benedictiner-Ordens und seiner Verzweigungen” in the subtitle of his martyrology).  There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November.  But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory.  This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]

[Image: “Monte Cassino,” John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749-1831).  This watercolor, though created two centuries before our time, is nonetheless a glaring anachronism in relation to the ruins Aligerno would have found in in the mid-tenth century.  But since the size of the current buildings atop the hill (many of which were re-built after the Second World War) is overwhelming, Smith’s rather bucolic take on the huge complex perhaps conveys something of the ideal towards which Aligeno labored, i.e. a quiet, settled place of prayer without ceasing.]

After the initial foundation of Monte Cassino Abbey by St. Benedict himself in 529, there have been several re-foundations.  Whether there had been—in any juridical sense—dissolutions of the monastic community that called for these re-foundations might be open to question among historians, as might be the matter of whether the re-building of both personnel and edifices on the hilltop constituted re-foundations as such.  For our purposes, however, we can think of one significant re-foundation or re-establishment of monastic life on Monte Cassino before Aligerno’s arrival in mid-tenth century.  Pillaging and burning by Lombards in 580 meant the surviving monks fled to Rome, next to the Lateran, where they lived the monastic life for nearly a century and a half as Monte Cassino monks in exile (though there seems to have been a few monks at Monte Cassino during these years).  Entrusted with the task of restoring monastic life at Monte Cassino by Pope Gregory II, Petronax became, as it were, Monte Cassino’s second founder in 718.[1]

The next major onslaught against Monte Cassino and that part of Italy was at the hands of the Saracens who invaded in 884.  Not that greedy “barons of the surrounding country and … dukes of Beneventum”[2] had not also made things difficult for the monks and would continue to do so.

Restoration of monastic life began two years later.  But most of the monastic community remained in exile, this time in Teano.  Restoration in earnest, however, began about seventy years later, which is where the story of the Venerable Aligerno begins.  And an excerpt from Alexius Hoffmann’s account of Aligerno’s life is provided below.

Venerable Aligerno is one of those faithful stewards in the annals of monastic history who are “second founders.”  As noted above, Petronax led Monte Cassino’s “second foundation” and is that monastery’s second founder in that sense.  But Aligerno, on becoming abbot of Monte Cassino in 949, was the “second founder” within what might be regarded as the third foundation (or second major restoration) of monastic life at Monte Cassino.  Desiderius, abbot from 1058 until 1087 (at which point he was elected pope under the title Victor III), is considered to have been more successful at restoring monastic life at Monte Cassino in the sense that he fostered much in the way of building, scholarship, and charitable works in the region.  But the stories of monastic foundations often follow a second-or-third-founder pattern, which means that there might be, between the initial foundation and the eventual flowering of a monastery, those who seem to do little more than keep things going.  St. Stephen Harding of Cîteaux would be an example.  St. Robert de Molesmes would be considered the original founder of the Cistercian reforms (though Saints Alberic and Stephen were co-founders).  But it was not until some years later—when St. Bernard arrived as the “third founder,” in effect—that Cîteaux and the Cistercian reforms took on the stunning increases in activity and vocations that basically directed the course of the twelfth century in Europe.  But a closer look at the history of the Cistercians shows that Stephen was not un-successful in his own right, since, among other indications, Cîteaux had already established several daughter houses, one of which was Clairvaux, which was to become Bernard’s base of operations.  Aligerno, then, might have made a greater contribution to the future of Monte Cassino than is apparent at first.  His fidelity to the task at hand is an example of itself.

From Alexius Hoffmann’s account of Venerable Aligerno: “[A]t the time of Aligerno’s arrival [at Monte Cassino] it was little more than a heap of ruins.  The fields lay waste, and their tenants had been dispersed.  Aligerno went about the work of restoration with a heavy heart but trusting in God.  He firmly resisted the usurpations and unlawful claims of the barons, and introduced new tenants with whom he agreed upon equitable terms of lease.  When the country had been once more settled, he prepared to rebuild the monastery and its church. … After ruling his monastery wisely and guiding it through calm and troubled waters for thirty-seven years, Aligerno rested from his labors in 986.”




[2] Alexius Hoffmann, A Benedictine Martyrology: Being a Revision of Rev. Peter Lechner’s Ausführliches Martyrologium Des Benedictiner-Ordens Und Seiner Verzweigungen (Collegeville, Minnesota: St. John’s Abbey Press, 1922), 291.

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