Monastic Saints – Saint Benedict of Aniane – 11 February

Monastic Saints – Saint Benedict of Aniane (ca. 747-821) – the “Second Benedict” – 11 February

[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: Ivory plaque depicting St. John the Evangelist, made during the Carolingian era (early ninth century) in Aachen]

One important element in the life of St. Benoît d’Aniane (to use the French form of his name so as to distinguish between him and St. Benedict of Nursia) is that he, like a number of other monastic saints, began his monastic life with well-intentioned but excessive zeal.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux was another example.  Eventually, they discovered those aspects of the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia that teach—as some of the Desert Fathers claimed—that discretion is, in monasticism, “greater than all the virtues.”  (See John Wortley, “Discretion: Greater than All the Virtues,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51 (2011) 634-52.)  It was only after mastering this aspect of monasticism that both Benoît and Bernard became important monastic reformers, Benoît in the ninth century, Bernard in the twelfth.

Which brings us to a fuller exploration of the element in Benoît’s life and legacy for which he is best known: monastic reform.  The only form of consecrated life in this part of the Middle Ages was, essentially, monasticism.  But “monasticism” had to serve as a kind of carry-all for a number of charisms while also negotiating its way around and through civil and ecclesiastical politics.  The ideal of fuga mundi (fleeing the world), cherished and exemplified by the Desert Fathers, by St. Benedict’s move from Rome to Subiaco, and by other monastic reforms, was not as readily achieved at this point in monastic history.  Indeed, Benoît’s reforms were not entirely successful.  He probably could not have succeed to the extent he did without the help of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor as emperor of the Carolingian Empire.  But Louis’s invaluable help also prevented extricating monasticism from the claims of statecraft.  Still, Benoît’s legacy pointed the way towards the reforms of Cluny, then those of Cîteaux, then the creation of other forms of consecrated life that could accord greater liberty to monks and nuns to be monks and nuns rather than missionaries, preachers, teachers, secular clergy, and so on.  In this sense, Benoît is sometimes called the “Second Benedict,” for Western monasticism after Benoît was basically perceived as monasticism according to the Rule of St. Benedict rather than to any of a number of other monastic rules, whether Western or Eastern.

To provide greater depth to these points and a brief biography of Benoît, following is a brief account of Benoît’s life that draws liberally from a biography written by Brother Richard Oliver, O.S.B., of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville.  (Follow this link for the full article.)

Benoît was from a noble Visigoth family in Aquitaine, southern France.  Baptized Witiza, he served as a page in the Frankish court of Pippin the Younger (d. 768).  He and his brother enlisted in Charlemagne’s Italian campaign (773).  On their journey, the young Witiza’s brother died in a drowning accident, which resulted in Witiza renouncing the world to enter the monastic life at l’Abbaye de Saint-Seine (Sequanus) near Dijon.

Witiza “preferred the austere rules of Columbanus, Basil, and Pachomius, … so he lived as an anchorite [recluse] among cenobites. Eventually, the abbot recommended the Rule of Benedict—that was nothing more than a rule ‘for beginners and weak persons’ in Witiza’s mind [as his biographer Smaragdus wrote]. The more he came to know the Rule of Benedict, however, the more his appreciation of it grew. ‘This change of heart transformed him in the eyes of his brethren from a ridiculed misfit to an integrated member of the community, a process concluded by his promotion to cellarer’ [the monastic official in charge of provisions] (Ardo [Smaragdus], Vita, 2.6; tr. Allen Cabaniss). During this time, he fully assimilated the Rule, and the monks elected him abbot.”

How integrated Witiza truly was at l’Abbaye de Saint-Seine is a bit of a question, however, since the Benoît-to-be “abandoned Saint-Seine in 779 and, with his father’s inheritance, established a community of like-minded monastics at Aniane near Montpellier in Languedoc (modern-day Occitanie) and became its abbot. He changed his name to Benedict about 780. His community adopted the Rule of Benedict, and numerous monasteries in western France and Germany joined in observing [the Rule of St. Benedict].”

Louis the Pious, while but the king of Aquitaine, made Benoît his advisor on monastic affairs in his kingdom.  When Louis succeeded his father, Charlemagne, as emperor in 814, both his and Benoît’s scope necessarily expanded from the local to what would have seemed the universal.  In early indications of what was to become that French penchant towards administrative uniformity—in spite of the fact that, as De Gaulle is supposed to have put it centuries later, «Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 246 variétés de fromage?» (“How can you govern a country that has 246 types of cheese?”)—Louis conferred upon Benoît the authority to regulate monastic observances and practices throughout the empire.  “This was the time that Benedict of Aniane composed his most lasting legacies, the Codex regularum monasticarum et canonicarum and the Concordia regularum, works that aimed to celebrate the many varieties of monastic life that could exist under the overarching authority of the sixth-century Rule of Benedict” (Trzeciak and Kramer, “Tears for Fears: Alienation and Authority in the World of Benedict of Aniane,” Open Library of Humanities, 8, cited in Brother Richard Oliver’s article). 

Of course, this authority was limited.  To give one example taken from Brother Richard’s article, Benoît “secured—for some monasteries only—the right of free election of an abbot from within the monastic community. Even so, for each abbatial election permission had to be secured—and could be withheld.”

Among the successes in Benoît’s reforms was prohibiting the education of “externs in the monastic schools”—a measure for which Benoît was criticized then and subsequently.  But this was for the sake of strengthening the contemplative character of monasticism, which was a reform carried even further by a number of monastic reforms in subsequent centuries.

Looking at this era from a metaphorical 30,000 feet can give us the impression that the Christian Gospel as well as the monastic manner of living it enjoyed a kind of inevitable progress throughout western Europe.  But things were not so clear-cut on the ground.  Another important voice in this period was that of St. Alcuin of York, who worked with Benoît in what must have been a complicated and perpetual tug-of-war between what might loosely be called the Carolingian raison d’état and the truth and freedom of the Christian Gospel.  To refer yet again to the French love-hate relationship with uniformity, Charlemagne had taken administrative uniformity to gruesome extremes by insisting the people of his empire convert to Christianity or merit death.  “Faith arises from the will, not from compulsion,” replied Alcuin.  Charlemagne seems “to have taken [this advice] in good spirit.” (Cited in Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World [New York: Basic Books, 2019], 209-10.)  But how easily the legacy of the Carolingians on this point and many others could have gone the other way!

Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.  Benoît’s codes and reforming initiatives crumbled shortly after his death in 821.  But the notions that monasticism should value idealism (instead of merely settling into a somewhat pious institutionalism) and that monastic autonomy should live in a creative tension with uniformity of observance in the wider monastic family were two ideas that perdured.  It is easy to imagine that what Benoît accomplished in this regard could have been accomplished elsewhere had the mixture of theological/spiritual ideals and politics been a bit different.  St. Benet Biscop in Northumbria, for example, or St. Hilda of Whitby, had their royal connections been to dynasties as extensive as that of the Carolingians.  But Benet, Hilda, and Bede were all influences in the education and perspective of Alcuin, who in turn forged a common cause with Benoît.  Northumbria, Aachen, and Languedoc all on the same page, as it were.  How easy it is to forget that a lasting basis for concord between and among peoples and the flourishing of spirituality and cultures was alive and well in ninth century Europe.  These ideals were not fully realized, of course.  But what was accomplished in the way of living by the light of the Gospel is part of the luster of what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance.

Benoit’s “feast day is celebrated on 11 February, the date of his death; or 12 February, the date of his burial.”

Also quoted in Brother Richard’s article is this passage from Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1998):  “The aim of [Benedict of Aniane’s] reforms was that through prayer, study, meditation, and reading, the monks would pass ‘from faith to sight,’ that understanding would blossom into contemplative love of God.”

Saint Benoît d’Aniane, priez pour nous!

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