17 January 2011

Man of Blessing

I picked up Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict on a whim. I’ve taught The Rule of St. Benedict a couple of times for a medieval literature course, but all I knew about the man himself was what was presented in the short bio at the beginning of the copy of his Rule. So when I saw this book at the bookstore, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the life and character of the famous saint. This was not the thorough and detailed biography I was looking for. It turns out we really don’t have much detailed information about Benedict’s life. Pope Gregory the Great wrote a short hagiography of St. Benedict which gives the same basic information that I already knew as well as a host of miracle stories involving Benedict. However, despite the fact that this book was not the biography I thought it was, I gave it a chance anyway. In the preface, author Carmen Butcher gives her impetus for writing the book. In light of the newest pontiff, Benedict XVI, she decided to write a series of meditations on the saint who supplied the regnal name for 16 popes. There is a brief introduction about medieval biography that talks a bit about Pope Gregory and his account of St. Benedict. The most interesting thing in this part of the book is her discussion of the miracle stories. She is remarkably reticent to take a firm stand on the historicity of the miracles. She affirms that most medieval believers would have taken the miracles at face value, but that sophisticated readers, “would have believed the miracles too, but might have focused primarily on their symbolic significance.” Butcher never states what she herself believes, but the focus of her book is clearly the inspirational quality of the miracles stories rather than their historical accuracy. She begins her story of St. Benedict with an account of his childhood. This was in some ways both the weakest and strongest part of the book. Carmen Butcher is a medieval scholar and professor, and so she knows hers stuff. She is able to paint a good overall picture of what Benedict’s early life would have been like, and what education was like at the time. She also situates the life of St. Benedict historically and gives an overall political background of the day. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the educational system at the time. Unfortunately, she tries to tie all this to Benedict in a very personal way, when we have no information about what he specifically read and thought in his childhood. “He might have read Seneca’s Stoic description of death, with it’s dismissal of heaven and hell,” “might also have read (and disagreed with) Urorator Cicero’s words on brevity,” “might have met Eastern monastic movement leaders and might have also begun reading the monastic rules circulating around,” “might also have read the Rule composed by the Doctor of Grace,” “He might have experienced sharp loneliness,” and “Maybe he read with poignancy Cicero’s letter to his friend...” We don’t know any of this; did he ever consider any of these things with poignancy? This speculation felt a bit contrived to me. It would have been better for Butcher to simply paint a picture of the world of Benedict’s youth, and then move on to those better known parts of his life. The rest of the book is structured around Benedict’s miracles, presumably following the pattern of Gregory. As I mentioned before, Butcher gives a spiritual lesson from each miracle story, which makes the stories relevant. The humorous nature of many of the stories also makes me think that Benedict needs a nice fictional treatment from someone like Frederick Buechner. The book is good for illustrating the benefits of the Benedictine monasteries and the cultural impact that they had. Simple monks, serving others were able to speak to men in power, help the poor, and spread education, things that many evangelical churches today do not accomplish. It reminded me of some of the things I learned from How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. This book doesn’t quite hold up as a biography, despite the nice historical discussion of the time period. However, the book is full of great lessons that we all ought to learn, has some good historical background, and has a wonderful bibliography which I fully intend to plunder for further reading. Even if the book does not teach a great deal about Benedict the man, it provides a good overview of the Benedictine ideal. 3/5 stars

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