Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Big Death, little deaths

Tomorrow, March 21st is the Commemoration of the Death of St Benedict of Nursia. Since he is one of my patrons, I hold this day close to heart. It reminds me in the middle of Lent that we all prepare for death, each in his or her own way.

One of the better preparations we can all make is to suffer little deaths gladly.

These little deaths can be self imposed mortifications, such as denying oneself some small pleasure or activity as a discipline and a reminder. Skip the second cup of coffee. Go out of your way to encounter and be nice to someone you normally avoid. Sometimes these little deaths come to us unbidden, through circumstances forced upon us from outside.

In either case, we ought to welcome the opportunity to crucify our old self and allow the new being of Christ to rise within us. This is what Benedict was headed for. It is the only way his preoccupation with and foreknowledge of his own death makes sense. St. Gregory the Great records it as follows:

"The same year in which he departed this life, Benedict told the day of his holy death to his monks, some of which lived daily with him, and some dwelt far off. He urged those that were present to keep it secret, and revealed to them that were absent by what token they should know that he was dead.

Six days before he left this world, he gave order to have his tomb opened, and forthwith falling into an ague, he began with burning heat to wax faint, and when as the sickness daily increased, on the sixth day he commanded his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he armed himself with receiving the body and blood of our Savior Christ; and having his weak body held up by the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own arms lifted to heaven. As he was praying in that manner, he gave up the ghost.

On that same day two monks, one being in his cell, and the other far distant, had one and the same vision concerning him: they saw all the way from the holy man's cell, towards the east even up to heaven, hung and adorned with tapestry and shining with an infinite number of lamps. At the top a man, reverently attired, stood and demanded if they knew who passed that way, to whom they answered saying, that they knew not. Then he spoke to them: "This is the way by which the beloved servant of God, Benedict, ascended up to heaven."

By this means, as his monks that were present knew of the death of the holy man, so likewise those who were absent, by the token which he foretold them, had intelligence of the same thing. He was buried in the oratory of St. John Baptist which he himself had built when he overthrew the altar of Apollo. That cave in which he first dwelled [at Subiaco], even to this very time, works miracles, if the faith of those that pray there requires the same."

We may not be able to visit the holy man's cave or gravesite today in the flesh. Still, we can honor the memory of Benedict's presence among us and his passing, especially by practicing the little death.

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