Today we celebrate the Transitus, or birthday into heaven, of our holy father St Benedict. In Book II of his Dialogues, St Gregory the Great describes his death thus:
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.
That day two monks, one of them at the monastery, the other some distance away, received the very same revelation. They both saw a magnificent road covered with rich carpeting and glittering with thousands of lights. From his monastery it stretched eastward in a straight line until it reached up into heaven. And there in the brightness stood a man of majestic appearance, who asked them, ‘Do you know who passed this way?’
‘No,’ they replied.
‘This,’ he told them, ‘is the road taken by blessed Benedict, the Lord’s beloved, when he went to heaven.’
A hagiographer would light on several themes in this short passage that are typical of the way in which sanctity was perceived and conveyed to the reader, e.g. the saint’s premonition of his own death, the bright lights leading to heaven, and so on. For a Benedictine, however, there is a poignant detail that explains why we often speak of Benedict as ‘another Moses’. Not only is he our lawgiver but, at the last moment of his life, he is seen praying with hands uplifted, supported by two brethren, just as Moses prayed with arms supported, that Israel might not fail in battle. We are confident that he is praying still from his place in heaven, that his sons and daughters may not fail in the vocation they have been given.
There is something very moving about Gregory’s description of Benedict’s quiet, prayerful death. Its simplicity is striking. The absence of words (no pious deathbed exhortations from Benedict!) and concentration on prayer reflects the public/private nature of the Benedictine vocation. Most of our lives are hidden from public gaze, known only to God, with whom the monk keeps up a constant inner communion of love and prayer. But the effects of that communion must spill over into love and service of neighbour, in the welcome given by our monasteries and online, into everything we think and say and do.
Please pray today for all Benedictines and those inspired by his Rule, as we pray for you.