The only thing I know about St. Benedict is that he started the Benedictine order of monks, and after St. Francis died, the Church wanted the Franciscans to adopt the more standard Benedictine Rule as they thought the original Franciscan rule too harsh in its devotion to poverty. I’m keen to explore.
The Benedictine Order is the oldest monastic community in the Church. Interestingly, there are some Anglican and Lutheran Benedictines, a most unusual crossover allowed by the order’s autonomy and lack of a centralized authority.
Way, way back in the machine around 529, about 700 years before St. Francis, we find the first trickle of monasteries founded by St. Benedict. Benedict himself lived as a hermit for three years or so and embraced the ascetic life, eventually gathering followers much like St. Anthony did as a hermit. While they both might have preferred solitude, their wisdom and spirituality inspired others, and people wanted to be near them. Not much is known about him personally but his monasteries were based on contemplation and much hard work. Work was equal to prayer and reading as a virtue for Benedict, and this he passed on in his Rule. He had no vision of a great, spreading order or rule, he simply bloomed where he was planted and saw the need for a few monasteries with some guidelines for spiritual living. About 12 to 14 monasteries were verifiably started by him or by his influence during his lifetime.
After his death, the Abbots of these monasteries started thinking outside their own areas and moved outward. Political violence sent them fleeing to Rome, where they made their way to England under St. Augustine, seeding the order in France along the way, and superseding smaller, older orders as the movement snowballed. They eventually made their way to Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia, Switzerland, even Spain, and then to the Celtic communities in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland after a few more centuries.
During those described Dark Ages (which were not all that dark in reality, thanks to people like Benedict and those in his monasteries), the Benedictines made huge contributions to education, government and economics amid the chaos of invasion. They helped keep civilization alive through their influence and travel, their literacy, and their penchant for work to benefit other people. Benedictine orders preserved learning and manuscripts, the knowledge of culture and society, and the Latin language. It is interesting to see that Benedictine monasteries almost disappeared after the Reformation, trickling along until Napoleonic times, then giving way to the Franciscans and Dominicans, but regaining their previous popularity in the nineteenth century when there was a resurgence of the order.
There are offshoots and quasi-Benedictines, referred to by the Church as “relaxations and mitigations” which is delightful. We don’t think of the Church as allowing such autonomy but they did with the Benedictines. Independence is not a word I associate with religious institutions, so this was a real eye-opener to me. The emphasis on locality and community is strong in this order but they seem to have carried sixth century flexibility into the way they are organized. I am so used to thinking of the Church as a solidly rigid institution that the Benedictines are somewhat baffling to me. The fact that they exist seems very special indeed, very unusual.
So winding my way downward through history, Benedict lands on the Temperance card due to his quietly moderate ways. Blending, harmonizing, like Benedictine orders that blend people and culture. The depicted raven supposedly fed him when he was hermit. There is also a legend that certain monks rebelled against his strictness and tried to poison a cup of liquid he was drinking. St. Benedict made the sign of the cross over it and the cup broke and saved him from being killed.
According to Robert Place, Benedict used a water clock to regulate the hours for prayer, work, and study. I have never heard of a water clock from these times, so I looked it up. The Egyptians had such devices and the Greeks improved upon them. They even made them with bells and whistling birds, very much like a modern cuckoo clock. The Romans used these sophisticated devices and there is evidence of them in Middle East and Islamic history, and the Chinese worked with them as well. The designated prayer of canonical hours is an old Catholic tradition influenced by Judaism, and the Rule of St. Benedict specified this schedule, for which a water clock was needed.
I thought it was clever of Place to adapt the pouring of water in the Temperance card to the water clock needed for canonical hours. Temperance means to mix properly or completely and here refers to Benedict’s mixture of prayer, study, and physical work like gardening or carpentry. It’s all about balance and harmony and blending of opposites. Compromise and tolerance are temperate attitudes and remind me of the Benedictines and how they blend cooperation and autonomy within religion. That’s remarkable.
Place mentions one other thing: Benedict’s ability to forestall attacks by the Devil, which in his mind goes with this card since it comes before the Devil card. Neat tie-in, but since there is no documentation or numbering specifying the original order of tarot cards, I consider it true to the author’s theories about history, but not necessarily true to History itself. Benedict was tempted by visitations from the Devil in his cave so that does fit rather nicely as he comes before the Devil card. I may not agree with Place’s certainty about the order of the cards, but this is a neat fit!
The card from The Saint Deck depicts a cave with St. Benedict’s poisoned cup and the cave he lived in as a hermit. I also read that early monasteries were sometimes built in caves, so there is a suggestion of that too in this card. In the attached holy card Benedict is a patron saint of temptation, since his fear of temptation led him to the hermit cave, and there he is with his cup and raven again.
What an amazing story of history and civilization.