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   St. Benedict's vision: The world as a community
 
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY
LubbockOnline.com

While no one is certain about the images depicted on the Vatican Exhibition frescoes, religious and art historians identified several of the portraits based on symbols included in the imagery.

"We can only make educated guesses, based on the actions depicted by the images," said David Walker of Walker Communications, the public relations firm retained by Market Lubbock Inc. to help promote the unique exhibit.

"We aren't really sure which, in the series of images titled St. Catherine, for example, is the image of St. Catherine," Walker said. "The experts speculate based on the position of the image -- whether she's in the foreground or background -- and based on the fact that a wheel is depicted in the fresco."

St. Catherine, legend has it, was sentenced to die on a torture device known as the wheel, but when she touched the deadly machine, it miraculously shattered, killing her would-be persecutors.

Each prophet and saint has legends based on oral traditions that passed down through history, and the Catholic Church promulgate those, Walker said. So "although we may not know for sure who is depicted, the best guess by church officials is certain to be the most likely."

Four frescoes from the Church of St. Agnese are a series depicting images of St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 480-543), a New Testament figure, said the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, director of The Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation.

Ranging in size from 2.3 feet high by 4.4 feet to 5.6 feet by 5.2 feet, the frescoes are titled, "Stories of St. Benedict."

"St. Benedict saw the need for reflection, meditation and prayer for humanity," Neyland said. "Therefore he started the Benedictine Order, which is still vibrant and active today."

St. Benedict is credited with founding Western monasticism. The Benedictines stress education and the importance of conscience in decision-making, Neyland said.

"St. Benedict himself was highly intelligent," he said. "He was very much in contact with the struggles of the people in his century."

Reaching out to the poor and destitute was a principle rule of St. Benedict, he said.

The Benedictine Order is active in every country of the world, and members of the order usually are found in educational and scholastic institutes, Neyland said.

His boyhood was spent in Rome, where he lived with his parents and attended school until he reached the higher studies.

Benedict's influence on the church was sweeping, according to historical records. But the story of his life is vague, brief and filled with wide gaps in time.

The only account of his life was written by Pope Gregory the Great almost 50 years after Benedict's death (A.D. 480-550), according to the book, "All Saints: Daily Reflections On Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time," by Robert Ellsberg.

Benedict gave up his books, his father's house and wealth, and left Rome, seeking to serve God, Neyland said.

He looked for some place away from the life of the great city, and lived in a cave near a church dedicated to St. Peter.

He initially sought solitude in a cave at Subiaco, Italy, but he attracted the attention of spiritual seekers and, against his will, assumed leadership of a nearby monastery.

But the monks resisted his discipline, and tried to poison his wine. Somehow Benedict foiled the assassination attempt and returned to a life of solitude, the book states.

But disciples continued to seek his counsel and, eventually, he agreed to organize them into a group of monasteries and sought to live in association with "a company of virtuous men" who sympathized with his feelings and views of life, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II.

St. Benedict's teachings derived from a central purpose -- work.

Benedict assumed leadership of one of those communities and eventually established the monastery at Monte Cassino, known today as the birthplace of the Benedictine order.

At some point, Benedict wrote his monastic Rule. The purpose of his Benedictine Order was to bring men "back to God by the labor of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience," the encyclopedia states.

Work, according to St. Benedict, is the first condition of all growth in goodness.

"As teachers and writers, the Benedictines continue to reflect the concepts which Christ gave us of an informed will, of a sound and informed conscience," Neyland said, "and the use of conscience in major areas of conflicts which require compassion, as exemplified by Christ Himself."

Benedict's Rule was designed for ordinary people. Unlike the harsh self-denial promulgated by other ascetics as the road to God, Benedict focused on the will rather than the body. The interior being rather than the external flesh.

His monks were not to be denied adequate food or sleep. They were counseled to avoid any extraordinary or self-imposed mortifications. Their discipline was to lie in their humility, a commitment to stability, and accommodation to the requirements of community life.

Serving the poor and educating those who had no opportunity to learn were St. Benedict's aims, Neyland said.

"He lived in a century and time in which he saw the need for mass education, and he looked around and saw there were very few who had that capacity or ability," he said, adding, "Through his high intellectual abilities, he was an avid student of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, men who were very highly educational and who would use science as well as nature as proof of the existence of God."

When he died, St. Benedict was buried at Monte Cassino alongside his sister, St. Scholastica, Ellsberg writes.

At a time when sharply defined social hierarchies ruled society, the Benedictines presented an ideal of equality. When manual labor was derided as lowly, they affirmed the spiritual value of work. And as society crumbled around them, the Benedictines maintained islands of learning and civilization, Ellsberg states.

Observing the nearly-900-year-old frescoes, one looks through a 'telescope' into the past, and glimpses something of the minds and hearts of the artists, Neyland said.

Artists often mirror the broad views, values, beliefs and concepts of their time, he said.

Gary Edson, executive director for The Museum of Texas Tech, observed:

"In more recent times there's been a renewed look at the way art historians traditionally looked at religious art.

"And that is, not only as social commentary ... but as the development of artistic style, and the broader amount of information provided by art as an illustration of a time and place in history. Most of the recent views of art that had its foundation in (religion), have presented it now for its social commentary, as well as for its aesthetic value."

The frescoes -- painted with pigments mixed by hands that toiled hundreds of years ago, painted by hands guided by minds that viewed the world nearly a millennia ago -- evoke a kind of awe in some, Neyland said, adding, "The old prophets speak to us, even today."


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