A few years ago (several…more than ten….), I wrote a few back-of-the-book one page pieces on Franciscan-related saints for Steubenville’s Franciscan Way magazine. I recently found them online, and thought I would reprint them here. First up:
In the modern world, we make much of personal initiative. The praiseworthy person, we’re told, is one who goes out there, sees what he wants, and grabs it. Our drive for action, our motivating center is supposed to be all about expressing our personal vision.
Have we forgotten how to listen? For it seems to me that a really complete life isn’t about us charging through, imposing our lovely selves on a breathlessly waiting world. No, isn’t it more about watching the world, listening to it, sensing needs, and responding in kind?
The saints seem to tell us this is so, among them, St. Benedict the Black.
St. Benedict has been called “the Moor” at times, but while his parents were indeed African, they were not, in fact, Moors (an ethnic group from western Africa). Over time, he came to be called “the Moor” as a mistranslation of the nickname he earned during his life, “il moro santo ,”which means “the black saint.”
Benedict’s parents converted to Christianity after they were brought from Africa to Sicily as slaves. Their owner promised to free their oldest son when he reached manhood, so on his eighteenth birthday, Benedict was released from slavery.
He took work as a day laborer, and working in the fields one day, he was subjected to mockery from a passer- by, who insulted his race and the fact that his parents were slaves. Benedict responded to the taunts, not out of revenge or anger, but in the spirit of Christ who calls us to love our enemies.
Benedict’s response drew the attention of a hermit named Lanzi, who was living in loose association with others nearby in the spirit of St. Francis. He told those who had spoken the harsh words, “You ridicule a poor black now; before long you will hear great things of him.” He invited Benedict to join him and his associates. Benedict listened and responded. He sold what possessions he had, gave the money to the poor, and joined the hermits.
The group of hermits moved several times over the years. When Lanzi, the group’s superior died, they elected Benedict to replace him. In 1564, however, Pope Pius IV ordered all groups of hermits to either associate themselves with an established religious order or disband. Benedict joined the Friars Minor of the Observance and became a lay brother at a friary in Palermo, where he was given the role of cook.
The mid-sixteenth century was a time of great upheaval in the Church. The Franciscans had, of course, engaged in many reforms and realignments already over the course of the order’s 300-year life. Benedict’s convent was already part of the stricter element of the order—the Observants, and in 1578, it voted to participate in more reforms to bring it even closer to the Franciscan ideal. Benedict was elected guardian of the convent—the one who would oversee the reforms.
Since he could neither read nor write, and was not even a priest, Benedict was initially unhappy with his election, but in the end, bound by obedience, had no choice but to listen and accept. He might not have seen his own gifts as particularly suited to this office, but his brothers obviously did, and their call to Benedict proved a wise one. Benedict led the reform with wisdom and prudence. He responded in the same way to the next call—to be novice master—saying yes to God’s call through the needs of his community. His reputa- tion for holiness spread beyond the convent walls as well, as he directed his energy towards helping the poor.
At last, his administrative duties at an end, Benedict requested and was granted a return to the friary kitchen. There he spent the rest of his days, not only helping to nourish his brothers, but also sharing the love of Christ with all who came to him for help. The poor and the sick flocked to the friary kitchen, knowing that there they would meet the compassion of Jesus, working through the hands and heart of Benedict, a holy man who would listen to them speak of their needs and would always respond.
We all have our plans, it is true. We can’t help but make them. But when we listen to God’s voice as he speaks through a world in need, we might hear hints that God has some- thing else in mind. Something even better.