Monday, March 28, 2011

On Benedictines, the Medal of St. Benedict, etc.

I came across a story online today about a group of Benedictine nuns in the UK who have started a new website, The Digitalnun Daily, with the sisters' take on news, entertainment, art, etc. If you like to add new Catholic content to your daily regimen of internet reading, you should check them out. Their new site looks promising.

These sisters are, as I said before, Benedictine nuns, which means they follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Which led me to start thinking about the Medal of St. Benedict. Ever heard of it? It's a very old and important sacramental of the Church which is making a comeback. I've seen the medal around quite a bit and you probably have, too. I just did not know much about it. So, I decided to do a little research. Let's learn a little bit about sacramentals and the Medal of St. Benedict. Let's start with Benedict himself.

Who was St. Benedict?

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547)  is widely considered to be the "father of Western monasticism" because he is credited with being the first person in Europe to write and adopt a specifically Christian "way of life" which was both practical and widely effective. According to St. Benedict's "rule", monks would live together in a monastic community (the monastery) with the times of their day mapped out and divided between work, prayer, rest and worship. Benedict's Rule soon became the model for Christian monasticism throughout Europe and spread like wildfire throughout the continent during the Middle Ages. It led to the development of very organized (yet autonomous) monasteries throughout Europe which played an important role of cohesion between rural, warring European societies throughout the centuries and which preserved much ancient European learning and culture. This is the reason that St. Benedict is considered to be the first patron saint of Europe. Benedict was a very holy and devout Christian. The motto of his monastery was "pax" which is Latin for "peace" because he believed that in living out the rule in harmony and holy obedience, inner and eternal Christian peace would result.

What is a Sacramental?

A sacramental is an object (such as a rosary or a crucifix), a prayer (such as the Hail Mary, or the Glory Be) or a gesture (such as making the Sign of the Cross) which helps a person to remain open to God's grace and which fosters Christian devotion. The most popular types of sacramentals among American Catholics are probably candles, holy water, the rosary, holy cards and religious medals. The Medal of St. Benedict, in its modern form, was first struck in the year 1880 to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of St. Benedict's birth.

The Medal of St. Benedict

Many Catholics carry or wear a medal of their patron saint. And while St. Benedict was certainly an important figure in the historical Church, the Medal of St. Benedict is a little different than a regular saint's medal, because as much as it honors St. Benedict, it truly seeks to glorify and invokes the power of Christ's cross. The medal is two-sided: one side displays St. Benedict while the other displays a simple cross with letters that symbolize ancient invocations against Satan and evil. Maybe it's just a guy thing, but I think that the symbolism is super cool. Here is what you'll find on a St. Benedict Medal:

On one side of the medal, St. Benedict is pictured, holding a cross in his right hand and holding a copy of his Rule in the other. Just behind the saint, there is a table upon which are a cracked chalice and a raven. The cracked chalice and the raven symbolize a legend about the saint which says that once, a group of jealous and hostile monks attempted to poison his food and drink, but when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the poisoned bread and chalice of wine before consuming them (as was his custom), the chalice shattered, the poison slithered out of the cup in the form of a serpent, and a raven carried away the poisoned loaf of bread, protecting him from consuming the poison. The story remind us that there is real spiritual power over evil in the cross of Christ. Above these symbols are the Latin words Crux S. Patris Benedicti ("the cross of our holy father Benedict"). Around the edge of this front image are the Latin words "Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur", which mean "may we be strengthened by his presence in the hour of our death." According to pious legend, St. Benedict died just after receiving Holy Communion, with his arms outstretched in prayer, so he has long been considered a patron of a happy death.

This side of the medal dates back to 1880 and underneath the image of the saint are inscribed the following: "Ex S M Casino MDCCCLXXX" which mean, "From holy Monte Casino, 1880". Monte Casino is the name of St. Benedict's first hilltop monastery, originally founded in the year 529, which can still be found about 80 miles outside of Rome.

On the other side of the medal, the dominant feature is the cross itself. This side of the image is the more ancient one. The cross is labeled in its angles with the initials C S P B, which stand for "Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti" ("The cross of our holy father Benedict"). On the arms of the cross, the letters symbolize a poetic Latin prayer: "Crux sacra sit mihi lux! Nunquam draco sit mihi dux!" ("May the holy cross ever be my light! May the dragon never be my guide!"). Above the cross is the Latin word "pax" ("peace") and the initials of a final poetic Latin prayer against Satan and evil: "Vade retro satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas!" The translation of this prayer is "Begone, Satan! Never tempt me with your vanities! What you offer me is evil. Drink the poison yourself!"

This final prayer, known as the "Vade Retro Satana" (because we Catholics are always unoriginal in naming things, ha ha) has a unique story of its own. It was a popular prayer against evil, taking as its inspiration the words of Christ spoke to St. Peter in Mark 8:33 in the Latin Vulgate Bible: "Vade retro me, satana!", or "Get behind me, Satan!" But over the centuries, the words of the prayer, which were often painted in conjunction with the cross and only in the form of initials, were forgotten and their meaning became a mystery. A woman who professed to be a witch testified during her 1647 trial that she had had been unable to wield Satan's power against places where the cross was displayed and, in particular, she had been unsuccessful against a monastery called St. Michael's Abbey in Metten, Germany. The self-professed witch did not know why she was particularly repulsed by that place. A search of the monastery revealed that many of the interior walls contained the symbol of the cross along with the initials of the Vade Retro Satana prayer, but the meaning of the initials were still unknown. Further searching turned up a manuscript in the monastery's library which had an illustration of St. Benedict (right) with the Vade Retro Satana prayer written in full, finally solving the centuries-old mystery of the meaning behind the initials.

The Place for Sacramentals Today

Are sacramentals such as the Medal of St. Benedict outdated? Are they a form of pious superstition? Have they been officially tossed? In a way, you might think so. After all, there is an entire generation of Catholic adults who look upon sacramentals as But you'd be wrong. The Church encourages today, as much as ever, the use of sacramentals such as the Medal of St. Benedict. In fact, we may very well be living in an age in which sacramentals are more important than ever. They are constant and tangible reminders of our holy Faith. They are powerful reminders of Christ's final dominion over all. They should help us to realize Christ conquers all and that in him (and only in him), we can overcome the worst that Satan tries to throw our way.

A well-worn scapular.
And, they are ours. They are gifts of faith generations past, our religious inheritance. It seems to many that we, as a Church, are just now waking up from a forty-year lull in our exercise of many aspects of the Faith. Over the past few decades, devotions such as praying the rosary, wearing religious medals and scapulars were almost lost in popular practice. But in God's providence, they are making a remarkable comeback in the faith lives of many young Catholics. The rosary, medals, scapulars, etc. - these are our patrimony, the spiritual gifts to which we are entitled. We need the graces which God imparts through their use! We need the inspiration they provide! As my generation and yours takes hold of the Church, let's be open to all that God has to offer and bring everything good with us, leaving nothing behind. Let's wipe the dust off - when needed - and put back into practice the small gestures of our Catholic faith that are beautiful, inspiring and holy. They sustained Catholics for generations and generations. God willing, they will sustain us.

Go ahead. Pray your rosary regularly! Light a candle! Wear a scapular! And display the Medal of St. Benedict. Remember - you're goal in life is to become a saint (yes, you!). We need all the help we can get!