In his book of Dialogues St. Gregory describes the vision bestowed upon St. Benedict as follows:
At another time, Servandus, the Deacon, and Abbot of that monastery, which in times past was founded by the noble man Liberius in the country of Campania, ordinarily used to come and visit the man of God. The reason why he came so often was because he was also a man full of heavenly doctrine. So together they two often had a spiritual conference, to the end that, although they could not perfectly feed on the celestial food of heaven, yet, by means of such sweet discourses, they might, at least, with longing and fervent desire, taste of those joys and divine delights.
When it was time to go to rest, the venerable Father Benedict retired to the top of a tower, at the foot of which Servandus the Deacon was lodged. One pair of stairs went to them both. Before the tower there was a large room in which both their disciples lay.
The man of God, Benedict, being diligent in watching, rose early before the time of matins (his monks being yet at rest) and came to the window of his chamber where he offered up his prayers to almighty God. Standing there, all of a sudden in the dead of the night, as he looked forth, he saw a light that banished away the darkness of the night and glittered with such brightness that the light which shone in the midst of darkness was far more clear than the light of the day.
During this vision a marvelously strange thing followed, for, as he himself afterward reported, the whole world, gathered together, as it were, under one beam of the sun, was presented before his eyes. While the venerable father stood attentively beholding the brightness of that glittering light, he saw the soul of Germanus, Bishop of Capua, in a fiery globe, carried up by Angels into heaven.
Then, desiring to have some witness of this notable miracle, he called Servandus the Deacon with a very loud voice two or three times by his name. Servandus, troubled at such an unusual crying out by the man of God, went up in all haste. Looking out the window he saw nothing else but a little remnant of the light, but he wondered at so great a miracle.
The man of God told him all that he had seen in due order. In the the town of Cassino, he commanded the religious man, Theoprobus, to dispatch someone that night to the city of Capua, to learn what had become of Germanus their Bishop. This being done, the messenger learned that the reverent prelate had departed this life. Enquiring curiously the time, the messenger discovered that he died at the very instant in which the man of God beheld him ascending up to heaven.
St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Bk. 2, 35.
Most of us that have heard of St. Benedict before remember him as the author of a Rule for monastics. The familiar image of this great Saint is not be limited to that of a monastic legislator of long ago. There is much more to him that that. As mentioned in a previous post St. Benedict’s life is recorded in the second book of the Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great. In this story, as Fr. Bunge points out, the great Pope portrays Benedict “in the style of the early monastic Fathers, as a great ascetic, a wonder-worker gifted with with the charism of prophecy and a blessed seer (Gabriel Bunge, Auf den Spuren der Heiligen Väter, p. 11).”
This is particularly evident in the passage where St. Gregory relates a visionary experience of St. Benedict which is, significantly, also to be found in the lives of Sts. Evagrius and Pachomius (Bunge, p. 12-13). This visionary experience puts Benedict squarely in the monastic tradition of 4th century Egypt. In a sense we could say that in the Eastern Orthodox Church time has stood still and it is still 4th century Egypt there. This allowed St. Gregory Palamas to recognize St. Benedict as a fellow hesychast (Bunge, p. 13). Interestingly, though not mentioned by Fr. Bunge, a similar experience is recorded in the life of St. Alcuin of York where the latter sees the blood of Jesus Christ encircling and redeeming the world (Douglas Dales, Alcuin, Theology and Thought, p. 163). The story seems to be modeled on the story of St. Benedict’s vision.
With Alcuin we find ourselves in the Middle of the Frankish influence in the Western Church which has been portrayed as in sharp conflict with the Eastern Church (see Fr. John Romanides’ Franks, Feudalism and Doctrine). Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of this idea it is clear that the vision of Alcuin is to be understood in the same context as is St. Benedict’s and should not be read as in conflict with the teaching of the holy Fathers as intended by chapter 73 of the Holy Rule. Via Alcuin we reach back to the Venerable Bede, St. Gregory the Great, Sts. John Cassian and Augustine of Hippo, to St. Evagrius, St. Anthony, and Origen. The teaching of the holy Fathers is not the exclusive property of the Eastern Church.
Fr. Gregory Wassen