Prioress’ Reflections on the Feast of St. Benedict

benedictFirst Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24

Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 34:6, 1-2, 5-6, 15, 17-18

Second Reading: Acts 9:36-41

Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

Good morning, everyone. Happy Feast of St. Benedict, our patron! At morning prayer we had the wonderful story of Benedict raising to life, by means of prayer, the dead son of a peasant, who was persistent in his request for Benedict’s healing of his son. The story, of course, has echoes of the biblical stories we have just heard.

The beloved child or friend is the concern of family and friends in all of our stories. In the story from 1 Kings, the child is the only son of a widow, who had looked after the prophet Elijah’s needs. She turns to the “man of God” [1 Kings 17:18] and asks him to bring her son back to life; Elijah takes her son out of his mother’s arms and carries him to the upper room, where he might pray to God in private and perform the resuscitation. An upper room is also the scene of Peter’s private prayer of intercession on behalf of Dorcas, whose friends had begged Peter to restore their friend’s life. Benedict, well known in Gregory’s dialogues as “a man of God,” is at first reluctant to heed the father’s request to bring the man’s beloved son back to life. Benedict prays, keenly aware of his own human fraility: “Lord, do not look on my sins, but on the faith of this man who asks that his son be brought back to life. Send back into this body the soul which you took away.” No sooner did Benedict finish his brief prayer, than the boy experienced a tremor and came back to life. “Then [Benedict] took his hand and gave him alive and safe to his father,” much like Peter did Dorcas, in giving her back to her friends [Acts 9:41]. Benedict, however, does not perform the miracle in an upper room, but rather at the door of the monastery, where the man had left his son to go find Benedict. The door of the monastery signals a threshold, where the son lies between death and the possibility of life. A limina, that is, a threshold, in biblical stories indicates a liminal space between two worlds, where once one crosses it, one will never be the same again. So, the upper room, like the door of the monastery, represents the place of God’s loving presence and response to earnest pleas. Benedict, no less that Elijah and Peter, is portrayed as “a man of God” able to cry out on behalf of another and see the child’s soul returning from the threshold to which it had gone in death.

All our stories also focus on the faith of the one seeking the healing of their beloved. The widow knows to call on Elijah to pray for her son and upon the son’s return, she states: “Now indeed I know you are a man of God and it is truly the word of the Lord that you speak” [1 Kings 17:24]. Dorcas’ friends had heard of Peter’s reputation and do not hesitate to ask him to come [Acts 9:38].  In our Gospel reading the Canaanite woman shouts at Jesus, as he is passing by: “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon” [Matthew 15:22]. Jesus totally ignores her until his disciples beg him to give her what she wants. Despite his retort, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” [Matt 15:24], she persists, “Lord, help me” [vs. 25]. They engage in a theological debate, wherein Jesus states the unfairness of giving children’s food to the house-dogs; children refers to the Children of Israel, that is, the Jews, and dogs is a derogatory term for pagans. His reluctance to heal her child does not blunt her dogged request: “Please, Lord, for even house-dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” [vs. 27]. Jesus’ answer to that riposte highlights her faith: “O woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish” and her child became well again [vs.28]. In this gospel story “the man of faith” responds to the “woman of faith” and her persistent request is answered with healing.

No less persistent is the peasant on behalf of his dead son in the story of Benedict. The father runs to the monastery seeking the man of God, but when he is told Benedict is not within, he leaves his dead son at the door of the monastery and runs out into the fields, where Benedict is at work with his monks. When the father cries out, “Give me back my son. Give me back my son,”  Benedict, as first misunderstands the father, by stating that he had not taken his son. The father then states what he really wants: “He is dead, come and revive him.” Benedict becomes sad and at first refuses the peasant’s request, “Go away, brothers, be gone from here; this is not for us, it is for the holy apostles. Why do you want to place on us burdens which we cannot bear?” Gregory states: “But the man was impelled by excess of sorrow and persisted in his request, swearing that he would not go away unless Benedict raised his son from the dead.” The father’s persistence, like that of the Canaanite woman, persuades the “man of God,” who is at first reluctant to grant the request, but finally gives in, overcome by the urgency of the plea. While Jesus as yet had not seen that his healing was for non-Jews, until it was called forth by the pagan woman’s faith, Benedict is reluctant to be seen as an apostle, like Peter, bringing life back to one who was dead. In the end the persistence of the one pleading generates a response of prayer that the Lord heal the boy.

In each of our situations, which are cries for healing on the part of a parent or friends of the beleaguered or deceased child, the Lord intervenes, as the Psalmist proclaims, “A cry goes up from the poor, and the Lord hears, and helps them in all their troubles” [Psalm 34:6]. The Lord responds to the request placed in faith of the “man of God” to beseech God for healing. Benedict, like Elijah, Peter, and the Lord, while initially reluctant, hears the cry of the father for the return of life to his son. Benedict’s humility is such that he trusts that God will answer and indeed, “the Lord hears, and helps [the family of the boy] in all their troubles.”

Years ago, a friend of my mother, came to her begging for prayers for her son, who had been injured. My mom, who deeply believed in the power of prayer because of her relationship with God, prayed for the boy and his mother. A few days later, when the prayer was answered, the friend came to my mother to tell the good news. My mother responded, “God heard your prayer; now you must give praise to God,” as the psalmist invites.

by Sister Mary Forman, Prioress