For Lent: A soul so wide

March 6, 2009

In this passage, (then) Cardinal Ratzinger relates and comments upon a story from the life of St. Benedict:


Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), in his Dialogues, tells about the last weeks in the life of Saint Benedict. The founder of the monastic order had lain down to sleep in the upper story of a tower, which was reached from below by “a vertical ladder.” He then got up, before the time for night prayers, to keep a nighttime vigil; “He stood at the window and prayed earnestly to almighty God. While he was looking out, in the middle of the dark night, he suddenly saw a light pouring down from above and driving all the darkness of the night away. . .  Something quite marvelous happened in this vision, as [Saint Benedict] himself later recounted: the whole world was held before his eyes, as if brought together in a single ray of sunshine.”  Gregory’s interlocutor countered this story with the same question that springs to the mind of someone hearing it today: “What you have said, that Benedict saw the whole world brought together before his eyes in a single ray of sunshine, is something I have never encountered, and I just cannot imagine it. How could one person ever see the whole world?”  The essential sentence in the Pope’s reply is as follows: “If he. . .saw the whole world as one before him, then it was not that heaven and earth became narrower but the visionary’s soul became so wide.”

Every detail is significant in this picture: the night, the tower, the ladder, the upper room, the standing, the window.  It all has, over and beyond the topographical and biographical narration, great symbolic depth: by a long and difficult journey, which began in a cave near Subiaco, this man has climbed up the mountain and finally up the tower.  His life has been an inner climb, step by step, up the “vertical ladder”.  He has reached the tower and, then, the “upper room”, which from the time of the Acts of the Apostles has been understood as a symbol of being brought together and drawn up, rising up out of the world of making and doing.  He is standing at the window — he has sought and found the place where he can look out, where the wall of the world has been opened up and he can gaze into the open.  He is standing.  In monastic tradition, someone standing represents a man who has straightened himself up from being crouched and doubled up and is thus, not only able to stare at the earth, but he has achieved upright status and the ability to look up.  Thus he becomes a seer.  It is not the world that is narrowed down, but the soul that is broadened out, being no longer absorbed in the particular, no longer looking at the trees and unable to see the wood, but now able to view the whole.  Even better, he can see the whole because he is looking at it from on high, and he is able to gain this vantage point because he has grown inwardly great.  We may hear an echo of the old tradition of man as a microcosm who embraces the whole world.  Yet the essential point is this: man has to learn to climb up; he has to grow and broaden out.  He has to stand at the window.  He must gaze out.  And then the light of God can touch him; he can recognize it and gain from it the true overview.  Our being planted on earth should never become so exclusive that we become incapable of ascending, of standing upright.  Those great men who, by patient climbing and by the repeated purification they have received in their lives, have become seers and, therefore, pathfinders for the centuries are also relevant to us today.  They show us how light may be found even in the night and how we can meet the threats that rise up from the abysses of human existence and can meet the future as men who hope.

— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Truth and Tolerance.

3 Responses to “For Lent: A soul so wide”

  1. Janet Says:

    I love being Catholic. Don’t you love being Catholic?


  2. cburrell Says:

    I certainly do!

  3. […] no time to write today, but I love St. Benedict and can’t let his day go by unremarked.  Here is an older post about him, drawing on commentary by another […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: