1) The context of the times of St. Benedict:
Between the fifth and sixth centuries the world suffered a terrible crisis in
values and institutions, caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the
invasion of new people and the decline of customs. By presenting St. Benedict as
a "shining light," Gregory wanted to show the way out of “this dark night of
history” (cfr. John Paul II, Teachings, II/1, 1979, p. 1158), the terrible
situation here in the city of Rome.
Compare to the Pope's description of the context of contemporary Europe:
Today, Europe -- deeply wounded during the last century by two world wars and
the collapse of great ideologies now revealed as tragic utopias -- is searching
for it's own identity. A strong political, economic and legal framework is
undoubtedly important in creating a new, unified and lasting state, but we also
need to renew ethical and spiritual values that draw on the Christian roots of
the Continent, otherwise we cannot construct a new Europe.Without this vital
lifeblood, man remains exposed to the ancient temptation of self-redemption -- a
utopia, which caused in various ways in 20th-century Europe, as pointed out by
Pope John Paul II, “an unprecedented regression in the tormented history of
humanity” (Teachings, XIII/1, 1990, p. 58).
One thing that is awesome about the Catholic Church is that it sees history through a much longer perspective than other institutions. This is especially true compared to political institutions in which politicians have such a narrow time frame to "demonstrate results" to the electorate in order to ensure their survival. While the Holy Father has great concern for a Europe that has lost its identity, he is not afraid. Rather, his attitude demonstrates a confidence in how God works in history and a confidence in Jesus promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. Instead of being frantic, the attitude of the Pope is more like, yes the times are troubling, but we've seen this before and we know how we came out of it before, and with God's grace and the model of St. Benedict, we can come out of this again.
2) Benedict starts with the renewal of himself first:
Benedict firmly believed that only after conquering these temptations would heThis reminds me of my favorite quote from the Tao Te Ching, which goes something like this: "A man who attempts to change the world without first changing himself, is like a man who tries to cover the whole world with leather in order to avoid stepping on sticks and stones. It's much easier to wear shoes." Authentic comes best when we become, we personify, the change we want to see in the world.
be able to say anything useful to others in need. And so, having pacified his
soul, he was fully able to control the drive to put oneself first, and so became
a creator of peace. Only then did he decide to found his first monasteries in
the valley of Anio, near Subiaco.
3) The monastery and the relationship between isolation and public life:
According to Gregory the Great his exodus from the remote valley of Anio to
Mount Cassio -- which dominates the vast planes around it -- is symbolic of his
character. A monastic life of isolation has it's place, but a monastery also has
a public aim in the life of the Church and society as a whole. It must serve to
make faith visible as a force of life. In fact, when Benedict died on March 21,
547, through his Rule and the Benedictine order that he founded, he left us a
legacy that bore fruit all over the world in the subsequent centuries, and
continues to do so today.
So this shows that to be set apart is not mutually exclusive from playing a part in public life. We can both be isolated in a privacy to cultivate our values, and at the same time be a visible shining light for those that might be in the fog of confusion of public life and values. I think Anamaria brings up a very good point in asking how to do this concretely. While I have yet to formulate a response to this, I think it is an important discussion for those on this blog to take up.