During my time in the guesthouse of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia, I was invited by the abbot to join the monks for their daily hour of conversation. After vespers, I was escorted to their common room, and on the way I caught sight of a magnificent fresco on the other side of the cloister. I was so taken by it, I decided that one way or another, I would get a second look.
As soon as I could the following day, I went back to the fresco to study it more closely. It was truly a beautiful work. The style was was surrealist and clearly influenced by Salvador Dalí, but it was nevertheless a very original work charged with rich symbolism and profound meaning.
It is an iconic portrayal of St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism. He stands as a patriarchal figure, with arms outstretched in a gesture of praise that brings our eyes heavenward, just as his entire life, dedicated to divine contemplation and worship, was a continual invitation to his fellow man to raise their hearts and minds to God.
Directly below him is a younger version of himself struggling with temptation depicted as a serpent-headed vine of thorns. He arises from the spiritual battle as a new man, freed from the slavery of evil and touching the Eucharistic host from which he drew his strength.
The barren landscape behind St. Benedict evokes the desert where hermits have gone for centuries to flee the world and seek closer communion with God. In the wilderness, living with the daily possibility of death, the solitary man of God disciplined himself to always seek the things above.
St. Benedict embraced this austere lifestyle when he was but a boy, leaving the chaos of Rome to live in a cave in the Apennine Mountains. He chose a place that has come to be known as Subiaco, and the beginning of his hermetic life is symbolized on the right side of the painting where we see a cliff labeled “Sub Lacum” (the Latin from which “Subiaco” is derived). A spring of water flows down its side in remembrance of the one that sprang forth miraculously after he spent a night in vigil.
On the left side of the fresco, we see Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict founded his most important monastery. In the Roman ruins of Casinum, St. Benedict began a monastic movement that would help preserve the best of Western culture through the dark centuries that followed the fall of the Empire.
The entire fresco, which was done around the fifteenth centenary of St. Benedict’s birth, is a memorial to the huge impact that he had on the shaping of European culture. Fr. Dustan Massey, the creator of the fresco, sums up the unexpected scope of the Benedictine influence:
Alone in his cave, the young Benedict knew nothing of what he would become – “The Father of Europe”; nothing of those thousands of monasteries springing up in the dark and middle ages. When, some forty years later, he prescribed the reading of books, he could scarcely imagine the numberless scribes copying God’s word, and the wisdom of the ancient world, nor the schools that would arise, or the universities that would grow out of them. Nor is it likely he could have foreseen the succession of choirs in the great Cluniac houses, chanting both day and night the divine praises, to which, in the Rule, he allows nothing to be preferred. As a boy hermit, he knew nothing of the missionary monks sent into alien cultures at the risk of martyrdom, nor of those wayside houses that became hospitable places of refuge for the sick, the poor, and the pilgrims, nor of Abbots in distant lands who became Bishops, builders of cathedrals and counselors of Kings.
This epic fresco invites us to contemplate the incredible impact that one individual can have on future generations. When one sincerely seeks God above all else, the range of his influence can exceed the wildest expectations.
To learn more about Fr. Dustan Massey and his art, click here.