Skip to main content

To see the vision, too

On July 11, we celebrate the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia.

Of all the stories told about Benedict, this one may be the most impacting of all on our own lives. Most of us will never work miracles or found monasteries or humble invaders, that’s for sure. But one thing we can all learn to do is to see. This story is about a special kind of seeing.

Benedict left the company of a neighboring abbot after an evening’s conversation about the spiritual life. The period predates both universities and books, remember, let alone televisions and computers. Personal conversation was the key to learning then–a factor that may well explain the popularity of gurus and spiritual masters in that culture. At any rate, people came in droves to talk to Benedict about their spiritual questions, the great no less than the simple.
On that particular night, it is the Abbot Severanus, a deeply prayerful person himself, with whom Benedict had been talking. But then, retiring to his own room, alone and filled with ideas on the spiritual life, Benedict suddenly began to see what he had never seen before: the sky filled with light “more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away.” Then, according to the Dialogues, Benedict “saw the whole world as in a single ray of light.” More than that, while he watched, Benedict saw the soul of his friend Abbot Germanus taken into heaven. Astounded by the sight and intent on testing his own perceptions, Benedict called on Abbot Severanus, a solid and dependable person, to look at the sky and sent a monk to inquire about Germanus as well. The confirmation was clear: Severanus too saw the vision and Germanus, he learned, had indeed died at the very time. Benedict had developed sight and insight. Benedict had begun to see things differently.
Here’s the real beauty of the story: Severanus saw the vision too. It wasn’t a spiritual trick of Benedict’s; it was the natural byproduct of the spiritual life. It’s what we take into a thing that we get out of it, in other words.
At first, it seems to be a contradiction: at the very time that Benedict saw the whole world in one glance, he saw only one person in it. But once we begin to look at the world as God looks at the world, that’s exactly what happens. We see every person in it as unique, precious, all-absorbing. People cease to be numbers and stereotypes. They become individuals to us. Every one of them is on their twisted, limping way to God. 

                       —from The Radical Christian Life (Liturgical Press), by Joan Chittister