St. Maurus rescuing St. Placid from a lake by pulling him up from the hood, under the obedience of St. Benedict

Fr. Placid shares on two differing ways of obedience illustrated from the lives of the saints: In a story from the Life of Benedict, we find a chapter illustrating St. Benedict’s clairvoyance. Benedict becomes aware of a situation where he is not present and acts accordingly. He is the initiator of sending his young disciple Maurus to rescue the boy monk Placid from drowning in the lake (the chapter can be found here).  There might be more to the story than what Gregory the Great is displaying. He shows us two ways of obedience in this chapter. Sometimes, when asked to do a job, but lacking awareness, we might do more harm than good. The other example of obedience we are shown is the one Gregory wants his readers to do: listen to the abbot and be his “arms” to conduct the order given. The little “contest of humility” at the end allows him to show that Placid thought Benedict rescued him, not Maurus!

The miracle aside, the story allows a reflection on our attitudes toward executing jobs. How are we going about our orders and instructions? How well are we aware that how we obey is helpful or may make someone nervous and grit their teeth? It is important to reflect on this vignette with more of a smile and try to find a deeper meaning than is usually involved. Commentaries like Adelbert de Vogue’s can be useful but can also cause us to miss the point with more examples of typos than is necessary. Perhaps we can read the story with an eye toward lessons to learn.

Placid is asked to get water from the nearby lake at Subiaco. The lake is more than a trickle of water these days. But it was a lake in Benedict’s time. I have often viewed this story with the thought that Placid decided to get a bucket far bigger than he could carry. No wonder he fills up the bucket and falls in! Have we not experienced something like that in the monastery? We try to do more than we ought to, and the situation becomes worse because of it. In Placid’s case, he might have tried to get more water, thinking he could bear it without a problem. That was his mistake. He lacked awareness in several ways. He discounted his lack of strength. He chose expediency over a proper job done. He was reckless with his body and the danger of the lake’s currents. The list can go on ad nauseam. Obedience shown to the superior and others requires self-knowledge and knowledge of the situation at hand. Any bravado and “cutting corners” will simply make the job go badly eventually. I have heard many stories about the seniors in my monastery about times when they jumped irrigation ditches with tractors because they forgot to gauge where the tree row ended and when they should have slowed down to make the turn to the next row. And there are many other stories where instructions are garbled because questions did not get asked, and the job had to be repeated. So Placid, going into the lake is not just another way for Benedict to perform a miracle. It represents a form of working that is not conducive to living in Simplicity.

Maurus’ obedience deserves a little more focus than it has received. Again, leaving all the representative examples, like Peter walking on the water among others, we find Maurus obeying the way Gregory wants us (his readers) to obey. Maurus first asked for the blessing and then, with all speed, rescued the boy. So intent was he in fulfilling the order he that did not realize he was running on the water. Only when Maurus was on the dry ground did he notice what had happened and reported the event to Benedict. Benedict would ascribe the miracle to Maurus’ obedience, and Maurus would ascribe it to Benedict’s command. The focus here is on prompt obedience. We could say the real focus might get lost in the shuffle. While prompt obedience is part of Humility, as we read in Rule of St. Benedict Chapter 5, Placid shifts the attention away from Maurus to Benedict. But we need to consider what Maurus did to show that without his actions, the point of the story would not have come out so strongly. He went into action without delay. He did not question Benedict’s order. His full attention was on fulfilling the order without any consideration as to how he would rescue Placid. It is not blind obedience but unhesitating obedience. The abbot’s mind was his mind.

His obedience made him the “arms of the abbot.” Placid gives what Gregory is after for his audience to consider. Gregory has the readers’ eyes on Benedict as the one who rescues Placid as the thaumaturgus, the wonder worker. But there is something else going on in the passage. When Maurus “came to himself,” it was not as the prodigal son returning to his father. He was more like St. Peter in Acts 12. In this scripture, the angel tapped Peter on the cheek, released his chains, and walked him unscathed out of the prison. We need to sit with this reference because it contrasts Peter’s reaction to the wind when walking on the water in the Gospel. There, he had sank due to his fear of the wind and waves. His fear was greater than his trust in the Lord. In the story in Acts, he is walking out “trance-like.” His trust in the Lord is now deep and abiding. This is the type of obedience that Benedict wants and says Maurus had. There was no fear, worry, or concern over real or imagined obstacles to how this rescue mission was to be accomplished. His obedience was “second nature.” We might ask how much we are taking stock of our formation and let it sink into our skins. Are there times when the formation kicks in automatically, and we realize, “Yes, it did?” The formation is there to guide us through our monastic life and inform our decisions in the day-to-day business at hand. As the “arms” of the superior, we should assess situations from what our values tell us and act accordingly.

The story of Maurus and Placid illustrates to us how living the monastic life is done and how to carry it out. We cannot go through our life like Placid and be impetuous. The lack of awareness of the situation and his strengths and weaknesses made his falling into the lake inevitable. Most miracle stories in the Life of Benedict have this common element seen in the story: Benedict is constantly saving his monks from disasters of their own making. Hopefully, when our obedience is working full tilt, we will not need the superior pulling us from some wreckage, whatever that might be. If we are like Maurus, then whatever we are asked to do will be seamless from the assignment asked to its completion.

Peace and Blessing,

Your brothers of New Clairvaux

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