The Devil Tempts St. Benedict

Rule

This illumination showed up in my medievalist Twitter feed today and I tracked it back to the so-called Mettener Regel (1414), a manuscript of the rule of Saint Benedict as practiced at the Abbey of Metten. The manuscript is illustrated by moments in the life of St. Benedict.

At first, I thought this might be an illustration from the rule itself, with the devil depicted as a tempting woman with hideous talons:

Those garments of which he is divested shall be placed in the wardrobe, there to be kept, so that if, perchance, he should ever be persuaded by the devil to leave the monastery (which God forbid), he may be stripped of the monastic habit and cast forth.

That doesn’t fit, however, since the figure seems to be Benedict himself.

That’s when I recalled the grand collection of fascinating stuff that is the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Book 2 is Gregory’s Life of Benedict, which includes this passage.

One day, while the saint was alone, the Tempter came in the form of a little blackbird, which began to flutter in front of his face. It kept so close that he could easily have caught it in his hand. Instead, he made the sign of the cross and the bird flew away. The moment it left, he was seized with an unusually violent temptation. The evil spirit recalled to his mind a woman he had once seen, and before he realized it his emotions were carrying him away. Almost overcome in the struggle, he was on the point of abandoning the lonely wilderness, when suddenly with the help of God’s grace he came to himself.

He then noticed a thick patch of nettles and briers next to him. Throwing his garment aside he flung himself into the sharp thorns and stinging nettles. There he rolled and tossed until his whole body was in pain and covered with blood. Yet, once he had conquered pleasure through suffering, his torn and bleeding skin served to drain the poison of temptation from his body. Before long, the pain that was burning his whole body had put out the fires of evil in his heart. It was by exchanging these two fires that he gained the victory over sin. So complete was his triumph that from then on, as he later told his disciples, he never experienced another temptation of this kind.

Soon after, many forsook the world to place themselves under his guidance, for now that he was free from these temptations he was ready to instruct others in the practice of virtue. That is why Moses commanded the Levites to begin their service when they were twenty-five years old or more and to become guardians of the sacred vessels only at the age of fifty.

Thus, the picture shows the devil as both the beautiful tempting women Benedict remembered, and as the blackbird, merged into a horrible chimera to reveal the evil lurking below the surface of even the most pleasing temptation.

“Dear Jew … Shield Your Eyes”

photo from The Forward

A group of Haredi Jews (those typically characterized as “ultra-orthodox” by the media) have placed a giant red billboard beside the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, warning in Hebrew “Dear Jew: You are entering a dangerous place. Shield your eyes.” The words “Shield your eyes” are also written in English.

Considering the kinds of speeds people do on the BQE, I really hope drivers aren’t taking that too literally.

The sign is a reminder for Jews to practice “Shmiras Einayim,” which is similar to what Catholics call “custody of the eyes,” but far more intense.  It’s aimed at orthodox Jews commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and is sponsored by a group called the Congregation of Yad Moshe. The orthodox have little regard for the temptations of Manhattan, and even less for its secular Jews. Depending upon who you read, it’s either a simple warning to help Jews remain pure, or a more pointed social/political message coming from the Haredi, who recently gathered in staggering numbers for a conference on the dangers of the internet. I vote for “both.”

Some will see this as Haredi simply being obnoxious and trying to assert authority over their members, while others will see it as a simple encouragement to piety in a wicked world. There are mixed reactions in various comboxes, even from Haredi. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but as I’ve said before, I’m genuinely sympathetic to people attempting to peacefully practice a traditional faith in the modern world, even when I don’t agree with either their faith or their methods.