Feast of Saint Benedict, July 11, 2020
Readings: Numbers 20:1-13; “Isaiah 12: We Shall Draw Water” BB #816; 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, 11-13; John 7:37-39
Happy Feast of St. Benedict! Our readings for the feast have been especially chosen to highlight the miracle of water. How well we know the importance of water, especially when something happens to our pump and we have to carefully safeguard our use of water. That is the case in much of the world, where water is a scare resource and those living in areas of the pandemic do not even have the luxury of water with which to wash their hands frequently.
This morning we heard in the story of Benedict’s gracious response to the monks of three of his monasteries, who sought water for their communities, that Benedict consoles them and prays over the situation in the hiddenness of night. Unlike in our first reading when the people grumble because they have no water at all, Benedict’s monks merely share their difficulty in climbing down to the lake to get water every day. Although Gregory is likely drawing a parallel between Benedict and Moses, since they both have a companion in the situation of scarcity of water, Benedict with the youth Placid and Moses with Aaron, nevertheless, there is no hint of grumbling/murmuring in the story of Benedict, whereas there are all kinds of disgruntled remarks from the Israelites: “Would that we had perished when our kindred perished before the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s assembly into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place? It is not a place for grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates! And there is no water to drink!” [NAB, Numbers 20:3-5]. It is no wonder that Moses may have been frustrated with this people. The place, where the contention takes place in the desert of Zin, eventually is called Meribah, that is, “the Waters of Contradiction.”
In both accounts the water flows abundantly, due to the gracious generosity of God, who provides for the people. The beseechers are earnest in their request. However, in the case of Moses and Aaron their prayer is one said in prostration and God tells Moses to take his staff, assemble the community and command the rock to give forth its water [NAB, Num 20:8]. Benedict, on the other hand, quietly and secretly prays for water to come. He marks the spot with three stones, not unlike Jacob setting up the stone at the place where he dreamt of God’s angels ascending the ladder from earth to heaven [cf. Genesis 28:18]. The stones mark the spot of God’s response to Benedict’s prayer. In addition, God responds to Moses and Aaron’s prayer, spoken in frustration and desperation, whereas God responds to Benedict and Placid’s solitary prayer with fulfillment upon the three monks’ visit to the holy spot. Unfortunately for Moses and Aaron their frustration and anger with the people, as indicated with Moses striking the rock, not once but twice, when God only told him to command the rock to give water, these servants are punished and will never see the Promised Land [NAB, Num 20:10-12]. It seems that Moses did not trust in God to do exactly as God had commanded him. But there are no consequences to the monks’ receiving the necessary gift of water in the story of Benedict. It seems that the miracle of water for Benedict is a result of his humility and trust in God to provide, whereas for Moses, his acting out of anger and lack of trust, while it still produced water, also produced the sorry consequence for both Moses and Aaron.
Paul uses the story from Numbers as a warning to his people in Corinth, some of whom considered “themselves spiritually superior” to others in the community and so “failed the tests that commonly beset humanity.” In temptations to superiority, they fall to the vice of pride and fail to call on God’s assistance. In addition, Paul spiritualizes the rock of the desert by identifying that rock as Christ [NAB, 1 Cor 10:4], in whom they have been “baptized into Moses,” meaning Christ.
In the responsorial psalm, that is, Isaiah 12, “God is our salvation” [#816, v. 1] God provides water just as God did in providing water in the desert of Zin, and for Benedict’s monasteries. That God, for Christians is Christ, as Paul reminded the Corinthians. No doubt Benedict’s monks drew “water joyfully, singing joyfully,” having drawn water “from the spring of salvation” [#816, refrain]. Have you ever drawn water with such joy? I remember once on a hiking retreat with Carmen and Carol, we had hiked up a mountain and I was experiencing a terrible thirst in the heat. When we came to a stream of ice-cold water, I drank as if there would be no end to the water and it certainly was an occasion of deep joy, even to this day as I remember the taste of that water.
It was as if I heard Jesus’ exclamation: “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within [them]’” [NAB, John 7:37-38]. While the water I drank from that stream slaked my physical thirst, the fact that God provides water was a source of joy in the living water of God’s presence and care. I trust that whenever our spiritual thirsts are satisfied by God’s abundant care, we have been visited by the Spirit and we can “sing for joy, for great in [our] midst…is the Holy One of Israel” [#816, v. 3].
I invite you to sing for joy in the shower, when next you experience the wonder of water washing over you; to pray with joy when receiving a glass of ice cold water in the dining room; to remember times when water was too precious to waste; to intercede for those for whom water is a scarce resource and all the energy it takes to obtain it; and to be thankful for opportunities to play in and with water.
Gregory the Great, The Life of Saint Benedict, Commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, translated by Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1993) V.v.1-2, p. 42.
Conrad E. L’Heureux, “Numbers,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [NJBC], edited by Raymond F. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990, 1968) 87.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” NJBC, 807.