Benedict of Nursia vs. Anne

February 28, 2013
Tim Schenck

Another day, another romp. At least that's what many were thinking after Harriet Tubman trounced Nicholas Ferrar in yesterday's Lent Madness showdown. Today we're anticipating a much closer match-up as the father of monasticism takes on the grandmother of Jesus. Is blood thicker than compline? This and other questions will be answered by the Lent Madness faithful over the next 24 hours.

There are many rumors flying around the world about the timing of Pope Benedict XVI's retirement on the very same day that his namesake, Benedict of Nursia, appears in Lent Madness. It's obviously not a coincidence and we're assuming that a bunch of people named Anne will also retire today. We wish them all well in their golden years. For Benedict and Anne, however, only time will tell whether they'll be enjoying their Golden Halo years.

photoBenedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.550) was born into a world that was disintegrating. The Roman Empire had become a shadow of its former self. Benedict moved from his hometown of Nursia to Rome as a student. But he found there too much of an erosion of morality for his tastes. So he abandoned the “Eternal City” for a hillside cave and became a hermit for three years.

Although Benedict is called the “Father of Western Monasticism,” communities of Christian monks had existed for centuries before his birth. One group of monks, in fact, begged him to become its abbot while he was living as a hermit. Benedict tried that, but it didn’t work out. One legend describes how those monks tried to poison him unsuccessfully. Regardless, Benedict left them and eventually founded a monastery between Rome and Naples at Monte Cassino.

There he wrote his famous Rule for monastic life. The seventy-three short chapters of that Rule present the ideal of a balance between prayer and work. One of them also includes these well-known words about hospitality: “Let all…be received as Christ.” So what Benedict really did was to channel the stream of monasticism in fresh and creative ways that have proven for nearly 1,500 years to be life-giving to the whole world.

Here’s part of an ancient poem that was written after Benedict’s death by one of his companions named Marcus:

With hard and toilsome labour ‘tis that great things are attained:
Within the narrow path alone the blessed life is gained.
While hither coming penitent bow’d down with load of sin,
I felt its weight was gone from me, I felt at peace within;
And I believe in bliss above I too shall have my share,
If thou for Marcus, Benedict, wilt breathe an earnest prayer.

Benedict’s spirit is alive and well throughout the world today (and not only in Roman Catholic circles). My own congregation had a beloved assisting priest who retired last year and belonged to a religious community of Benedictines in the Episcopal Church. And thanks to the hospitality of Roman Catholic Benedictines, the Episcopal House of Prayer sits on five acres on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. St. John’s is the second largest Benedictine monastery in the Western Hemisphere. It’s home to the world’s largest archive of manuscript photographs and to the St. John’s Bible, which is the first handwritten, illuminated Bible that a Benedictine monastery has commissioned in more than 500 years. Thankfully, guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, the priorities of these Benedictine monks in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions remain the same: Praying, working, and receiving all as Christ.

Collect for Benedict of Nursia
Almighty and everlasting God, your precepts are the wisdom of a loving Father: Give us grace, following the teaching and example of your servant Benedict, to walk with loving and willing hearts in the school of the Lord’s service; let your ears be open to our prayers; and prosper with your blessing the work of our hands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Neil Alan Willard


Anne is not mentioned in any of the canonical gospels, and there is no historical record of her life. Her name and the legend of her life are instead found in the Protoevangelium of James, a New Testament-era apocryphal gospel dating to around AD 150.

Legend holds that Anne was married to Joachim, and that the two were childless in their old age – a fact which deeply grieved both of them. As Joachim went into the desert for forty days and forty nights to fast, Anne sat and lamented both her pending widowhood and her childlessness. During Joachim’s absence, Anne sat beneath a laurel tree, and prayed she would receive a child just as Sarah received Isaac in her old age. As she bewails her inability to conceive, an angel appears to Anne, and promises her that she will conceive, and that “your child will be spoken of in the whole world.” (Pro.James. 4:1). In response, Anne promises that the child – whether male or female – will be brought as a gift to God, and will minister before God all the days of its life. Nine months later, Mary is born to Joachim and Anne. A year after Mary’s birth, Joachim presents Mary to the priests, and in their prayer of blessing pray that she will be given “an eternal name among all the generations” (Pro. James. 6:2). When Mary turned three, Joachim and Anne give Mary into the service of the temple in fulfillment of the promise Anne made to the angel when she announced Mary’s birth.

Anne’s legend heavily echoes the story of two barren women in the Old Testament – Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac in her old age; and Hannah, who gives birth to Samuel after being thought to be barren, and dedicates him to the service of the temple. Indeed, Anne’s name in Hebrew is “Hannah,” meaning “favor” or “grace.”

Devotion to Anne dates to the patristic era. The emperor Justinian built a church in Constantinople in her honor; her feast began to be observed in the west by the 14th century. By the end of the middle ages, devotion to St. Anne had become wide spread, and became a target for the Protestant Reformers, most especially Martin Luther. Nonetheless, in 1584, it was made a feast in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Orthodox tradition, Anne is given the title “Forbear of God,” and the Birth of Mary (September 8) and the Dedication of Mary in the Temple (November 21) are principal feasts of the church. In the Western Church, her feast is celebrated with her spouse, Joachim, on July 26.

Collect for Anne

Almighty God, heavenly Father, we remember in thanksgiving this day, Anne, mother of of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and we pray that we all may be made one in the heavenly family of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- David Sibley


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170 comments on “Benedict of Nursia vs. Anne”

  1. Voting for a reality versus a myth. Anne's story is charming but without substance. Even with the "apocryphal stories" the reality of Benedict lives on through all the monastic communities in the world. Being an associate of Holy Cross makes the rule Benedict wrote a reality in my life.

    1. Without substance? Do you kiss your Mom with that mouth? Motherhood has great substance for one thing, and for another thing kudos to Anne (and Joachim) for actually delivering a "wait to have sex" talk that worked! My vote goes to the Mother of Our Lady, whether she was named Anne or not.

  2. In spite of having worked at a St Anne's Church for many years, I have to go with Benedict. At least he was real, even if some stories about him are not, and has had a lasting impact on Christianity. To me, Anne seems a bit too apocryphal -obviously Mary had a mother, and this is what she should have been like.

  3. Of course it's myth vs reality, but I'm a grandmother and I had to vote for the grandmother. Obviously Mary had parents, and they must have been very good people to have raised her to be the mother of Jesus, so Grandma Anne gets my vote.

    1. another Grandma vote. I usually vote for historically real people but I'm going with Anne, or whatever her name was.

    2. And would Anne be the first instance of dedicating a child to God WHETHER OR NOT it was male? No wonder it took so long for the messiah to come!

  4. In three years I have never written a comment, though I have relished the discussions. Today I must tell the influence that St Ann has played in my life. I first met her in a movie in my early teen years. The movie was Sally and St. Anne and it had a profound effect on me. As a young Methodist I knew nothing about the communion of saints or the custom of praying with them. My mother dismissed it as a Roman Catholic thing but I was curious. I met her again in a sermon during the Advent season when my single middle daughter was about to deliver my first grandchild. She helped me then as my grandson was due on Christmas day. As much as I respect St. Benedict and his work. I have a special love for the grandmother of our Lord. And I believe she is definitely full of substance. Anne gets my vote.

    1. Someone else saw "Sally and St. Anne"! That movie also impacted me as a child, and lingers in the corners of my memory. Should I be granted 3 wishes, one of them would be to watch it again.

    2. Neat! Thanks for sharing that, Wanda! I love hearing how the communion of saints has been present for people.

      Full disclosure: I voted for Benedict. But I'm really glad I got to read your comment. 🙂

  5. I grew up in St Anne's parish. My mother prayed to St Anne while she was pregnant with me. My middle name is Anne. My vote goes to Anne.

    Benedict will win this though.

  6. The Rule of Benedict is the core of my rule of life. To "Listen with the Ear of the Heart" and "Live this life and everything you do with an attitude of loving kindness" (from the translation by Episcopal layperson John McQuistion II) guides me as I strive to "stick with it" (stability), "listen carefully to God and one another" (obedience), "daily improvement" (conversation morum) [my thanks to another Benedictine author Wil Derske]. My vote in this round goes to Benedict as it will should he be advanced to the Saintly Sixteen.

    1. Thank you for this comment. It is a wonderful reminder in capsule form of the way to live life. Wonderful words, more wonderful Way, as Jesus himself pointed out.

  7. Arrgh! My computer thinks it is so smart!!! Not "conversation morum" by "conversatio morum". And you, no doubt, think I should proofread better. But as is the case with the Rule of St. Benedict" "Always we begin again."

    1. With a bunch of Benedict fans today, maybe someone can help me answer this question: where does it say in the Rule "Always we begin again"? McQuiston's poetical summary/overview aside. It always gets quoted, without crediting McQuistion, like it's a central tenet, but I haven't found it in the Rule in meaning. Closest I've got is how the abbot should treat someone who isn't following the Rule, which starts out gently and escalates .....

      Obviously, voted for Benedict. As an associate of an Episcopal Benedictine order, how could I not?

      1. I don't think the Rule says "always we begin again." but that this phrase come from this line: "It is for us to train our hearts to live in grace, to sacrifice our self-centered desires, to find the peace without want without seeking it for ourselves, and when we fail to begin again each day." I looked up the Rule on-line. . . . didn't vote for Benedict and don't think he said "always we begin again."

  8. As an Associate of an Anglican Benedictine Order (in practice, a Tertiary), I have to go with my patron – a real and inspiring person – rather than a charming historical fiction.

  9. OK, so one bemoans Sin City: Rome and holes up in a cave; while the other seems crafted out of legend to support the veneration of Mary? Maybe it's the rain making me so cynical - sorry.

    Benedict in the (and as a) stretch.

  10. It's early, but I foresee an Agnes-type trouncing for dear Anne, since in Madness voters' minds, a myth is not good as a male. Still, it is a relief to have a couple of old timey saint-y saints with no martyr issues. Even if Anne were surrounded with exclamation points instead of question marks, I would go with Benedict. He established a new way of holy life that reaches beyond the monastery and shapes the world today, which needs all the holiness it can get.

    1. P.S. Today's comments have blown away all my question marks about Ann(e), and I'm convinced she was a grand mother and grandmother! Exclamation point!

  11. My middle name is Anne (with the "e"), my first name is a derivative/variant form, so even though she may be apocryphal (Mary did have a mother somewhere), my vote goes to Anne is this round...though I have my doubts as to whether she'll go beyond it!...and I'll probably have another opportunity to back Benedict!

  12. Hard to relate to mythic figures. Although I usually have trouble understanding mystic, as well as mythic, figures, at least Benedict was real. Anne is too fairy tale-ish and I stopped believing in them when I was.....well, never mind.....You don't have to know everything about me...None of your beesax! On. Benedict! On to the kitchen for coffee before hallucinations begin due to caffeine that right? Good morning, FORWARD MOVEMENT order ladies.
    order dept. ladies

  13. Easy: reality over myth. And the influence of Benedict's rule on the life of the church cannot be overstated.

  14. So, so difficult to decide. Coincidence the venerable SEC chose Benedict on Feb. 28th? The very day Pope Benedict goes off in solitary to pray? Oh my, how could I not choose Benedict? I must go off alone and think about it.

  15. If, like I did, you voted for Little Gidding you have to go and Nursia wounds. Benedict it is.

    1. I had to read your comment three times before I got it and realized it wasn't some kind of typo. Bravo! Lent Madness needs more puns -- especially appropriate as "the lowest form of humor," don't you think? -- and the obscure ones are the best of all.

  16. Since Anglican spirituality is pretty much Benedictine in nature . . . and since the Grandmother of God is, at best, a figure of pious legend . . . have to vote for the monk.

  17. The 25th Anniversary of the Association of Anglican Musicians was held at St John's Abbey in Collegeville. The good brothers of that order not only allowed me (a- gasp!- woman priest!) to celebrate the AAM Eucharist at their altar, but also delighted in vesting me in a former abbot's finery for the event! Throughout my life, the priceless hospitality of Benedictine monastics, RC and Episcopalian, has been a touchstone and precious gift to me. I owe Benedict my devotion and my vote.

  18. Think what you might of the "legend" of Anne, how can her story compare with the lasting influence of Benedict, whose rule has guided generation after generation of women and men seeking to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in human community. My current reading includes work by neo-monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, someone who is writing and speaking of his experience of the rule of Benedict. Go Benedict!

  19. Have experienced such blessings from the hospitality of Benedictines and have been reminded by them so often that work, prayer, and hospitality are all worship. Benedictine monastery retreats are so renewing. Benedict gets my vote today.

  20. I have long admired St.Benedict. We visited Monte Cassino a few years ago, and it was a very moving experience. For those of you who plan to visit Monte Cassino and don't already know this, it was the Allies who bombed Monte Cassino during WWII and reduced it to rubble, not the Germans. May you be spared that very embarrassing mistake if you go and you are AMerican.

  21. The Brothers at Holy Cross (West Park NY) have given me solace and peace; so I must vote for Benedict.

  22. I’ve always known him as San Benito, so when I first read Benedict of Nursia I got lost. Imagine! Choosing from a myth and a historic figure so important in the West is an easy task.