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


[poll id="52"]


* indicates required

Recent Posts



170 comments on “Benedict of Nursia vs. Anne”

  1. For all the monastics who have guided me and provided hospitality, I vote for Benedict. Even though I was raised RC, I never believed the legend of Ann ... Mary didn't need a saint of a mother to say "yes" to God.

  2. To those of you dismissing the grandmother of our Lord as a myth...let me remind you that we mustn't bandy that word about so easily...lest we be forced to examine lots of myths that we continue to delight in. So watch it there friends...otherwise someone might visit you blowing a bugle, marching around the block you are on seven times, and making your Benedictine Monastery fall down! I vote for Anne...for without Mary...we got nothing.

    1. No need for bugles, Michael! There are plenty of shofars (shofarot) to go around. I have taken part in mass shofar blowings and it is easy to imagine why those walls might have started quivering. Greetings from St. Andrew & St. Charles AND Temple Beth Torah, Granada Hills CA.

      Now to go back to contemplating option A vs. option B...

  3. Jesus undoubtedly had a grandmother and, regardless of her name, she raised the Blessed Virgin to be a woman wholly committed to God. I voted for Anne and all godly women of all ages!

    1. Exactly! Apocryphal writings aside, Jesus certainly did have a "real" grandmother. No disrespect to Benedict, whose legacy is indeed amazing and so admirable, but I believe today I will vote for the woman whose legacy is also pretty impressive...Saviour of the world and all that...! ; )
      And for all the grandmas (and grandpas!) who pray and love and nurture their grandkids in life-giving faith.

  4. Benedict's legacy vs Anne"s legacy.......hmm...... rules vs Jesus.........hmm.....I'll go with Jesus and his grandmother.

  5. As much as I appreciate St. Anne, I had to go with Benedict. He is an inspiration to all, and all of the Benedictines I know are true to the Rule.

  6. Ummm Jesus' Nana FTW yall. Benedict is alright and all but the Mama of Mary wins in my book. Also even if her name was something other than Anne she is not a myth. The Blessed Virgin Mary did not hatch from a chicken egg......

  7. I had to go with Benedict today. Because his "rule" was so amenable to variation and change over the centuries, it still is as applicable today as it ever was. "His approach to seeking God was both sensible and humane. For Benedict, a spiritual pathway was not one to be littered with weird and unusual practices; rather, all that is needed is to be faithful to finding God in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. How to prepare oneself for this simple—but not necessarily easy—way of life is the substance of the Rule." (from the OSB website). This is my kind of guy!

  8. Benedict of Nursia gets my vote today, Benedictine monks reaching across the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches to bring prayers, works, and Christ to a needy world. Nothing speaks better than this!

  9. Reality v. Myth is a strong argument and my vote would go to Benedict against another mythic saint. But Anne is the saint name I was given at baptism (a Jewish judge and heroine of her people not being good enough in the RC church) so I cast my vote for Anne.

  10. Myth? Legend? Seems like a lack of faith to me. I'm going with the grandmother of Jesus even if we don't know for sure what her name was or what the exact circumstances of her life were.

  11. If her husband was out praying and fasting for forty days and nights, small wonder Anne was having problems conceiving. Just sayin'.

  12. I suspect that Anne's legends were created in retrospect as a support for the veneration of Mary ("you know - Anne was set apart too -- so clearly Mary was all the more holy") and that annoys me. At the same time, of course we only have myths and legends; women didn't count and weren't remembered. We're often left to imagine who they were. Not that any of this musing makes my decision easier...

  13. Re: Lentmadness 2013 -Jesus's Grandma vs Murdering Monks?

    Is this where the term "benediction" comes from? Monks trying to poison monks. Is this where the term "Monkeying Around" comes from?

    Jesus had a grandma? Do you think she sent him birthday cards and Christmas presents? "Over the dessert and through the sand to grandmothers house we go! The camel knows the way to carry the chariot?"

    I am going for the Monk!

  14. Although I'm partly named for my great aunt Ann, I can't go with someone "not mentioned in any of the canonical gospels, and there is no historical record of her life." Just a little too flimsy for me.

    1. That lovely statue works miracles, and those who benefit from them leave silver ornaments and other thank offerings on the statue that sometimes make it almost impossible to see. Last summer it was again visible with the offerings set around it but with a few on it, a clearing away that apparently happens from time to time. For some the statue group is an item of artistic interest. For others it is that and more.

      1. How interesting, unfortunately I guess they had just cleaned it before I was there - thank-you for the story!

    2. Lovely! And I think she is definitely tickling. How can one not when presented with such a chunky, wiggling infant?! Thank you for sharing this sculpture

  15. Somewhere in my study of comparative religions--Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, etc.--it occurred to me that a myth is a story that is true, whether or not it ever happened.
    This grandma's going with St. Anne, even though she respects Benedict and those that keep his pattern. (And she's read all the Brother Cadfael books.)

    1. The Romans have a saying for that: "Se non e vero e ben trovato," or It may not be true but it is well founded.

  16. Although I love being a grandmother, I have to go with Benedict and the wonderful Benedictines of Erie Pennsylvania including Joan Chittester who have made a real difference in my life.

  17. My experiences at Collegeville MN Ecumenical Institute--as well as Holy Wisdom Monastery (formerly St. Benedict Center) in Madison WI--are hugely influential on my vote today. Their hospitality, atmosphere, and depth of worship experiences are unparalleled for me. It's Benedict--but not the one in Roma.

  18. Tough call - Jesus' grandmother versus a monk, yet somehow on the day when Benedict XVI retires to a monastic life, it seems fitting to give St. Benedict the nod.

    I am not sure about your accuracy concerning Martin Luther's problems with Mary. Luther actually had a deep devotion to Mary and was know to pray and advocate for the Rosary even after his excommunication

  19. Another tough one! The mind insists on Benedict--what a guy! The heart, however, never can resist the barren woman allowed by the Divine to experience the ultimate miracle of womanhood (so ordinary, yet so amazing) after she has mourned its impossibility for her.

  20. OK, peaceful and quiet life of a monk vs the multitasking life and responsibilities of a mother and grandmother? Anne wins by a mile.

  21. As a woman (over the 40) who still wants to have a child (natural or adopted), I had to go with Ann. A great morning inspiration that my child-bearing years aren't over.

    1. Note to JAG. I have been blessed with one birthed child and two adopted children . They are all adults now and I am beginning to have graandchildren as well. I just want to encourage you to continue to consider adoption as an option. There are still so many children born right here in America who need their own forever family. Oh yes, I voted for Ann of course, whether or not she existed as in the story, Jesus did have a Nana!

    2. I second the response of Constance. We have two adopted children, both American, both biracial. They are the wonderful: they teach us how to love, even now when they are both young men. children are a blessing.

  22. Oh my, I thought I had it all figured out, but then I was so touched by the grandmother comments and having had a wonderful grandmother named Ann, I find myself torn between "T" truth and "t" truth ... Benedict's rule has undeniably increased our understanding of faith and how to live into that faith, but without the love of a grandmother, where might we all be? I believe I'm leaning toward Ann ...