Citadel of God: A Novel about Saint Benedict
Date Published: Original 1959; March 1, 1994
Number of Pages: 345
Print Price: $13.19
eBook Price: $9.99
The Emperors had moved east to Constantinople, the Goths had conquered most of Italy and favored Arianism over orthodoxy in the Catholic faith, and Roman nobility pursued games and pleasures while following a politics of coexistence with their conquerors for survival. In the midst of the chaotic decay that was the sixth century in what had been the birthplace of the Roman Empire, one man is laying the foundations for a new type of civilization. Through this new way, he seeks to form men dedicated to building a citadel of God. He is building monasteries. His name is Benedict of Nursia.
Louis de Wohl’s book, first published in the 1950’s, reminds one of the lavishly produced movies made at that time, movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953). Replete with a wide cast of characters, rich and colorful costumes, and historical accuracy in the smallest details, Citadel of God is a fascinating and engrossing reconstitution of the people and culture of the time.
Very little would be known about Saint Benedict, were it not for the publicity given to his life and work by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, born three years before the death of Benedict. Gregory was himself a monk before becoming Pope. His work of reorganizing the Church, rebuilding the decimated Roman society, and invigorating the expansion of the Catholic faith in all directions, most famously to the British Isles, is a tribute to the efficacy of the rule that Benedict had laid down for his monks.
A large part of the story concerns Peter, an agent of Byzantium, and Rusticiana, widow of the senator, philosopher, and poet Boethius, martyred by King Theodoric of the Goths. To obtain the hand of Rusticiana, Peter embarks on a dark task of spying and deception, working for the men around Emperor Justinian in Constantinople.
Methodically using the power of Justinian to weaken the power of the Gothic Kings, Peter works hard to succeed and even becomes the administrator of all of Italy, reporting directly to the Emperor in Byzantium. He seems to be on the verge of realizing his dream when an unknown chief of the Goths, Totila, becomes King, reverses the fortunes of the Emperor and Peter, and captures Rome. Peter decides to consult an old friend and mentor, the monk Benedictus, who built a monastery on top of Monte Cassino, previously the site of a pagan temple.
Louis de Wohl respects the paucity of information about Benedict in his book. He describes his acts with restraint. Benedict’s words are concise and to the point, almost as if he heard them from another source and only relayed them in his conversation. When Peter last saw Benedict he was a young man full of ambition who had contempt for what Benedict had tried to teach him. Now he comes to seek his advice.
“How does a man go towards God?”
“‘By going away from the self,’ Benedictus replied. ‘Watch out for an opportunity to do something for someone else, to your own disadvantage, for God’s sake.’”
“I will have such an opportunity?”
“Shall I recognize it? I…, I might miss it.”
“‘You will recognize it,’ Benedictus said tranquilly.”
This is set against the detailed banter when other characters talk to each other and the lavish descriptions of the scenes at the court of the Kings of the Goths, presented in full color and in the usual wide-screen format. The effect is powerful, contrasting the waste of resources expanded in the battles for seizing control of the cities of Emperors and Kings, with the extreme sparseness of visible efforts in building the citadel of God.
The Kingdom of God starts with a tiny seed planted in the hearts of a new breed of men. In the results obtained by the monks is shown the disparity between acts of men at play, and those of men who work after they pray. People who came to see the city of monks were amazed. Louis de Wohl describes it effectively.
“What they found was a place unlike any they had ever seen,” the author writes. “It was teeming with life, but all life was directed towards an aim; yet there was nothing antlike about it, nothing that remotely resembled military barracks. There was no barking or bellowing of commands, yet the discipline was sterner than that of a crack army unit. The monastery was a living organism, the mystic body of a man in perfect command of all his faculties and functions, of a man who seemed to have overcome the Fall. There was constant movement and yet there was repose; there was little food, and yet great strength. Everything was simple, nothing was ugly. All things served a purpose, but none was drab.”
The greatest appeal of the book for 21st century readers is the similarity of the situation we are in now with that of the 6th century. Western civilization seems at an end, without strength and without genius to face the future. The financial empire has moved to the East. Our senators and industry magnates are interested in politics, survival, and coexistence with global interests, forgetful of the home front.
Few poets even remember the days of the Pax Americana. Playing wins out over praying. We can easily empathize with Rusticiana, after the death of her husband Boethius: “This was not a time when anything great could be constructed. Too much must be first torn down.”
Yet it was at that time that young Benedict walked out of Rome and started praying to find a way to overcome the decay. He believed hope was in God if we turn completely toward Him. He did not worry about what to tear down. He wanted to learn what to build.
And so Benedict rebuilt the souls of a new breed of workers. He gave them a new rule: “Ora et Labora.” And his inspiration lit a fire in the moribund Western civilization. The powerful Goths disappeared, the Emperors in the East saw their power wane. It was a rebirth of faith. If we seek to build a citadel of God, like the monks, all things will fall into place.
The book gives hope to those who recognize the situation we are in today. Returning to the scene where Peter comes to seek solace from Benedict, the latter tells him there will be an opportunity to do something for God. And he adds this advice:
“‘You will recognize it,’ Benedictus said tranquilly. ‘There will be a great silence and a great emptiness. Then it will come.’”
How much silence and emptiness do we need in order to recognize that the opportunity is at hand?
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 9.1 inches
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