Pets in the Pediment

Dr. Martin F. Connell reflects on the stories and significance of St. Benedict's animal companions

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May 3, 2018

Beautiful but a little haunting, the pediment above the main entryway of the Auditorium on the campus of Saint John’s University presents two animals in its stone. On Saint Benedict’s left is a raven; on the saint’s right is a snake slithering out of a broken cup. These same creatures appear in The Life and Miracles of Saint Benedict written by Pope (Saint) Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604).

As Saint Benedict’s reputation for holiness spread in sixth century Italy, a local priest, Florentius, was incensed by Benedict’s popularity. Florentius was, in Pope Gregory’s words (chapter 8, The Life), “blind with jealousy,” so he devised a plan to “poison a loaf of bread” in order to do in Benedict. In that same period, a raven from the local woods used to come to Benedict’s monastery for food. Upon the bird’s arrival one particular day, Benedict instructed it: “Take that bread away from here, and leave it where it won’t be found.” After some hesitation, the raven trusted the saint, disposed of the poisoned loaf, and—after a three-hour round-trip flight— returned for its usual feeding from Benedict’s hand.

The Life also tells of another of Benedict’s creaturely companions. Chapter 18 relates the story of Exhilaratus, a Roman man, whose master sent him to deliver two flasks of wine to Benedict. But Exhilaratus hid one of the flasks, presumably to imbibe himself at a later time. (Exhilaratus can be held up as the patron sinner of those students sneaking booze into their dorms!) As he handed over the one flask to the saint, Benedict responded: “Son, don’t drink from the flask you’ve stashed away. Tilt it, and you’ll see just what’s really in there!” Ashamed and confused, the Roman followed Benedict’s instructions, peeked into the purloined flask, and found a snake crawling out of it. That snake and its hiding place are depicted on the left side of the Auditorium pediment.

To ascertain Benedict’s intentions, we need to translate the Latin words and references etched in the stone pediment. In them, I propose, we can see something of what Pope Gregory’s stories of Benedict, the raven, and the snake mean for us today. Consider, first of all, the sentence arching over the head of Benedict, the central figure in the pediment: EIVS IN OBITV NRO PRÆ SENTIA MVNIAMVR; more easily read with lowercase letters: Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur, “May his presence protect us at our death.” Notice the relationship of the English translation of obitu, “death,” and our word, “obituary”; and between muniamur and “munition,” meaning weaponry, armor, or protection. The phrase “at our death” is familiar to Catholics who pray the rosary, for its similarity to the end of the Hail Mary, “now and at the hour of our death,” as we petition the Mother of God to intercede for us before the throne of mercy.

The sum of these images and words—raven, snake, and “May his presence protect us at the hour of our death”—point back to words written even before Saint Gregory wrote the life of Benedict. Benedict’s Rule was written for the monks of his community in Italy, and in it he urged mindfulness of death. In chapter 4 of the Rule, Benedict instructed his followers: “To keep death daily before one’s eyes” (RB 4.47). Vibrant, inspiring, and sage advice for twenty first-century monks and nonmonks alike!

The Rule’s admonitions to monks and all believers, and the images of the raven and snake in Gregory the Great’s life of Benedict, counter a deceit of American culture. In our time, the lure of shopping and inexhaustible consumption promises that the very next purchase—house, car, food, clothes, book, or beauty product—will extend our lives or lure us into the lie that we’ll live forever. To keep us vigilant against the counter-Christian, American culture, we need to study the Latin phrase from the Rule of Benedict on the Auditorium pediment with its auspicious pets: Mortem cotidie ante oculos suspectam habere: “Keep (habere suspectam) death (mortem) before your eyes (ante oculos) every day (cotidie).” A more casual translation, but still reflective of Benedictine spirituality, would be: “Never forget the hard death you face.” Or: “Love with abandon; you don’t know how many days you’ve got left.”

In life, in families, with girlfriends and boyfriends, or workmates, in clubs and sports, and even in classrooms, whenever we encounter others impeding our good works and intentions, we need only recall Saint Benedict’s response to his two sixth-century schemers with murder and larceny in their hearts. With our detractors in mind, perhaps, we should pray and think back to the forerunner of Benedict, Jesus Christ, who advises about our own Florentiuses and Exhilaratuses: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). Or even from Saint Paul, the earliest Christian writer, “Bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14).

These are hard sayings. But in the midst of life’s struggles, it is helpful for us to ponder the art above the Saint John’s Auditorium entrance, and to consider the raven and the snake, Benedict’s rescuers. In the power of the Holy Spirit and with the Word of God as inspiration, we may ask God for the courage to follow the example of Saint Benedict and his pet companions.

Dr. Martin F. Connell, the author of this article, is professor of theology at Saint John’s University. This piece was originally published in Abbey Banner. Recently, his work has been published in the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity and the Heathrope Journal.