Most of us have had experience with religious medals. Whether we have a miraculous medal for ourselves, have given a St. Anne medal to an expectant mother, or put a St. Francis of Assisi medal on a dog’s collar, we have all used medals — preferably blessed — as forms of prayer and petition.
One medal that might be a little less recognized than these has also been used as a form of petition against the works of the devil: the medal of St. Benedict, whose feast day is July 11. While St. Benedict of Nursia lived centuries ago, this medal in his honor dates only to 1880. It was cast as a jubilee medal in honor of this patron of Europe’s 1,500th anniversary. Earlier medals honored Benedict — the founder of western monasticism and the author of the Rule of Benedict — but the 1880 medal, and its variations, are the best known. The jubilee medal was created under the direction of the Abbey of Montecassino in Italy, which was founded by Benedict in the year 529.
Benedict wrote the “Rule of Benedict,” a guide for religious life that eventually led to founding of the Benedictine Order. Other religious communities — like the Cistercians and Trappists —follow the rule. However, one does not need to be in religious life to wish to practice some of the tenets of the 78 chapters in the rule, which can basically be summed up in the Benedictine mottoes of “peace” (“pax” in Latin) and “ora et labora” (“pray and work”).
The medal of St. Benedict tells a lot using several symbols, any of which can speak to the prayer life of an individual:
- The front of the medal shows an image of Benedict, with a cross and, often, with a scroll or paper indicating his rule of life. Also on the front of the medal will be some reference to “peace” and/or Christ’s monogram: IHS.
- Also on the front of the medal are a broken cup and a raven. These refer to legends about Benedict’s life. After he had spent a number of years as a hermit, a group of monks asked Benedict, to be their abbot. However, he and they didn’t mesh. Eventually, they tried to kill Benedict, with a poisoned cup and poisoned bread. Before he ate, Benedict prayed over his intended meal. The cup broke and a raven flew down to snatch the bread away. Needless to say, Benedict left that community.
- Usually found on the front of the medal — but sometimes appearing on the back — are either the words, or first letters of the Latin words: “Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti” (“Cross of the Holy Father Benedict”), and “ejus in obitu nro praesentia muniamur” (“At our death, may we be protected by his presence”).
The back of the medal of Benedict tells even more. While there is some variation, its primary feature is the cross. In and around that cross are many, many letters. They indicate the first letters of several phrases in Latin:
- CSSML: “Crux sacra sit mihi lux” (“Holy Cross be my light”) appears on the upright of the cross.
- NDSMD: “Non draco sit mihi dux” (“Let not the dragon be my guide”), appears on the cross’ horizontal bar.
- Around the cross is a ring of many letters, which also refer to Benedict’s encounters against evil: VRS, NSMV, SMQL, IVB. These translate as “Begone, Satan, do not tempt me with your lies. You offer me an evil cup; drink your own poison.” In Latin, this is: “Vade retro Satana, nunquam suade mihi vana — sunt mala quae libas, ipse venena bibas.”
That’s a lot to fit on one medal. As Benedictine Fr. Bernardine Patterson explains, the entire medal “is a prayer of exorcism against Satan, a prayer for strength in time of temptation, a prayer for peace among ourselves and among the nations of the world, a prayer that the Cross of Christ be our light and guide, a prayer of firm rejection of all that is evil, a prayer of petition that we may with Christian courage ‘walk in God’s ways, with the Gospel as our guide,’ as St. Benedict urges us.”
Over the years, the medal has been used in various ways. St. Benedict is the patron of a happy death (along with St. Joseph), because he died standing upright in prayer after having received Holy Communion and surrounded by his fellow monks. So his medal has not only been worn, but has also been placed in cars, buried in the foundations of homes and barns, placed on domestic animals, given to expectant mothers and kept ready at hand during storms.
How did storms come in? St. Scholastica, Benedict’s twin sister, died five years before him. Every year, they were accustomed to meet. Eat supper and spend the night in prayer and conversation. When she knew her death was coming, her brother came for his annual visit but intended to leave the same night. Her prayer to God that her brother would change his mind and stay with her that one night was answered by a sudden storm.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; St. John’s Abbey in Patterson, N.J. at osb.org/gen/patterson/; etwn.com; “The Life of St. Benedict;” and e-benedictine.com.