Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2

Brief Review: THE LIFE OF ST. BENEDICT Trans. and Commentary by T. Kardong [Vol. 2, #24]

A Brief Review of
The Life of St. Benedict By Gregory the Great
Translation and Commentary by Terrence Kardong.

Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2009.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Pope Gregory the Great’s work The Life of St. Benedict is at the same time “one of the most beloved texts of the whole Benedictine family” and also, as a work of hagiography, one of the most confusing.  However, the new translation and commentary by noted Benedictine scholar Terrence Kardong, aimed at popular audiences, seeks to make sense of this classic work.  Kardong’s translation into contemporary English is easy to read and understand.  Noting that many of the stories of Benedict recorded in Gregory’s work lack “a social or historical context” (25), Kardong in his commentary offers a reconstruction of enough of the context that we might understand its meaning.  In particular, Kardong seeks to sort out the hagiographical elements in Gregory’s narrative, as is seen especially in the chapter on the “Four Miracles at Subiaco.”  Kardong observes how each of these miracles reflects certain biblical and patristic stories on which they are based.  However, Kardong is cautious not to keep caught up in academic questions here about historicity. Of the four miracles, he says: “Can Benedict really have been this extraordinary? Of course, there is no possibility of getting back to the historical reality here.  And perhaps it is not necessary if we can let the myths carry the story of this holy man” (39). I was especially intrigued by the Kardong’s framing of the story of Benedict and his sister Scholastica, which appears toward the end of the book.  Kardong observes that even though Benedict is the hero of Gregory’s work here, he is comically humanized here and “comes out second best” to his sister.  If you want to read one of the Benedictine classics, or a perspective of Benedict from one of his contemporaries, or if you have already read Gregory’s biography and seek to understand it better, this book, with its crystal clear prose and keen insights is well-worth your time!


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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