St Benedict died on March 21 in the year 543 or 547, and this is the date on which his principal feast is traditionally kept throughout the Roman Rite, and is still kept by Benedictine houses. On the calendars of their liturgical books, it is sometimes called his “Transitus – Passing.” A second feast to honor the translation of his relics has long been kept on July 11. The location to which the relics were translated is still a matter of dispute, with the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, founded by the Saint himself, and the French Abbey of Fleury, also known as Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, both claiming to possess them. In the post-Conciliar reform of the calendar, many Saints, including Benedict, were moved to get them out of Lent, in his case, to the day of this second feast on the Benedictine calendar.
In the second book of St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, which is dedicated to the life and miracles of St Benedict, this episode is recounted in chapter six.
… Gothus quidam pauper spiritu ad conversionem venit: quem Dei vir Benedictus libentissime suscepit. Quadam vero die ei dari ferramentum jussit, … ut de loco quodam vepres abscinderet, quatenus illic hortus fieri deberet. Locus autem ipse quem mundandum Gothus susceperat, super ipsam laci ripam jacebat. Cumque Gothus idem densitatem veprium totius virtutis annisu succideret, ferrum de manubrio prosiliens in lacum cecidit, ubi scilicet tanta erat aquarum profunditas, ut spes requirendi ferramenti nulla jam esset. Itaque ferro perdito, tremebundus ad Maurum monachum cucurrit Gothus: damnum quod fecerat nuntiavit, et reatus sui egit poenitentiam. Quod Maurus quoque monachus mox Benedicto famulo Dei curavit indicare. Vir igitur Domini Benedictus haec audiens accessit ad lacum: tulit de manu Gothi manubrium, et misit in lacum: et mox ferrum de profundo rediit, atque in manubrium intravit. Qui statim ferramentum Gotho reddidit, dicens: Ecce labora, et noli contristari.
(The Miracle of the Bill-hook, 1388, by Spinello Aretino, in the sacristy of the church of St Miniato in Florence.)
… a certain Goth, poor in spirit, came to conversion (i.e., became a monk) whom the man of God Benedict most gladly received; and one day, commanded that an iron tool be given him … so that he might cut away the briars from a certain plot of ground, so that a garden might be made there. Now this place, which the Goth had undertaken to clear, was by the shore of a lake, and while he was cutting away the cluster of briars with all his strength, the iron flew off the handle and fell into the lake, in a place where the water was so deep that there was no hope of getting it back. Having lost the iron, the Goth, in great fear, ran to the monk Maurus (one of St Benedict’s closest disciples), and told him what he had lost, and did penance for his fault; and Maurus went to the servant of God Benedict and told him. Therefore, the man of God Benedict, on hearing this, went to the lake, took the handle from the Goth’s hand, and put it into the water, and soon the iron head came up from the deep, and entered again into the handle, which he returned at once to the Goth, saying, ‘Behold, work on, and be sad no more.’
(The ellipsis after “jussit” involves a similitude between two Latin words that cannot really be effectively translated into English: “quod ad falcis similitudinem falcastrum vocatur. – which for its likeness to a sickle is called ‘a little sickle’ ”, i.e. a bill-hook.)
This miracle is very similar to one which the prophet Elisha performs with an axe-head in 2 Kings 6, 1-7. For St Gregory, the story shows that just as Elisha inherited the mantle of the prophet Elijah, so St Benedict inherits the mantle of the early founders of monasticism like St Anthony the Great or St Paul the First Hermit. The Benedictine Divine Office therefore celebrates this episode by singing the following responsory.
R. Vir Domini Benedictus ferrum de profundo resiliens Gotho reddidit, dicens: * Ecce, labora, et noli contristari. V. Vix enim manubrium misit ad lacum, ferrum de profundo rediit, quod reddens dixit: Ecce. Gloria Patri. Ecce.
R. Benedict, the man of God, returned to the Goth the iron that leapt up from the deep, saying, * Behold, work on, and do not be sad. V. For scarcely did he put the handle near the lake, and the iron returned from the deep; and giving it back, he said, Behold… Glory be… Behold…