I first heard about St. Benedict Joseph Labre when I was in my early twenties, and his story has stuck with me ever since. He died in 1783 in Rome during Holy Week at the age of thirty-five. Homeless and malnourished, he had been living on the streets Europe for about thirteen years. When he died, children sang out: ‘The saint is dead! The saint is dead!’ From the mouths of babes, the Spirit glorified him and revealed the holiness of his obscure and hidden life. Most of what we know about him comes from the biography his confessor wrote after his death.
Very few of us would be moved to emulate his life. Even his biographer found it too extreme to propose for imitation. He slept in a hole in a ruined wall, and he survived on garbage and the kindness of strangers. He wore rags, and when he died he owned only a broken bowl, a breviary, a few devotional books, and a rosary. He stank terribly, was afflicted with bug bites, and his feet were covered with sores. He must have been repulsive.
It isn’t surprising that Christian exemplarity won’t amount to success in the accounting of this world: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1 Corinthians 1:26) It is common enough to observe that the Lord called humble men to be his apostles, mostly fishermen, and even some from altogether disreputable professions. St. Matthew, we are told, was a tax collector, that common complement of Gentiles, prostitutes, and sinners in the language of the Gospels. “So the last shall be first and the first last,” in our Lord own pithy words (Matthew 20.16.) And yet, despite all that, most of us would-be followers pursue some standards of success, revised accordingly by some evangelical or ecclesial something or other. We think about our life in Christ as a kind of career with its own proper scales for advancement or promotion: distinguished service to the Church maybe, or maximization of our entrusted talents, or something else. We pursue success by some other measure.
By contrast, the life of St. Benedict Joseph Labre stretches any scale of success beyond reuse or usefulness, even one duly chastened by gospel expectations. He was a failure not only “according to worldly standards,” but also, by any imaginable churchly standard. Before he embarked on his life of vagrancy, he pursued tenaciously a monastic vocation, always failing. By the time he reached his early twenties, he had applied repeatedly to multiple Carthusian and Cistercian communities, and he managed to get rejected or turned away by all of them, some of them more than once. A failure at both ways of living and yet, as Thomas Merton observed, “the only canonized saint, venerated by the whole Church, who has lived either as a Cistercian or a Carthusian since the Middle Ages is St. Benedict Joseph Labre” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 103). A failure by any measure at all, in all things but holiness.
After the last monastery, Benedict wrote a letter to his parents, telling them he was going off to Italy to seek a monastic life there. It was the last they ever heard of him. Shortly after that, he received the inspiration that sent him on his unique calling, a painfully austere life of stringent conformity to the evangelical counsels. For the next six or seven years, he made his way around many of the chief centers of pilgrimage in Western Europe, always on foot, with only the clothes he could wear and with no thought for the morrow. He spent the last six or seven years of his life in Rome. During that whole time, he made no provision of his own for food or shelter, depending abjectly on the providence of God for his most basic needs. He wrote nothing. He gathered no community around him. Indeed, he fled from any show of admiration from those who were occasionally drawn to him. His one occupation was continual prayer and severe penance.
It’s hard not to think of his life as a terrible waste in some sense. Consider how young he was when he set out on his path. Would you have really encouraged him to do it? Would you really encourage your own son or daughter or nephew or niece to do it? Your parishioner or your student? I admit that I would have led the saint astray, had he been mine to mislead: “Well you know, Ben, there are lots of ways to serve God.” (Other ways, lots of them.) Would you really have told him just to pack it in and head out? To really and truly give no thought for the morrow?
That’s right, just hit the road and call on the name of the Lord. Surely you’ll find some hole to sleep in—don’t worry about it! And don’t write! Forget your father and your father’s house, eh? Don’t you ever look back, just keep moving forward. Follow Jesus!
But that is the example of St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
He didn’t just choose a hard life, he was hard on himself. And the severity of his penitence is frankly unsettling. His confessor was unsettled by it. He urged him to fast less strenuously and to eat more. But by the end of his life Benedict looked like a skeleton stretched over with skin. He ate only what was handed out for the poor at a few convents, and not every day. He always chose the worst portion offered. His bowl was cracked so that it could only be partly filled. In everything, he conformed himself to the forsaken, suffering Christ. Poured out like water, a bag of bones, out of joint and aching, the reality of sin (his own and others’) was a terrible weight to him and moved him to undertake the most severe forms of penance:
[T]his was the reason why he hid himself among the multitude of poor beggars: why he chose to be looked on as the outcast of the world; why he chose to cover himself with rags and tatters, instead of garments: why he chose to place a barrier of disgust between himself and the rest of mankind, and disfigured the lineaments of a face naturally amiable and attractive, under an abject and forbidding appearance (Marconi, 106).
He spent most of his time in prayer, much of it kneeling and weeping. Without any doubt at all, his austerities shortened his life. Was it a waste? Was any of it really necessary? If you think of him as your own, isn’t it impossible not to cringe at the thought of his young afflicted body, broken down by his own severity? If you look on him with love, it’s hard not to look away.
But, austere as it was, there is something genuinely extravagant about his life, and I suppose that is the part about it that has always drawn me. Benedict wasn’t a spill. He was an oblation. Unsparing and lavish, he poured himself out. He made of himself a sort of puddle, the sort of puddle made by the anonymous woman memorialized by Christ in the Gospels (Mark 14.9). Obscure and extravagant, a waste, a life poured out for the love of Christ. A costly ointment and a fragrant perfume for the Lord, this stinking bum by any other name—but what must I smell like?
I hate to think of how much time I have wasted in my life. And yet, I admit, when I think of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, or when I hear Jesus’s gospel counsels—don’t think about tomorrow, consider the lilies, the sparrows—I worry about wasting my life, these scarce, numbered days that I have mostly made into nothing. I fear throwing it all away.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre reminds us what we can’t allow ourselves to forget. Jesus tells us to do exactly that—to throw it all away. And nothing less: “Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”” (Matthew 19.21) The words differ a little in Luke’s Gospel, though the sense agrees: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”” (Luke 18.22)
How rare this perfection is! And how many of us fall short of it? How many of us still lack this same one thing? The Gospels agree that the young man didn’t follow Jesus but went away sad instead. It seems that he was simply too rich for his own good. By habit, many of us hearing this gospel today respond with some feeling of vindication. I’m not rich after all, I can congratulate myself. But this thinking misses the point: does it really make me better because I walk away sad over so much less? We may even pity this young man, and Mark adds that Jesus looked at him and loved him (10:21), but we never seem to notice that he is really much better off than we are. He tells the Lord that he had kept all the commandments since his youth. In other words, this young man was more faithful and more perfect than anyone I know. And yet Jesus is also more demanding than anyone I know.
What does the Lord ask? Nothing less than everything. Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Perfection, you seek? Sell everything you have and give it all away! Then, come and follow me. Until you do this, you are lacking, he tells us.
Cue the melancholy music. I will look on you and even love you, but you will still walk away sad. Why aren’t we sad when we hear this story? The disciples drew the right conclusion—Lord, who then can be saved? My God, how much I lack! St. Benedict Joseph Labre didn’t lack this. This young man held nothing back. He followed. At thirty-five, he collapsed and died, used up, poured out, exhausted, and emptied from following Jesus. What a strange sight this perfection is! Secret and novel, it is hard to recognize and unsettling to behold: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19.)
The Lord is wondrous in his saints but sometimes he is hidden there, and the saints themselves can be very hard to see. Sometimes they are even harder to look at. That certainly seems true of this saint, the prodigal youth Benedict Joseph Labre, wasted away in the prime of his life. Used up, worn out, and thrown away for the love of Jesus, he won’t likely draw many of us to run after him. He may even move some us to turn away, to walk away sad. Who then can be saved indeed? But the rich young man in the gospel story didn’t walk away sad because he couldn’t find the Truth he was seeking — he had to walk away sad because he had truly found Him. I am drawn to this youth’s life for the strange extravagance that lit it, his unsparing abandonment of himself to God’s mercy, his total forgetfulness of the morrow. But it also frightens me and it makes me sad. Hard to see and harder to look at, St. Benedict Joseph Labre also pushes me to walk away sad.
But where else could I possibly expect to start?
The featured image is “Prey” (2008) by Garry Knight. The second image is Cavalucci’s painting “San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre.” They are licensed under Creative Commons.
 An English edition was published in 1786. Giuseppi Loreto Marconi, Life of the venerable Benedict Joseph Labre. Together with an appendix, giving an account of several miracles. Translated by James Barnard (1786).
 “This is undoubtedly an extraordinary kind of life; and though it is not proposed to us for our imitation; yet it ought to serve as a spur and encouragement to our zeal in the service of God, and incline us to shake off that sloth, that delicacy and self-love, which we have contracted by being engaged in the station which Providence has placed us” (Marconi, 107).
Caleb, I just read this. Thank you.
Happy new year!