A Cup of Poison

The first monks who tried to live under Benedict’s direction hated his regimen, so much so they plotted to kill their abbot. They put poison in a glass of wine and offered it to Benedict. Before he took it, he blessed it, as was the custom. According to the story told by Pope Gregory I (Benedict’s biographer), when Benedict made the sign of the cross over the wine glass, it shattered, and the wine spilled to the floor.

Benedict, Gregory wrote, “perceived that the glass had in it the drink of death,” called his monks together, said he forgave them, reminded them that he doubted from the beginning whether he was a suitable abbot for them, and concluded, “Go your ways, and seek some other father suitable to your own conditions, for I intend not now to stay any longer amongst you.”

                                                                                                                Christianity Today

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in about 480, as the Roman Empire began to crumble.  The son of a Roman nobleman, he left his home and his studies around the age of 20.  He established about a dozen monastic houses, but is most widely known for founding Monte Cassino, an abbey which to this day remains the mother house of the Benedictine Order.  Benedict died around 547, according to legend while standing in prayer to God.

Benedict is sometimes considered the founder of western monasticism.  The effects of the monastic movement, including the Benedictines, has been enormous. Largely as a result of their patience and painstaking labors, the Holy Scriptures were preserved through the Dark Ages.  They contributed greatly to science, literacy, and culture at a time when all of these were threatened.

As I reflect upon the story above, it seems to me to have a deeper meaning than first appears.  There’s nothing unusual about those of us in the religious life experiencing profound frustration, and even anger, with our brothers and sisters.  (I’m glad to report, however,  that I’m unaware of any conspiracy to poison my Prior or any of the leaders of my Order.)  According to legend, as Benedict made the sign of the Cross over the poisoned cup, it shattered.  It seems to me that the Cross has a remarkable way of breaking through anger and resentment, and that may be the point of this story.

Benedict’s response to that poison cup offers us another insight.  He forgave the brother’s responsible.  He teaches us something terribly important:  having been saved by the Cross, we cannot withhold from others the same forgiveness Christ displayed on the Cross.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

10 responses to “A Cup of Poison

  1. Wow, what a great story! Funny, I’ve been watching old Perry Mason reruns with lots of murders by poison. It’s somewhat funny to imagine monks trying to do the same…I was also thinking of other ways that we poison people- with words, attitudes, even failure to encourage when people are in pain. We’ve got to stop passing the poison, even when they pass it to us!

    • Dear Olive,

      It is a great story, isn’t it?

      I share your conviction that the way we deal with the poisons we encounter offers us a great teaching moment. It’s how we’re formed into disciples.

      Pax et bonum,

      Br. James

  2. such wisdom is wonderful for remembrance of forgiveness as something that needs to stay an active quality, strong enough to break glass….and also to show us that the poison is in not living with and fulfilling the blessings of a life surrendered to purity and to God.

    • My dear Linda,

      I think it falls to each of us, at one time or another, to shatter the glass of hatred that is passed to us. It’s a great challenge, but offers us a new way of living.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  3. I was told years ago that holding onto anger is like taking poison yourself and expecting the other person die. Seems an appropriate view in light of your writings today. Blessings to you.

    • Barbara,

      Yes, I think that’s the nature of anger. It cannot lead to anything beyond its nature, which is a movement away from God and into the darkness. Let’s move another way.

      Pax Christi,

      Br. James

  4. There are all sorts of meanings between the lines here. I like the metaphor of the cross bringing the truth to light and being the way to healing. The cross shattered the poison of hate. Blessing the poison set it free and, in fact, took away its power to harm others. Benedict’s wisdom in letting go instead of trying to remain in control is a good lesson in its own right.

  5. I loved this insight into a man whose life God is still using, so many hundreds of years later. What a reminder that God does not stop using his people just because others do not follow. As the wife of a pastor, I know how discouraging it can be to lead God’s people at times, but what a grace-filled way for Benedict to respond!
    Thanks for this history lesson, that can apply so aptly to our lives today.

    • Carole,

      I think that’s just so: God continues to use His people, regardless of their popularity. I think Benedict has much to teach us all.

      God’s peace on you and your house,

      Br. James

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