Tag Archives: monasticism

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

The Cost We Will Pay

Observe, admire and obey may be given as the novice’s watchwords.  The ideal must not remain an ideal, but has to be realized at whatever the cost.  The cost is heroism.

–St. John Cassian

I found this observation from St. John Cassian in Celtic Daily Prayer.  It spoke to me for a number of reasons.  Today, I will leave for Louisiana for a meeting of my house within the Anglican Order of Preachers (the Dominicans).  Most folks consider Cassian the father of monasticism in the West.  So, in a broad sense, as my brothers and sisters gather, we meet in imitation of Abba Cassian.

In this little passage, St. Cassian gives advice to those who are novices in a religious order.  In most religious orders today, one begins the process of discerning whether one has a vocation as a postulant.  After some period of study, reflection, prayer and a goodly amount of questioning, one can request to become a novice.  Novices have been admitted to a specific religious order as “beginners” and will generally remain novices for at least a year or two.

Cassian suggests that novices are called to: (1) observe; (2) admire; and (3) obey. In other words, they are learning how to follow and imitate their brothers and sisters.  In an even broader sense, all monastics and all Christians are called into the imitation of our rabbi, Jesus Christ.  While we all seek to imitate our Lord, we should not be surprised that others along the same path may arrive at a different place.  As Thomas a Kempis (wrote The Imitation of Christ) observed, “A book has but one voice, but it does not instruct everyone alike.”

Cassian warns that our ideals must not remain ideals; we must bring them to fruition.  It will not suffice to say we follow Christ; we must become Christ-like (a process our Orthodox brothers and sisters call theosis).  As I’ve observed before, the Christian life is not a spectator sport.

Cassian also warns us that this effort carries a significant price:  “The cost is heroism.”  Jesus calls us to set aside our insecurities, our self-doubts, and even our inadequacies.  We must be prepared to face epic failure as we stumble, struggle and stutter our way into our new life in Christ.  Jesus called those who are willing to pay that price his friends; He called them disciples.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis