The young man’s question hung uncomfortably between us.
It was my first Saturday away from the monastery. I and another Benedictine Sojourner had decided to go into downtown Madison to check out the famed Dane County Farmer’s Market that sprawls around the Capitol building. We had spent hours exploring streets thronged with shoppers, lined with fresh produce and flowers. Lingering in one of the many coffee shops along State Street to celebrate the end of our day, we rationed our time carefully, calculating the number of minutes to reach our parking spot and make it back to the monastery for evening prayer.
“Can you help me?” he asked softly, halting my steps.
Halfheartedly, my hands fumbled in the general direction of my wallet. An automatic gesture borne of years of travelling on subways and New York City streets where my small change had gone into a separate coin purse for just this situation. In my first year as a public defender, a mentor at the Legal Aid Society shared that she kept a second bag with a weekly personal allowance for spontaneous generosity. We weren’t paid much as public defenders, she said, but this practice helped her give with joy rather than guilt. Her approach resonated with me. For many years, I adopted her practice and found it prepared me to give more freely.
But I hadn’t prepared this time. I was new to Madison, and I hadn’t given any thought to encountering someone else’s need that day. As I reached for my wallet, my heart sunk guiltily knowing that I had spent all my small bills at the coffee shop minutes ago. I had only a $20 left, which I was unwilling to part with.
Shaking my head, I dropped my gaze and without a word, hurried toward the car. Internally, a litany of self-justification: I didn’t have anything to give, there was nothing I could really do, we were running late for evening prayer.
At prayer, I could not concentrate. I burned with remorse, but was unsure of what I might have done differently. That night, noticing my troubled silence in the kitchen, someone asked what was wrong. As my story tumbled out, one sojourner posed a question to Sister Lynne: what would Benedict have done?
Pausing reflectively, Sister Lynne reminded us the monastery historically sheltered the homeless traveler, offering welcome, food and even medical care. (Miserably, I contrasted my own uncharitable response that afternoon.) But, she continued, we might find guidance in a surprising section of the Rule of Benedict, “Qualifications of the Cellarer:”
…Above all, let her be humble.
If goods are not available to meet a request,
she will offer a kind word in reply. (RB 31:13)
In Benedict’s community the Cellarer was in charge of everything the monastery had. She had great responsibility and authority, not only in the fair distribution of all the monastery’s goods—but for the care and dignity of all persons. Thus, Benedict’s command that even when she had nothing to give, she was to offer a kind word, humbly and sensitively, respecting each person’s vulnerability.
As we stood in the kitchen that night, I saw that neither emptying my wallet to give out of guilt or silently walking away were adequate responses. When that young man asked if I could help him, I was called to offer him my full attention, with humility and respect—in short, “a kind word.” I had missed the mark that afternoon.
But thanks to that lesson in the kitchen, Benedict showed me a better way.
Follow this link to read earlier posts in Rosy’s blog: A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey