For me, one of the great pleasures of living at Holy Wisdom is its library. I often wander through the stacks, overflowing with titles that promise wisdom and spiritual riches to readers, futilely wishing that I had another several lifetimes to read them all.
Recently, I found a treasure trove in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (Part Two)— a 6th century record of 36 short anecdotes highlighting Benedict’s miracles and holy life as retold by his own monks. Although I’ve spent the last nine months as a Benedictine Sojourner at Holy Wisdom, these narratives offer a fresh revelation of the man behind the Rule that shapes this monastery. They paint a vivid spiritual portrait of Benedict as a pastoral figure whose Christianity compelled him to welcome and encourage all sorts of people with remarkable sensitivity and kindness.
One story, in particular, tells of a young monk who was ordered to clear thorns from a patch of ground beside a deep lake for a future garden. Hacking at the dense undergrowth with a scythe, he failed to notice that the heavy iron blade had loosened from its handle until the moment when it tore free and flew into the middle of the lake, disappearing with a loud splash. He gazed hopelessly at the far distance where ripples spread. The scythe was a valuable tool, and the Rule clearly stated that “anyone who handled the monastery’s property negligently or carelessly should be reproved.” The distraught monk began to panic. Inside, a litany of self-condemnation, how could he have been so sloppy? If only he had been more careful!
The monk was a Goth, from a warring pagan tribe that was attacking Italy in Benedict’s day. Leaving his former brutal life behind, the Goth had come a long way to seek refuge and acceptance at the monastery. Despite likely concerns about his suitability for religious life, Benedict received the Goth and brought him into community. He was an outsider, a foreigner, illiterate and with a background that was probably steeped in violence. Accustomed to being punished summarily for mistakes, the monk was in agony: what would Abba Benedict do with him?
According to the story, when Benedict learns of the Goth’s distress, he goes personally to the lake to stand beside the trembling man. Instead of berating him, Benedict gently asks for the tool handle that the monk is still clutching tightly. The monk cringes with fear, bracing for a beating, as Benedict raises the wooden handle–and dips it into the water at the lake’s edge. Astonished, the Goth sees the iron blade now bob to the water’s surface, glide back to shore and miraculously reattach itself to the tool handle in Benedict’s hand. Comforting the monk, Benedict says: “All is well. Here is your tool. Go back to work and don’t be sad anymore.”
What is most miraculous to me about this story is not that Benedict could make iron float, but his compassionate and gentle response to the young monk’s wretchedness. Benedict does not summon the terrified Goth to his quarters or send someone else to deal with the problem; he goes to the shore, standing with someone afraid of punishment, and finds a way to comfort and restore him.
This story also hints to me of the hard-earned lessons and diverse experiences that form the basis for the Rule. The monastery attracted all kinds of people, with all kinds of wounds. No wonder Benedict stressed the pastoral qualities of the abbot’s work, which is: “directing souls and serving a variety of temperaments, coaxing, reproving and encouraging as appropriate.” (Rule of Benedict 2:31) This is not one-size-fits-all leadership. Benedict stands out in Gregory’s stories as a model pastor for the ages, Christ-like in sensitivity and always ready to respond to the needs of the individual.
I know I have a lot in common with that young Goth who was in many ways, an improbable candidate for the monastery—but who Abba Benedict took a chance on. Like him, I came to Holy Wisdom an “outsider:” I hail from the East Coast, a woman of immigrant South Indian descent with protestant and evangelical roots, steeped in urban city life. I share the young Goth’s tendency to perfectionism. His reluctance to forgive himself when he makes mistakes and his expectation of punishment instead of mercy or help all sound familiar to me. Perhaps this is why the Goth’s story ministers so directly to me and why, nearly 1,500 years after the story was told, I celebrate the ongoing miracle of Abba Benedict’s generous welcome, acceptance and encouragement today – as a Benedictine Sojourner at Holy Wisdom Monastery.
Note: The inspiration for this blog comes primarily from my reading of Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict (New York: Paraclete Press, 2006). It is a vivid, contemporary retelling of the stories contained in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, along with helpful historical context and commentary. If you’re curious about the original tales, you can also read them here: http://www.osb.org/gen/greg/
Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts: Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey
Follow this link to: Learn about new books in the monastery library.