Carl McColman: "I Felt Like Poisoning a Monk"

Taken with permission from

When asked why he wrote The Name of the Rose, the phenomenally popular (although dense and complex) mystery novel set in a fourteenth century Benedictine Abbey, Umberto Eco is supposed to have said: "I felt like poisoning a monk." But long before Venantius of Salvemec and Berengar of Arundel succumbed to the literary toxins found in Eco's mysterious book, another, very real monk almost fell prey to his own encounter with poison: none other than Benedict of Nursia, now universally recognized as the greatest abbot in European monasticism.

A number of monastic traditions, such as the Benedictines, the Camaldolese, the Sylvestrines, and the Cistercians (including the Trappists), all follow the Rule of Saint Benedict as their guide for living out the Christian life. None of those orders can truly or fully be understood without recognizing the importance of Benedict's teachings, which cover how monasteries should be organized, the responsibilities of the abbot and other leaders, the virtues and spirituality necessary for the religious life, and advice on how to structure the monastery's daily prayers. But if the story of Benedict's life, as recounted by Pope Gregory the Great, is to be believed, then this great monastic teacher almost didn't live to write his spiritual masterpiece- in his first monastery, the monks tried to poison him.

According to his biography, when Benedict first sought to give his life entirely to God, he sought out solitude, retreating to the Cave of Subiaco where he lived a hermit's life for several years. But as his reputation for being a holy man spread, eventually other monks came to him, begging him to be their spiritual father (abbot). Benedict agreed, but this must not have been a particularly happy arrangement. Eventually the monks tried to get rid of him, first by serving him a poisoned cup of wine; but he prayed a blessing over it and the cup shattered. They tried again with poisoned bread, but again, Benedict's blessing had a miraculous result: a raven flew in, grabbed the poisoned bread, and flew off (I only hope the bird was immune to the toxin!)

Okay, so this story is most assuredly legendary; a hagiographical tale meant to highlight Benedict's holiness and miracle-working more than to reveal actual events from his life. But I rather wonder if-even without a shattering vessel or bread-stealing raven-there might have been a crisis in Benedict's life where his fellow monks wanted to get rid of him. After all, this speaks not only to how wicked those monks were, but how human they were-and Benedict, as well.

"People think we're monks because we're so holy, but that's not true," a Trappist Brother once confided in me. "We are monks because we're not holy, and we need the help of the monastic life to sanctify us!" It was a helpful insight for me. I'm reminded of my exchange with another monk, almost six years ago, who asked me if I had considered becoming a Lay Cistercian. I demurred, saying I didn't think I was qualified to do so. "What do you mean?" he gruffly replied. "The only requirement is that you're a sinner!"

If Benedict's monks really were guilty of attempted murder, it probably happened either because Benedict was too holy for them and they resented his piety, or (and I suspect this may be closer to the truth) he was a perfectly horrid abbot, and his would-be assassins basically acted in self-defense. Thankfully, he neither drank nor ate. Deducing that he was no longer wanted at this monastery, he retreated into solitude. But later in life he gave the communal life another try, and this time succeeded marvelously, eventually writing his great spiritual rule.

Even after almost 1500 years, the Rule of Saint Benedict is remarkable for how balanced, reasonable, flexible, and psychologically savvy it is. It's a product of its age, of course, and so no monastery today would try to follow it to the letter. But the overall spirit of the text is marked by humility and common sense. Benedict clearly learned a thing or two after his brush with poison. And those of us who wish to learn from his wisdom, whether inside or outside cloisters of our own, can find no better place to start than by seeking to shape our own contemplative journey in terms of flexibility, reasonability, humility, and common sense.