This is a story about Benedict and risk and holy anger and the poor. In this story the world intrudes on the monastery with awful directness. It is a time of crop failures, famine, and social breakdown. The poor, caught on arid land, are keenly affected. With no goods to barter, no harvest to sell, no staples to sustain them, honest and hardworking people are reduced to begging. It is a painful time, even for those of social station.
One of them, the subdeacon Agapitus, in a state of desperation apparently, turns to Benedict’s monastery for help. And Benedict, overcome with pity, orders the monastery’s business manager or cellarer to give him the very last vial of the monastery’s oil, a staple and necessity of the day. But the cellarer, an efficient and sensible man, aware of the impact that action could have on the monastery itself, did not do it. When Benedict, a charismatic visionary, realized what had happened, he became very angry. He called the cellarer to his room, took the vial of oil out of his hands, and, in the sight of the entire monastic community, ordered another monk to throw the vial out the monastery window. Then, point made, Benedict had the unbroken vial brought back and given to Agapitus. Benedict rebuked the cellarer in front of the community, knelt down, and began to pray. Suddenly, an empty oil-cask in the room began to fill with oil, overflowed the rim, and covered the floor.
It is a stark and shocking scene and it says a great deal to our times:
It says there are values beyond security and good sense.
It says anger is an instrument of God.
It says everything we have belongs to the poor.
It says the challenge of leadership is to lead us to live beyond ourselves.
It says that those who give to others will be filled themselves with whatever things they need.