Although I don’t get to do much of the physical caring of the sick myself, and I would be pretty hopeless at it not being a particularly practical person, nevertheless I can say that ever since I became abbot, the highlight for me has always been spending time with the sick and the dying. I have learnt so much from them, for they have taught me how to approach death with serenity and confidence, trusting in the Lord and accepting death without fear as God’s gift. In his latter days, Fr Wulstan would often say how he longed to go to heaven to be with his Lord and Saviour. The important lesson I have learnt from Fr Wulstan, and from all our brethren who have gone before us, is the joy not only of living the monastic life but of dying as a monk. And what a joy it must be to be loved and served to the end by our brethren and to die in their presence, comforted by their prayers.
Now St Benedict has words of wisdom not only for the carers but also for the sick themselves. They must “keep in mind that they are served out of honour for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them.” I know that when we are unwell, especially when we see our faculties diminishing and our strength failing, we become more and more dependant on others. Our very helplessness naturally makes us more demanding and, when our demands are not met, we can become frustrated and angry. I remember such moments in the hospital at Thessaloniki and in Hereford too. In a flash I would became radically self-centred and forget that there were other patients to be cared for and that, of course, I could wait until a nurse or assistant were free. Sickness and old age can free us to become more centred on God, and we pray that this will always be the case, but at times we confess that we can also become more self-centred and obsessed with our own needs, real or imagined. I don’t mean this as a criticism of anyone else: I am simply talking of my own experience as a patient!
Nevertheless, “sick brothers must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward.” I’ve often wondered, reading that, if there can be greater and lesser rewards in heaven. What’s the difference between being Blessed and Saint? Perhaps, St Benedict is talking about work satisfaction in this life, that feeling of contentment and fulfilment at a job well done and appreciated by others. I don’t know about the reward, but one thing is clear: you need patience to bear with the sick, you need patience to bear with yourself and you need patience to bear with everyone else. That’s why St Benedict talks so often of that necessary virtue if we are to persevere in the monastic life, reminding us that the root of the word lies in the verb “patior”, to suffer, from which derives also passion, in the sense of salvific suffering, the Cross and Passion of Christ and of each one of us in Christ. If being sick can be a cross, so too can serving the sick, but Christ calls us to walk the Way of the Cross, which is the only road to salvation. At the end of the first paragraph, St Benedict hammers home the point he’s making. “Consequently, the abbot should be extremely careful that they suffer no neglect.” It is precisely because the sick can be a burden that the abbot has to be extremely careful that they suffer no neglect, and that goes for each one of us. We must all make sure that the sick are not neglected. No one can wipe his hands of this duty, yet it’s so easy to stand back and let others do what we don’t want to do ourselves.
The strong point, indeed the beauty of the Belmont Community is that at times such as these we really lift ourselves high and become an icon of the Body of Christ, powerfully united, cohesive, and Christ-like in our care for the sick, our support of the dying and our prayer for the dead. It is at times such as these that we glimpse and experience what it really means to be a Benedictine community, a community of brothers, who love one another in Christ and as Christ. Herein lies our strength as a community: together we experience moments like the Transfiguration when we truly function as the Body of Christ and see, like the disciples in the Gospel, “Jesus only” in our brethren as we live out our shared vocation of what God wants and calls us to be. We cease to be individual monks, each seeking his own salvation, and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we forge that coenobitic unity in our service and love of a sick and dying brother. We become united to one another in Christ for the glory of God and for our common salvation. We remember that St Benedict concludes Chapter 72 with the words, “and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
Like all monastic communities we have our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. There are times when everything seems to fall apart and yet there are also times, there truly are, when everything comes together and for a moment we form part of that vision of beauty and grace which is the Kingdom of God. On the one hand, these moments, when we seem to contemplate that life in Christ to which we are called, are entirely God’s gift, yet on the other, we contribute to them by our total self-giving and our focussing on Christ, who, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is in each one of us drawing us into the heart of the mystery of God, He who is. To him be all glory, honour and power, now and forever. Ame