Dom Guerric Baudet, OCSO
Former Abbot of Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Belgium)
What paths to healing can monastic communities offer to their own sick members?
A few moments of reflection suffice to raise the question whether healing and saving are the appropriate concepts for the occupants of a monastic infirmary. Anyone who has had the chance (rare except for medical staff, a canonical visitor or a passing monk or nun) of penetrating into a monastic infirmary will immediately see that the occupants will never be cured of their illness nor saved from a fairly closely impending death. When all is said and done, they are lodged and cared for there precisely because their sickness or the prospect of a not very distant end to their earthly life has brought them there. Like all their fellow human beings, the sickness, the infirmities and advancing age will lead them inevitably, and more or less rapidly, to death.
In this case should the verbs ‘heal’ and ‘save’ be banned from the territory of monastic infirmaries? However, the monks and nuns, in their sickness, their old age, and their death still continue to share with their fellows everywhere all the characteristics of men and women, just as they have always tried to do by their prayer and the offering of their lives throughout their existence. So the infirmary remains the place where the dynamic of their monastic life is to be lived out, and this dynamic is above all one of healing and saving.
In the first words of the Prologue to his Rule St Benedict invites those who wish to follow the Lord in monastic life to make their existence a return to God through an obedience which he foresees will be laborious. When he comes to the chapter devoted to the sick he exhorts the brothers to moderate their demands on their patients, and so in some way not to abandon this labour of obedience which characterizes their life. Let us be frank about this concept of obedience. It is much broader than simply obedience to the abbot or the mutual obedience recommended in chapter 72 on ‘good zeal’. It signifies the basic attitude of all life according to the gospel, which aims are reproducing the obedience of Christ to his Father, imitating Christ’s total ‘Yes’ to the will of the Father (cf. 2 Corinthians 1.19). At the time of his profession the monk makes ‘a promise about his stability, his practice of monastic life and obedience’ (RB 58). Thus he engages himself to mobilize all his energies, animated by grace, to commit himself to healing and saving his condition as a sinner. He knows that in living this out he draws his fellows along the same path, since no man is an island, but is bound to all men and women created by God and saved by him.
Fundamentally, therefore, the dynamic of the brother or sister who becomes an inhabitant of the infirmary is exactly the same as that which he or she has always lived. Perhaps it is a paradox that, as human resources become more and more limited, so this dynamic becomes more and more intense. In fact, however, we realize that to live an abandonment, an acceptance of things as they are, God has given us no choice: on the contrary, God has placed us in the most favourable of all situations. The Chosen People in the Old Testament returns to God with all its heart (and normally only for a limited period!) only when the crisis into which its rebellions have plunged it have reached an impasse, and sincere conversion is the only way out. The situation of relative or total dependency which brings the brother or sister to the infirmary plays the part of creating a perfect situation of abandonment, of letting go, of profound conversion of the heart in the broadest sense. In every case we see that the brother who takes up residence in the infirmary remains the same but becomes different. He truly lives a healing and a salvation, if only by accepting his new condition of life, his more or less complete dependence for the details of daily living, no matter how banal they may be. To need someone to prepare for you the right pages for the Office cures you of any sallies of independence and saves you, if necessary, from any selfsufficiency! Therefore the monastic community offers a perfect framework of life, without allowing the person to be swamped by the limits which have become his. At the same time it gives him sufficient help to continue to remain true to himself and his characteristic way of behaving.
This is not all, for community life is the ideal place for living out the communion of saints. The particular way in which healing and salvation work out for the sick or weak brother spreads to his surroundings. Barriers collapse, relationships change and become in some way more familial, freed from a certain protocol and a certain reticence which in community life are necessary to keep the right distance between brothers. Finding that his dependence has put him in a different position, the brother increasingly opens himself to those around him and especially to the brother in charge of the infirmary, alert to what is said and lived around him. Relationships become more profound, indeed more intimate, though still respecting the personal mystery of each individual. A complicity is established and flourishes between the one who is cared for and those who care for him. Precisely there, one can say that the fraternal relationship is healed and saved. The relationship of brothers who had difficulty in feeling in communion with one another becomes different as they meet at a different level. Explicit or implicit forgiveness is given and accepted. The joy of truly lived fraternal communion is expressed without great fanfares but in simple smiles and glances which speak volumes. In the relationship which it establishes and lives with the sick and elderly brothers, the community heals and saves in deepest fraternal communion. Every monastery can recount examples of final moments of life which have been occasions of great grace for community unity and great spiritual depth. The passing of an individual to Life becomes a Passover for all, a leap of resurrection which all share and build upon at the most intimate level as a key moment in their monastic life. An exchange with a brother who knows that he is at the end of life and who is awaiting the Lord in patience remains a foundational element for all those who have lived this experience.
Mention must also be made of the case of a brother whose state of health requires placement in a specialized institution. The community link remains, even though concretely differently expressed, mostly by visits, letters, occasionally by a return to the monastery for a festival or jubilee, and so on. For the community this situation can be difficult to accept; feelings of guilt must be dealt with; the separation must be accepted in a dynamic of faith which takes us out of ourselves. This dynamic is all the more necessary when we are accompanying a brother, within the monastery or outside it, who is losing his mental faculties. Some 25 years ago a Benedictine monastery wrote on the necrology notice of one of its members, ‘The final years of his life marked a mystery of disfigurement, and now he lives a mystery of Transfiguration.’ The brother whose human dignity was diminished by sickness allows his brothers to heal and save their faith by obliging them to make it more profound. He gives them the interior gift of opening themselves to the mystery of salvation which restores every human being to the perfect image of God.
To conclude, the way monastic communities live their relationship to sickness and advancing age, the way in which they organize the life of those sick members within the framework of the community infirmary, allows them to continue and in some way complete the path of healing and saving on which they embarked in responding to the call of the Lord and making monastic profession – a task which only God can truly complete. According to the Lord’s promise, whoever gives, receives a hundredfold. The same is true of monastic communities: in each of their members they receive this same grace of healing and salvation which comes to them from their sick brothers and sisters, enabling them to travel whatever stage of the journey is theirs at the present moment. ‘Carry one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2).