Charity: monastic care for the sick
Fr Geoffrey Lynch OSB reflects some aspects of the care of the sick brethren, a topic which St Benedict treats in Chapter 36 of his Rule. Fr Geoffrey has served the community in a wide variety of roles over the years, including as a teacher, secretary to the Abbot, novice master, domestic bursar, superior of a dependent house and parish priest. He is currently resident in the monastery infirmary.
In many ways this chapter shows Benedict at his most considerate in contrast to the approach of the Master, something which is seen in other parts of the two Rules. For the modern monastic community it is an issue of the highest importance. With the population in general living longer and much of the population developing serious and complex illnesses it is to be expected that such a fate will strike in all quarters. In particular, the occurrence of illnesses like dementia, which is especially difficult to nurse, means that most communities will need to seek professional help. Hence the Abbot’s role is especially pastoral and the Infirmarian must be particularly experienced.
Benedict bases his teaching on the Scriptures; ‘What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me.’ Matt 25:40 This applies to all the Community however fearful they may be of sickness, and many are. We are in an age when all are required to face the common future and offer their support. Now that I am a disabled person without a leg it is born in on me in a very direct way. I recognize the support I get from the brethren and I appreciate the care that the staff give in so many different ways; patience is the prime virtue that I have to have and which is the secret of a happy and fruitful old age. I am now 86 and live in hope of more to come.
One needs to remark that for the monk his prayer-life will have to adapt as his illness progresses. We have at Ampleforth a link to the Choir so that we can follow the Office through headphones. I have seen some years ago variants of this with Television transmission, but I am personally more satisfied by sound alone. For some prayer becomes very short and fragmented at the end.
For the nursing staff it helps greatly if they are Catholic because they are involved in assisting the frail when they attend Mass in the Infirmary Chapel. Some staff even become Catholic after a period of time and reinforce the shared faith. Nursing staff are also people who attend the dying even though the community may watch the dying hours.
The separate room which St Benedict talks about is now something verging on a small hospital for large communities with permanent staff. Such demands should be set alongside the very real attraction for charitable giving that such projects can be supported with.