by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
February 4, 2002
ELDERLY MONKS ARE BROTHERS' KEEPERS
SAN DIEGO -- Abbot Claude at Prince of Peace Monastery is 93 years old. Besides one fall a couple of years ago which broke his nose and put out some teeth he is in good health. I met him several years ago when he called me after an article of mine ran in the paper. He and Abbot Basil were impressed and invited me to their Oceanside quarters for a benediction.
I had a few assumptions: I assumed that the community of Benedictine monks he is a part of is mostly aged, and that as suchwas mostly stricken with ailments familiar to the infirm elderly. I was wrong on both counts. During the first part of the visit, over coffee and pan dulce, I asked Abbot Claude how they handle things when the brothers get sick. As an armchair sociologist, I wanted to compare aging in this group of people to my experience of it in the secular world. Affably, he answered and changed the subject. I asked again in a different way. "When the brothers go to the hospital are they able to come back home here and, well, live until they die?" I wanted to know if they were able to attend to members who were, because of prolonged illness, frail and dependent for care. He still acted as if it were an infrequent occurrence. I kept pressing the matter. Finally, with the patience of a man who'd dealt with the impertinence of many a green-horned novice, he offered to show me the infirmary. We took the path through the calla lilies into the cloistered monastery. We made our way through dark halls that smelled like incense and old books. The infirmary seemed deserted. Abbot Claude showed me three rooms, which were obviously rarely used and sparsely furnished. I kept asking about who was here to take care of the brothers when they were sick. The answer was typically vague, "Family or friends of the community." "But what if you needed a nurse?" My unsanctified need to know was showing itself desperate. "Well, the Abbot said, "when I fell and broke my nose there was a nurse here on retreat that night and she took care of me." Finally giving up at the impossibility of making sickness a big issue, I said, "Maybe she was an angel." I could see his eyes twinkle even in the half-light of the hallway. What I later discovered, once I'd seen the whole community of black-robed and sandaled men assembled at Mass (on previous visits I'd only seen a few individual monks meandering the grounds), was a community of mostly bearded, robust men with only a handful of them sporting silver hair. In Benedictine tradition, the men who come here to live, work and pray together will not leave. There is a permanence and deep serenity in belonging to a place, a people and a tradition that is anchored to things eternal. Here even time and space are sacramental. Here, age doesn't seem to be important. Elevating purpose and value continue to be assigned each brother no matter what their stage of life. There are no cast aways; none who are less important based on level of production or material worth. They do simple but grand things like study theology and take care of bees. They pollinate the rest of the world with their daily prayers and constant generosity. In this small monastic city overlooking the Pacific there is such an elegant simplicity and natural vitality that sickness, rather than being the defining reality of aging, seems ephemeral. The stark contrast with what I see most everyday is breathtaking. So many old men and women alone, frightened, neglected. So many lack the security and warmth of human community. Some just try the best they can to be brave and tough it out. Some spend their life savings trying to find belonging in retirement homes. A few get lucky but most are crushed by disappointment and give up incrementally, every day in small invisible ways. To those I am called. They cannot seem to find the hive so I try to bring the life-giving substance of the hive to them. They make my life infinitely sweeter in return. I like to think of it as communion.
Cindy Hasz is a nurse and writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org