In many ways the Abbot assigning me a room across from Br. Benedict in the infirmary wing has served as both a standing joke and a blessing. It was somewhat of a standing joke with Brother Benedict who would wonder out loud to me occasionally that there had to be a message in the placement of my bed in this part of the monastery.
But for me it was the blessing part that mattered the most. For I was across from the holy Br. Benedict who brought such grace and love and compassion to everything he did. Including his conversations with me. I was blessed to see him as much if not more than others. When I came to the monastery one question for me was always ‘how would Benedict be today?’ And I always felt such joy when he was doing well and could talk to me and encourage me and show me he cared about me.
We talked a lot because I was trying to pick up where he had left off in fund raising for the community. He knew everybody…and I mean everybody, both in the monastery and without…and he was never shy to add a personal note to a letter I had drafted or give me advice about what a donor liked or didn’t like, would respond to or wouldn’t respond to. He helped me every step of the way. And though I have been in the business of raising money for over 30 years, in the short two years I knew him I learned more than I had in the previous 28. (I regret that I received news of the results of our fund raising last year after Benedict died. He would have beamed to hear me tell him we had been blessed by our donors with a record year in gifts to the monastery.)
My unique experience with him actually took place the day he died. I had been busy with other work when I heard he was failing so had to figure out how to get to the monastery to see him, just in case. So it was last Thursday in the afternoon, after clearing my calendar of other stuff, I made my way to Berryville. My usual anticipation of coming to the house was heightened by the concern about my friend.
Walking across the lawn from the parking lot through the cloister my cell phone rang. It was someone Benedict and I both knew, Esther de Waal. I immediately flashed back to a visit Esther had made to the monastery last year. Esther came to the monastery for mid-day prayer and to see Benedict. Again, as usual, Benedict knew this great writer and laywoman who had made such a name for herself writing about monasticism and especially Cistercian monasticism from the lay point of view. After mid-day prayer I took her back to Benedict’s room where they greeted each other as if they were the oldest of friends, which, in many ways, they were. After staying for a few minutes it was clear to me they preferred to have time alone and I slipped out to my office on the other side of the monastery.
On the way home with Esther she told me she had had a wonderful visit and then told me a typical Br. Benedict story. She said that when she asked him what it felt like to come home from hospice he had responded “mildly disappointed.” Esther laughed out loud with Benedict and did so again with me as she told me the story.
That was Benedict. That was this devout monk who didn’t fear death because it would take him to that place that all of us know is better than anyplace else.
And here, out of the blue, a full year later, as I walked across the lawn to see Benedict, was Esther calling me, as I went in to the monastery to inquire about Brother Benedict’s health.
Chills to say the least.
At Vespers that evening as I sat quietly before the Office began, I thought of the coincidence of that call. And, of course, later, as my friend died in the room across the hall from me I remembered again and reflected on how great the Holy Spirit is and how there are no coincidences.
I will leave it to others perhaps to write about Benedict’s last few hours and time. I can tell you one story that backs up my belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Benedict was failing very quickly around 7:30 pm. We were in the church at Compline at that time, just when it became critical. Father Robert had prepared for Benedict’s passing, leaving his breviary with the necessary prayers for that circumstance in Benedict’s room. But, of course, he knew nothing of the speed with which Benedict was failing because he was in church.
But it was also at that time that Father Damian the Abbot of Spencer, who was here for a meeting, chose to visit Benedict and thus was in the right place at the right time to conduct the Prayers for the Dying. As we came out of church, there was a small group of his friends in and around his room, and the beautiful prayers for the dying were coming from his room, thanks to Father Damian.
Of the many conversations I have had with others about Benedict since his passing, I think one person summed him up better than any other. She said, ‘with Benedict all of us felt like we were his one special friend. We all felt like he loved us the most.’
Oh how true. Our Brother Benedict had that special way about him that when he looked at you and asked ‘how are you doing,’ he meant it. He really wanted to know. And he was the one who left the little note in my mailbox to say congratulations on a gift we got, or for the Monastic Immersion Weekend, or any other number of things we had going on. (After the Monastic Immersion Weekend he stopped me in the hall and looked me in the eye and said “we ain’t dead yet.”)
RIP friend. And thank you for the blessing of a friendship, albeit short, that has changed my life and will stay with me forever.