This afternoon, Wednesday, 23 November, we celebrated the Anointing of the Infirm, the entire community together, after Midday Prayer. We were primarily celebrating the Sacrament now to mark Fr. Robert’s completion of ten radiation treatments over the past two weeks; the radiation was to deal with cancer cells in his brain. Three other members of the community, Fr. Paschal, Br. Efrain and Fr. James, were also anointed for chronic conditions.
Abbot Joseph presided at the celebration, a simple, dignified domestic celebration. Fr. Vincent proclaim the Gospel, from Saint Luke’s account about the disciples of John asking Jesus whether he was the One to come or should they wait for another. It’s a poignant moment in the Gospel. The Baptist is already imprisoned awaiting Herod’s pleasure; perhaps he’s wondering about his own ministry, how much he had fulfilled the mission granted him. Jesus responds to the inquiry by pointing out that the blind are given sight, the lame walk, the sick are healed and the poor have the Good News preached to them.
It struck me that the poor having the Good News preached to them fits under Luke’s introductory description of Jesus healing activity. It really is, when you think about it, especially in Jesus’ historical context: the poor where very poor under the Roman occupation. The Roman Empire had succeeded is disrupting the tribal system that allowed Jews to take care of their own on the margins of society. The marginal people could not keep their heads above water and became outcasts, and so indigent that they could not afford to keep the finer points of religious observance, ritual purity or dietary conventions. They were “unchurched.” To bring the Good news to them was religiously and socially healing, re-integrating them into the fold.
But it’s also a kind of a key to what we were celebrating. They didn’t cease to be poor; their “chronic condition” didn’t change. It’s not unlike the distinction between “curing an illness” and “healing a person.” None of us anointed today would be cured of our chronic conditions; but the anointing could contribute to our healing, our full integration, whatever state we are in, into the common life. Four very different monks were held in the community’s celebration of the Sacrament in one hope, in the same abandonment to divine providence.
I think that aspect of healing was evident in what followed. Abbot Joseph gave Fr. Robert the opportunity to address the community about his condition. Fr. Vincent had prepared four questions to guide and structure his remarks. The first he responded to was, What can we–the monastic community–do for you now and in the future? He answered, “I’m already learning to ask for help and that’s important for me.” His other response was, “Be there for me.” To the questions, Has your understanding of monastic living changed since your diagnosis? and How has your monastic vocation prepared you for this moment?, his answers reflected the same experience. No, his understanding hasn’t changed; everything in St. Benedict’s wisdom seems to lead up to this moment, leads to that trust in God and divine providence to face this end, this goal. He quipped, “Looking back over the past fifty-five years, I though I might trace out those events–but then I thought, nah! But it has all been a preparation.” The final question asked, Having helped so many of your brothers to their end, how has that changed you? He said, he didn’t help any of them; he was just there walking with them. You have to understand that during his years as Abbot, Fr. Robert buried so many of our ancients now in our cemetery and spent so many hours with them as their death approached. “All of them, from Br. Anthony who was simply professed when he died, to the eldest after over sixty years of monastic life, all of them were complete lives, complete vocations. Living this way of life brought them there.”
Our Prior, Br. Efrain observed at that point, “But you were present to them and that’s important.” And I couldn’t compose a better last sentence than that.