No Condolences Yet, Please

This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.

A Herefordshire oak seen from the monastery
An old battered oak not far from the monastery

Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning. 

On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.

But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.

But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.

Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?

I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.

Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener. 

I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life.  A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.

So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.

When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.

My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.

*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.

P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!

Audio version

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Worry and St Cyril of Alexandria

Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in  later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.

I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.

I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.

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Anxiety

Anxiety is difficult to live with. The worry, the uncertainty, the general nervousness about an outcome affect us in different ways, but the Latin root of anxiety (anxius from angere, to choke) suggests that tightening of the chest and stomach muscles with which all of us are familiar. Anxiety makes us clench. It is quite the opposite of trust, which opens us out. No wonder that anxiety is a great hindrance to prayer, keeping us centred on self, or if not self, then on the concerns that occupy our waking hours. It is so wearing!

There is only one remedy I know of: a deliberate, willed surrender to the Father of every hope and fear, a surrender we need to make again and again. Every night at Compline we sing, ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ That echo of Jesus’ last words on the Cross is not accidental. The Benedictine motto, pax or ‘peace’, is always surrounded by a crown of thorns. Only through union with Christ can we attain a peace the world does not give. It doesn’t make our worries any less; it doesn’t produce magic solutions to our problems; but it does give us the strength to bear them — not our strength but his. The trouble is, most of us are not really convinced of that. We want to deal with things our way, so we go on worrying and fretting and digging deeper holes for ourselves, feeling more and more of a ‘failure’ as we go on. When that happens, there really is only one way out: to call God down to the depth of our need. ‘The Everlasting God is your dwelling-place and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ Trust him.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail