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Let him remember his own frailty

An excerpt from BRUISED REEDS And Other Stories by Alfred H. Deutsch, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Saint John's University Press, 1971), pp. 108-118. Copyright © 1971 by The Order of Saint Benedict, Inc.

Chapter 11

Let him remember his own frailty

Little bands of geometric light coming through the partially closed Venetian blinds crossed the ceiling of the room, quiet but for the hum of an electric fan and the hiccoughs that came at ten-second intervals from the little figure lying in the bed. Abbot Martin lay quietly in the hospital bed, except for the hiccoughs that raised the covers over the rounded paunch; an occasional snore signaled the Sister sitting in the corner chair that the sedative was wearing off.

A gentle knock shifted her attention from her spiritual reading to the door which was quietly opening. She set the book aside and rose to greet the Prior, who entered the sickroom with the characteristic awkwardness of a man unfamiliar with the routines of a hospital. In his hand he carried a small bundle of letters which he tried to hide behind his back. "Good afternoon, Sister. How is Father Abbot?"

She returned his greeting with a quiet smile and gently led him from the room, closing the door partially behind her. "Good afternoon, Father. He's been sleeping quite well for the past seven hours, and despite those hiccoughs, he seems to have gotten some rest. I think he'll wake up soon, but we can go to the solarium down the hall and I can tell you what I know."

In the solarium she waited for him to sit in a lounge chair and then chose a straight-back chair on which she perched alertly.

"Have I met you before, Sister?"
{p. 109 begins}

"Yes, Father Prior. I was visiting Abbot Martin about a year ago in his office when you came in and he introduced us. I am Sister Benigna, Abbot Martin's niece."

"Oh, yes, now I recall." With unaccustomed boldness he let himself study her handsome features. The tight wimple puffed her cheeks and her chin just enough to deepen the slight dimples. Almost imperceptible freckles and a natural pinkness of cheek made him suspect that there was a tinge of auburn in the hair hidden beneath the wimple. The blue eyes conveyed the innocence of a child. "You are not a member of this hospital staff, are you?"

"No, Father Prior. But when we heard that Abbot Martin was in the hospital, Mother Superior gave me permission to be his nurse. I came in this morning."

"Will I be able to talk to him?"

"I'm afraid not, Father Prior. He is a very sick man, and even if he should wake up now, he cannot be consulted about any business."

The Prior squirmed and put the letters into his coat pocket. "Is there anything I can report to the community?"

"I only know what I can deduce from the charts and from a brief visit by the doctor this morning. His blood pressure is somewhat high; the doctor is quite sure there is some gastrointestinal disturbance, but he is more concerned right now about the hiccoughing. They occur about every ten seconds and shake his whole body. And now I have to get back to him, if you'll excuse me. But before you go, would you give him your blessing?"

After he had departed, she returned to her chair and resumed her reading distractedly. When she noted some movement of the hands lying upon the covers, she put the book aside and went to the bed. Abbot Martin's eyes were only partially open, but he immediately recognized his niece. His words were barely audible. "Well, my dear, why are you here?"

"Sh-h, Father Abbot. I will explain later." She leaned over and kissed his forehead. "I am here to help you get well. Right now I want you to be a good patient and take this medicine, then go back to sleep." Between the spasms of hiccoughs she gave him a spoonful of the medicine, and gently raising his head, gave him a sip of water. A hiccough drew water down his windpipe, and as he sputtered the water spurted into her face and onto her wimple. {p. 110}

Little tears formed in his eyes. "Forgive me, my dear, I couldn't help it."

"I know, Father Abbot," and with a kleenex she gently wiped away the tears and the drops around his mouth. She lifted the pillow from under his head, fluffed it, and gently settled his head back upon it. "Now you go back to sleep and we can chat later." She pulled a chair beside the bed, took his hand between hers, and soothed him back to sleep. When she was satisfied that he was again fast asleep, she left the room, reported to the nurse at the desk, and went to the room reserved for her.

About forty-eight hours passed as Sister Benigna ministered to her beloved uncle: shunting away the many visitors who used their clerical privilege to ignore the "No Visitors" sign on the closed door of his room; administering medication; slipping off to the chapel to pray; snatching sleep in short stretches when she was sure the Abbot would not waken; soothing him in his waking moments as a mother comforts a sick child. She did accede to his demands to have an orderly bathe him and tend to his toilet. Although for other nurses a twenty-four hour watch would have been grueling, for her it was satisfying. It was a change from her routine as an anesthetist, which had become her reluctant specialty - reluctant because it took her away too much from bedside ministrations. That she had a special gift with the sick she accepted humbly as her apportioned talent. When male patients fell in love with her, she accepted it as God's way of teaching them the beauty of his love. Her beauty occasioned no human vanity in her, and when she was reminded of it, became for her just another of God's means to draw men to himself.

That some of the other Sisters in her community saw her differently was a painful cross for her to bear. She had been called a flirt, she had been accused of flaunting her charm before helpless patients, she had been charged with indiscrete attention to male patients when they were no longer hospital patients. How sorely this hurt she could confide only to her beloved uncle, Abbot Martin. For he was in a category of love all his own. Her early affection for his distinction in the Church had developed into a rich love which expressed itself in total self-abandonment to his needs.

She knew that Mother Superior would receive at least silent rebukes for having allowed her to put aside her work as anesthetist, but she also knew that her superior had a rich understanding of {111} the needs of the human heart and could bear the rebukes. Without the slightest feeling of guilt she had requested permission to attend the Abbot in his illness. Many times in her need for understanding she had run to him for help, and he had responded with the full but rarely revealed richness of his own emotion. She could kiss him in these private meetings, which no other person would dare to do; she could hold hands with him across the table, mirroring the affection that Saint Benedict showed toward his sister Saint Scholastica, as depicted on an old lithograph. In these rare moments of affection the Abbot also shared with her the burden of his office. Both human and divine compassion had urged her to rush to his need.

As the hours of sleep wore on, the hiccoughing diminished in force and frequency. Sister Benigna was in full agreement with the doctor that the little body that lay in the bed needed rest as much as anything. Gradually the sleep grew lighter, until the third day, when the eyes opened into full consciousness. For a long moment Abbot Martin stared at her as he tried to regain a sense of his surroundings. Then he smiled at Sister Benigna. "Well, my dear, are you still here?"

"I couldn't leave you. Father Abbot, until I knew you were well. How are you feeling?"

"Weary, Sister, very weary, but not too weary to ask why you are here. And I think I am hungry."

"First we'll take care of your stomach, Father Abbot, and after that we can talk." She phoned the dietary department and ordered a tray of bland food. While she waited for the food to arrive, she elevated the bed, fluffed the pillow, freshened his face with a damp washcloth, and combed his thin hair. She yielded to his stubbornness by allowing him to feed himself, which he did laboriously. While he ate she chatted about small things. She told of her difficulty in keeping monks out of the room. She told how sheepish Father Prior had looked when she turned him away with his stack of letters. She even had to turn away the Bishop.

"Did the Bishop think I was dying and come to help me straighten my affairs? Or did he come to tell me how comfortable he is in his new cathedral?" He chuckled between spoons of his soft-boiled egg, and Sister Benigna recognized with mixed emotion that her visit was almost at an end. {112}

"That was unkind, Father Abbot," she scolded, smiling as he continued to chuckle. The, sparkle was back in his eye, but she was afraid that the chuckling would set him to hiccoughing again. "He was most concerned that you get well. And so am I. Now finish your toast."

Obediently he finished his toast, sipped the remainder of his tea, then wiped his mouth with his napkin. Then he let his head sink back into the pillow. "There. I have kept my part of the bargain; now you must keep yours."

She rolled the serving table away, then pulled a chair next to the bed. Her story was straightforward and simple. Father Jerome had phoned that the Abbot was very ill and begged for prayers. "You like my secretary, don't you?" he interrupted. "I don't want you flirting with my young priests." With a smile she ignored the chiding and finished the story of obtaining permission to attend the Abbot as long as he might need her. "And now, Father Abbot, I know that pretty soon I'll have to return to my own hospital. I was tempted, like Saint Scholastica, to ask God to intervene to prolong my visit, but that would have been too selfish - at your expense."

He lay back on his pillow, closed his eyes, and patted the hand that lay on the blanket. For a few minutes he remained quiet, apparently drifting off to sleep. Suddenly he opened his eyes, looked into her face, and said, "Sister, should I resign?"

The unexpectedness of the question sent a chill through her. She looked into his face to see whether he was fully awake, noted that the lines in his cheeks had become deeper, but that his eyes were alert. "Now, now, Father Abbot, this is no time to talk about such things. You are tired and should get more rest before you think about such things. Besides, it's quite normal to be depressed after an illness, and when your strength comes back you won't have such thoughts."

"No, my dear, I want to talk about it now. I don't believe that I will get much more strength in these bones. They ache so much that I have to force myself to do the things that I have to do. I get very tired from the trips I have to make. More and more I tend to doze whenever I sit. It is most embarrassing to doze off during the sermon at the Sunday High Mass. I have to give more and more work to Father Jerome because I am too tired to write the letters I used to write. I grow weary at the meetings {113} the college administration makes me sit through. I fight the alarm clock that rings for the morning Office. No, Sister, my bones are weary and long for rest."

"I am sure, Father Abbot, that the monks would not be scandalized if you missed morning Office occasionally, especially when they know that you were away the night before."

"Sister, very few in the community know at what hour I return from my travels. Should I post a notice on the bulletin board that I got back at one o'clock and therefore will sleep over in the morning? But that is the least of the reasons. My soul needs some peace and time for reflection. There has been precious little time these twenty-eight years to nourish my own soul. I have almost forgotten how to meditate. I find very little time for reading anything but letters and reports and bulletins. I feel as empty as an abandoned well. I think so often of the plight of Pope Gregory, who felt tossed about on the turbulent seas and longed for the quiet of the harbor. My sermons to the novices and clerics have become sterile and repetitive. I have not given the community a fresh idea in years. Would you fill a pipe for me, Sister? It seems so long since I have had a smoke."

In the pocket of his topcoat she found a pipe and a tobacco pouch. She filled it as she had seen him do on those rare visits she had made to his office. She held the match and enjoyed the beam of pleasure that came over him with the contentment of the first puffs. "Sister," he said between puffs, "when I can no longer enjoy a pipe, I would want my confessor to be called." She was disturbed at a momentary fit of coughing for fear that the hiccoughs would resume, but it passed and he sucked gently at the pipe.

"Some of those hours when you thought I was asleep, my mind was going over parts of the past. Are those the visions that one gets near death? So many people passed through my mind, and some of them rose to rebuke me. Did I break some of the bruised reeds? I was haunted by the face of Father Theophilus, whom I left so long among the Indians, even though he showed no disposition or talent to work with them. I thought of how I shunted Father Charles from place to place because no one could stand him. Maybe I was too harsh when I excommunicated Father Luke from the monastery for three years." {114}

Convinced by now that he fully intended to burden her with part of his yoke, she respected the silences that came between his thoughts and held back any pious expostulations.

"The line in chapter seventeen of the Holy Rule recurred over and over again in those moments: 'Let the Abbot know that his duty is rather to profit his brethren than to preside over them.' God knows they would let me continue to preside over them, for they are a good community - the best in the country - and I have seen many communities in my visitations. But will I profit them by continuing to preside?

"As I look back over the past few years, I sense an impatience in the community that could break out into hostility. I feel at times like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, holding back a force that would wash away the strength that we have built in our community. The college has become cantankerous and wants to let the world rush in on us. Drop by drop I have given in to their demands. I allowed them to ask for national accreditation, which will eventually interfere with our autonomy. I gave in to their demands for an expanded student body. And recently I permitted them to solicit money from the alumni to build a new dormitory. My successor will hardly be able to hold off the demands of secular influences on the community. Already I can feel the water slipping past my finger, and the force of it frightens me.

"I am tired, my dear. Will you let me have a little nap?" She pulled the covers up to his shoulders, closed the Venetian blinds, then watched the wrinkles unfold from his forehead as he fell asleep. Quietly she moved to the chapel. After a few moments she went to the house superior and requested permission to phone her own superior to make preparations for her return.

About midafternoon Abbot Martin awakened. Sister Benigna removed the "No Visitors" sign from the door. Two monks whom she did not know stopped in on their return from the doctor's office. Father Prior stopped in with empty hands and chatted about incidental happenings at the monastery. The hospital chaplain brought a friendly greeting from the Bishop. By six o'clock the Abbot had eaten supper and seemed quite strong again. "Did anyone bring my breviary?" he asked.

"It's not here, Father Abbot, but I will send for it. We can pray Vespers together from mine." During the recitation of the festal {115} Vespers, the Abbot showed the clearness of his memory by responding verse for verse in Latin with his niece. When the prayers were finished, he asked for his pipe and smoked it with obvious relish.

"I had a beautiful dream during my nap this afternoon. I saw the monastery as it was when I was elected Abbot. The buildings were firm and rosy in the glow of late afternoon. The woods sparkled in that splendid green before dark. I saw our farmland struggling to produce a crop in the sandy soil. The pasture was most beautiful as the cows meandered back to it after they had been milked. It was like the picture postcards of the German monasteries that I used to send to you from Europe.

"I loved the German monasteries, and sometimes I wished that I had been a monk in one of them. They had strength. Around them little villages had grown up which got their strength and sustenance from the monastery. The people helped the monks tend the monastery vineyards and make their wines. I once dreamed of having a huge vineyard on our monastery grounds. Father Vincent - God rest his soul - had produced a strain of grapes that flourished in our soil, but no one gave the vines the same care after he died.

"I fear our herd will suffer the fate of the vines. I am sure I will not be lying long beside my predecessors before the forces of our modern economy drive the herd from our grounds. Then the pastures will stand idle and the fields will go to weeds. The barns will become an eyesore, and the lingering smell of cows will offend some intellectual noses. Next the garden will go - some procurator will convince the community that it is cheaper to buy our food than to raise it. The barns and shops will stand like a ghost town, providing mere memories for those who esteemed the work of our forefathers. But they will not stand long, because ghosts need to be laid to rest by those with uneasy memories.

"We are moving into a softer generation of monks. Their hands and backs do not know the pain and generosity involved in working the soil. They do not want to work on the land, so the procurator has to hire help to keep us fed. The age of pioneers has passed. Someone will strike from the Holy Rule that line which says, 'Then are they most monks when they bring forth their produce with the labor of their hands.'

"I took such pride in our being able to sustain ourselves with {116} the labor of our hands. So I have fought off my procurators as long as I could. And I took pride in our monks being able to produce, from the materials God gave us, the food that was set before us and the furniture that we use. Even the stones of the field that dulled the plows have been shaped into beautiful walls around the grounds. Once I overheard a group of clerics building a wall refer to me as 'Stonewall Martin.' "

He chuckled and reached for his matches to rekindle his pipe. "Sister, tell the next person who comes from the monastery to bring me some of my cigars. I think I am strong enough again to handle one. And don't forget to ask for my breviary." He puffed thoughtfully at his pipe, completely relaxed. "When will you return to your own work, Sister?"

"I phoned Mother Superior this morning, and she agreed that I should return home tomorrow. I really would like to stay, but that would just be selfish."

"You should not speak of being selfish, Sister. I am the one who ought to feel selfish because of the way you had to care for me. I hate to see you go, but I will bless you and send you back to your hospital with my love." They relished the silence that filled the room for the next moments.

"I asked you, did I not, if I should resign? And what answer did you give me? That I was depressed and should not talk of such things. Call it what you will, I have given much thought to it. But would I be turning my back upon the labor I accepted when I chose the motto for my coat of arms: 'Lord, if I continue to be necessary for your people, I will not refuse the task'?

"The solution hinges on the necessary. I see signs of impatience in the community, especially in the college faculty and administration. I am sure they consider me an obstacle to the growth of the college. There are times when I know they must resort to subterfuge to accomplish what they want. Perhaps they have a better vision of the future than I; they are young and may dream better dreams. More and more I find myself forced to make decisions on matters over which I seem to have less and less control. I consent to things without the concurrence of my heart.

"I was heartsick when I gave in to accepting the help of the alumni for the construction of our new dormitory. I loathe begging, and yet I let myself be convinced that it had become necessary. And perhaps the chief reason why I consented was selfish in that {117} I wanted to salvage at least one dream. When they convinced me that we could not support our missions without asking for aid for our other apostolates, I succumbed.

"I have longed to open my mail some morning and find a letter from one of the priors in our missions telling me they are strong enough to become independent. No, each letter that comes pleads for more men, more money. Am I still necessary, for the sake of the missions, to carry the burden of being Abbot?"

Here Sister Benigna found herself able to reassure her uncle. Earnestly she tried to convince him that the monks of the abbey were solidly in support of the missions. She knew enough monks well enough to believe that the monastery was determined to found daughter houses and sustain them as long as they needed it.

"Yet, my dear," he interrupted, "I find the chapter becoming more stubborn each time I go to them with a request. The mission priors find it necessary to move, or they need to acquire new property, or they need to build some modest thing, so that more and more voices are raised in question at chapter meetings. Now we no longer make outright gifts to any of the missions - we loan them money, as if they were some business firm with shaky collateral. Nor do men volunteer to serve in the missions. Their voices are for the most part in support, but their personal sacrifice of self or community money is less eager."

The hospital corridors had become quiet; the voice over the public address system had already announced that visiting hours were over. Sister Benigna summoned an orderly to help her patient with his toilet so that she could prepare him for the night. When he had been made comfortable, she reported to the desk, willing to allow her patient to be under the routine care of the night nurse, and went to her room for rest.

She rose early to participate in the community Mass of the Sisters, ate moderately in the hospital cafeteria, and then went to her room to pack the few things she had brought with her. She prayed leisurely and allowed herself a half hour for meditation. Finally at nine o'clock she was ready to ask her uncle for the blessing that would accompany her to her own convent.

The door of his room was open when she arrived, and Abbot Martin was sitting in full monastic garb in the lounge chair. Sitting near him was Father Jerome, who had brought the breviary and some cigars and some of the Abbot's mail. She received their {118} greetings - Father Abbot had been right in charging that she was fond of his new secretary - and exchanged pleasantries.

"My bus leaves in an hour, Father Abbot, but I needed your blessing and a last assurance of your health before I go." She walked to the foot of the bed, where she consulted the report of the ministrations since she had last seen her patient. She turned to Father Jerome. "Father, you have to watch him now. You must not let him work too hard, and remind him that he is not as young as he used to be." She fell to her knees beside the Abbot and received his blessing. Then she kissed the hand that had blessed her and with moist eyes thanked him. She stood erect for a moment, gazed into his eyes, and then stooped to kiss his forehead. "The answer to the question you asked me yesterday, Father Abbot, is yes."

With a serene smile he turned to her and said, "It would not be easy, Sister, to put aside the rule that I have held for these twenty-eight years, to accept a small cell in the monastery where I would have occasional visitors, and to watch without comment while my former charges do things of which I would disapprove. On the other hand, I would get used to the quiet waters of the harbor and might even discover the pleasures of prayer and reading. I might discover some brethren who have loved me without fear."

He patted her hand gently and looked from her to Father Jerome. "Father Jerome will not have too much difficulty with me. Just before you came in this morning, I asked him to prepare a letter of resignation which I will send to Rome. Now, go in peace, Sister, and give to others the kind of love you have given me."

Without a word she gave her hand to Father Jerome, looked at him without embarrassment for her moist eyes, and walked down the corridor to the elevator.