I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Linda Parrington's reflection on being an instrument of good work.
Keep Death Before One's Eyes—Holy Rule of St. Benedict, 4:47
Mr. Smith is dying—actively dying. What a misnomer; Mr. Smith is not active at all. He is a deep shade of orange, cold and clammy to the touch. His legs and hands are mottled blue; his breathing is shallow, rapid and gurgling. He is not moving nor speaking.
It is my role as a chaplain for a local hospice that has brought me to Mr. Smith’s home. My calling to serve humanity comes in the form of spiritual care. Over time, the concept of spirituality is taking front and center stage as more and more westerners claim no religious affiliation. My scope of practice includes offering a safe space where people may express themselves in terms of what matters most. What gives purpose and meaning to their lives? What is their understanding of transcendence? How do they articulate the fact that they are making eye contact with death?
I appreciate St. Benedict’s edict to live life in the most ethical way while remaining mindful that the time spent on earth in our flesh-suit is fleeting. It is interesting to consider that this ancient sage placed his admonition, “To keep death before one's eyes daily,” under the heading entitled, The Instruments of Good Works. Death before us is the motivation that compels us to be our best selves, to nurture relationships with others, and to be stewards of what the Creator has given us.
Mr. Smith’s family gathers in the warm sun for a well deserved but short respite while I sit in the stillness of the bedroom. I wonder about this man; his family, his vocation. Photos of life’s significant moments are carefully aligned on the walls revealing what is important to him. A wedding photo of a young, vibrant, beaming couple is surrounded by innumerable photos of babies, and then the babies of the babies. I whisper in Mr. Smith’s ear, “You are loved. You are loving.”
Mr. Smith’s children have attended him at his deathbed night and day for the past week. The sacrifice of time, the most precious commodity of our post-modernist era, is offered to him by those who were nurtured by this man. It is an extraordinary gift these children give as they put their lives on hold in order to wipe the brow and bottom of their father in his last days. They too, keep death before their eyes.
Would it surprise you to learn that Mr. Smith is, in the words of his daughter-in-law, a raging alcoholic? I wait patiently to give space if she wishes to say more. I nod. This is a truth; Mr. Smith loved and was loved and yet he also hurt himself and wounded those closest to him. What a marvel that the children are here tenderly attending to their father and grandfather despite their experience of him as two-faced.
As a witness to death, I am also a testifier who affirms Mr. Smith’s humanity. I consider how his goodness and failings are like mine. I cannot judge nor condemn since I am also more than just a mathematical equation of goodness and failings. He and I are sojourners on the road that leads to the same outcome—death ever before us. I reflect that when it is my turn, I wish to be attended by companions who understand that I do not need superfluous praise but honest acknowledgment that I did good, I did bad, and I am worthy of love.
I play a hymn using my phone and portable speaker listening for the Spirit’s guidance as to what song to enjoy together. Today, Be Thou My Vision seems appropriate. The lilting prose fills the room and the mood lifts slightly. I whisper a blessing into Mr. Smith’s ear, “May you experience the peace and love that comes from your life-giving source. May you feel the warmth of Our Creator’s Sun in your sleeping and waking. May you find your authentic home.”
Driving to my next visit, I offer a prayer of gratitude that I am granted the privilege to be an instrument of good work as St. Benedict instructed. Yes, I keep death before my eyes.
Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels
Mary Byrne and Eleanor Hull
(Mr. Smith is a pseudonym)
Linda Parrington, MDiv. is a recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology. Linda serves as a Hospice Chaplain, offering spiritual care for clients facing end of life and their families. She believes that listening with the heart is the way to affirm the spark of the Divine in each person.