How our world craves good shepherds. Pope Francis told his Pastors to ‘get the smell of the sheep.’ This is surely to be near to those who feel rejected or are difficult to live with. This is a formidable task, clearly expounded in the Chapters on the Abbot.
St Benedict recognises this in his references to the Abbot, as a good shepherd. Using a Gospel text he likens the Abbot to the one who, like Jesus, left the 99 sheep for the one stray and carried it tenderly home to the flock. Whether or not the Rule of the Master pre- or post-dated our rule, Benedict’s abbatial style is clean contrary to that of the suspicious and controlling Abbot of his near contemporary. The Abbot is a true father, one who cares for the brethren. The elderly, sick and young need extra attention. He also shows concern for those who come to the Monastery, especially pilgrims, those of our faith and the poor.
During Advent and Christmastide we have so many references to real and totally human shepherds in the readings and hymns that many of us have loved and looked forward to from childhood. Religious Christmas cards are full of shepherds and lambs. Was Jesus born in the spring or were lambs born in winter in Palestine? It matters not.
We have sheep at Minster and one text book I read said that lambing was a clean business. I beg to disagree. Wonderful, yes but clean, not quite!
During lambing this year I reflected quite deeply and I would like to share a short synopsis of a few jottings.
One March night in our cold and rather smelly, draughty barn I was watching the little flock.
Lambs were being born, covered with blood and slime until mum had done her cleansing work. Sometimes she was just too tired after her ordeal and left it to us. We had two sets of triplets this year and an average of two healthy lambs per ewe. A good return.
New-born lambs were feeding from their mothers or playing with their mates. Others were snuggled up close to mother or to other lambs, in blissful slumber.
Ewes were straining in their prenatal fashion of sometimes looking upwards, getting up and down, scraping the floor, refusing food or drink, panting with discomfort. Typically looking confused, trying to isolate and find a ‘nest.’ Their time was about to come.
As the little ones arrived I was around to help. Some delivered alone. All were cared for and kept safe. Food, water, shelter, fresh hay, straw and towels ready. Our 95 year old Sister John donated her hot water bottle. At night or on cold days, new-born lambs can die of hypothermia. A hair dryer was also at hand to help them to warm up if needed.
Foxes and rats kept away.
A little bit of Bethlehem. I felt a glow as I hugged my hot drink sitting on a straw bale.
Was it yet time for morning Vigils? I would need to get in and change soon.
With the mobile phone I felt safe. Other Sisters, friends and Oblates were also on call and ready to take over when needed or to supply more hot drinks.
My thoughts went to Ukraine, then to just across the Channel to Calais. Now of course it would be to Manston, just a mile away from us. How many mothers and babies throughout our world would love to be treated like one of our flock? Life seemed so unjust.
Animals are often treated better than humans in our part of the world.
A real dilemma, but care for the flock we must.
On 15th July at 1.30 am we welcomed our Ukrainian family. By that time our lambs were growing well and out in the fresh pastures. Our family of four had recently fled from Mykolaiv. The eldest is 84 and the youngest 5 years old. Lex, their toy terrier accompanied them and comforted them on the journey from Romania, where they had been waiting since they fled their home in February. Today the boys are settled in school. They are a delight to have close by in our self-contained guest house.
Returning to St Benedict and the Good Shepherd theme we feel blessed to be in a position to welcome our brothers and sisters and to share their smiles and tears. Friends have been so supportive and welcoming too. Our Good Shepherd has been with us throughout and
St Benedict is our inspiration. In Benedictine hospitality, the guest is a blessing for all, reminding us of the Mercy of God.
Yarov will be coming home from primary school in Minster soon, full of beans and ready for Ukrainian treats! Home and dry. He is becoming less anxious with time and good nurturing.
The staff at the school have been marvellous.
And now, before it gets too dark I must check on the sheep out in the upper field.
‘The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’ Psalm 23.
Christmas will be different for us this year. Bethlehem will be a little closer.
We are blessed.
Sister Benedict Gaughan OSB