The picture above shows Fr Wulstan’s coffin shortly after its arrival in the Abbey Church. On it are a chalice and stole and, on a silver dish, his trademark woolly hat which he wore for work, and latterly during the day and the night.
The following are notes from Fr Abbot’s reflections on the life of Dom Wulstan.
Oh dear, dear, Fr Wulstan. We have spent so long trying to work out how we were supposed to live with you. Now we are having to learn how to live without you! So far it has been very hard indeed.
When I was first made prior of the community at the tender age of twenty-nine, Fr Wulstan shuffled along and smirked – ‘That makes you my father’, he said. He liked the idea of having a father who was an awful lot younger than he was. A little while later he shuffled up to me again and laughed this time. ‘You’ll have to preach at my funeral’, he said. And what a challenge this is! What a short straw to draw! What on earth is one supposed to say at Fr Wulstan’s funeral?
He himself had his own preaching style. He never preached on the gospel, but took a more Lutheran approach and usually preached on St Paul in general and the Letter to the Romans in particular. He would often whet our appetites by beginning, ‘The gospel today…….’ but then bring us down to earth with a bump, ‘is self-explanatory’. Or what of the poor bride at whose wedding he preached? ‘I frankly prefer funerals to weddings,’ he began, ‘there’s no come-back at funerals!’
Although he has died at the grand old age of ninety-nine, he has still managed to take us by surprise. A friend of the community remarked yesterday that he ‘had a good innings’ – but then asked what sort of cricketer would claim a good innings if he had so narrowly missed scoring a century. The poor Queen had her pen poised to write that telegram for Fr Wulstan’s 100th birthday this year, but he has pulled the paper from under her. As Fr Aldo remarked: ‘Instead of a letter from the Queen he gets to see the face of God – a wonderful consolation prize!’
He kept a photo in his desk drawer of himself – little Reggie Hibberd, as a youngster at Epsom College almost one hundred years ago. Everything that we knew of the old man is in that young man; the hair lip, the eyes refusing to meet the camera. In many ways the picture looked just like the ninety-nine-year-old version, but in a peaked cap and shorts. I would have dearly loved to use that photo in his memorial booklet but in the last months he cut himself out and chopped himself up into little pieces. Typical Fr Wulstan!
He was rather like one of those hard chocolates with a soft centre which he loved so much. There was a crusty – even difficult – exterior that had to be navigated before you found the treasure within. He could be phenomenally rude and abrupt. When I was a little eighteen year-old novice, he turned to me at the sign of peace and said ‘I hate you’ – and then he smiled. It took me years to work him out. One had to discern that there was often a great gulf between what he said and what he meant. You had to persevere to be a friend of Fr Wulstan, and it was worth the effort. In the community we would hear him in the bathroom, practising the complaints he would make about us later in the day. They would usually start: ‘I am sorry Fr Prior, but I must protest….’ Splash, splash. Then later in the day on passing the Prior’s door you might hear the same voice at the live performance of his complaint to the Prior. He could be phenomenally rude. Occasionally he met his match. He asked an English Heritage officer if he could get a grant for being old. The English Heritage officer told him he wouldn’t get a grant but might well be subject to a preservation order!
He had a wicked sense of humour. In the last years he occasionally celebrated Mass in his room. ‘Let me be quite clear about this Mass,’ he said to the brother deputed to assist him, ‘In the primitive Church the sign of peace was given, so I shall insist on the sign of peace! And in the primitive Church communion was given under both kinds, so I shall insist upon it! And in the primitive Church there was no enforced clerical celibacy!’ We were worried about how this last one might affect the rubrics!
He took delight in the attention given him in the evenings and mornings. The monks compared his getting up to the Levée of Louis XIV and his going to bed also had various levels of ritual. He would giggle on his bed like a child as we shouted ‘Wiggle!’ to get him in the right position on his pillows, and he would glow with joy as we genuflected as the dish with his false teeth was carried by!
In his own emotional life he was somewhere between a soup and a jelly – but he was a rock of stability for so many others. He would describe himself as a reluctant Benedictine and said that he had never lived a day without wondering whether he would not have been better placed elsewhere. Yet in his eighty years in the monastery he proved himself a giant of monastic stability. That Pauline doctrine of being perfected through weakness was very much his. Although he never really got to grips emotionally with his own vocation he held together the vocations, marriages and lives of so many others. I can think of so many little examples. He shook the hand of one of my friends and saw his wedding ring. ‘Always wear that’, he said, ‘never take it off’. To a young person: ‘never lose that smile’. When I told him that he had been a spiritual director to two bishops and an archbishop of the present hierarchy, he grunted, ‘I can’t remember these people’.
And yet – at the end of his life all of us who lived with him have to confess that he was an exemplary monk. His room was a centre of the monastery, the heart of the house. He would read his Greek New Testament – especially the Gospel of St John. He pored over the Fathers of the Church – but thought St Augustine’s Latin ‘shoddy’ in places. He would read Newman’s sermons – mostly the Anglican ones it must be said- but didn’t approve of the beatification. ‘Newman was a great man and had a great mind, but he held grudges for years on end. Yes, I know you are going to say that I didn’t speak to Fr Odo for years, but I’m not up for beatification, am I?!’
He remained faithful to the Divine Office until the very end. Even in his nineties he would climb the hill to attend the Office, and would then spend twenty minutes descending the stairs to the crypt backwards, to return to the monastery. Those who saw him at community prayer saw only the tip of the iceberg of the great effort and sacrifice he made to participate in that prayer. Once confined to his room, he fell asleep so often with the breviary in his hands, that we were not surprised when eventually he fell asleep in the Lord still armed with his psalter.
And the loss to us is massive. We have not known what to do with ourselves in these last two weeks. He was a brother to the brothers, a father to the brothers, and a grandfather to the brothers. We adored him.
Fr Wulstan would frequently complain that he couldn’t do more. He swept the drive for fifty years, having taken the job from Dom Zerr who swept it for the preceding fifty, – and was still out there in his nineties with Brother Thomas. Then he did the refectory and the washing-up, though he dribbled so much that we had to wash up all over again once he had left the kitchen. He took care of the library, though the logic of the shelving was very much his own. We tried to work out why certain books were together in a corner. The only answer we could come up with was ‘books by monastic authors of whom Fr Wulstan doesn’t approve.’ He burnt our copy of Monks and Movies by Abbot Upson.
He always wanted to contribute to the life of the community and often apologised that he couldn’t. In the end he could do very little and yet did not understand how his contribution was massive and at the heart of community. His ability to reach across the generations was to be marvelled at and our young brothers should never forget the privilege of being formed at his feet. They would cut his hair and cut his nails, and listen out for him in the night when he needed help or reassurance. Not many one-hundred-year olds end their days with twenty-something-year–olds as their closest friends and companions. Not many twenty-somethings have that privilege.
A French friend commented yesterday on the grande humanité of Fr Wulstan. – I can hear Fr Wulstan grunting, ‘grande humanité? O my!’
St Benedict directs his sons not to be successful but to be faithful. ‘He that perseveres to the end shall be saved.’
The gospel, Fr Wulstan, may well be self-explanatory. But just as the film gives life to the book, the Beatitudes make a deeper impression on us when we see them lived in a Christian soul.
The gospel has been self-explanatory to us in this brother whose life we have been privileged to share. Christian death has been also, in many ways, self-explanatory. We have watched Fr Wulstan die so well. He would call us in every time he remembered another little fault he thought he’d committed against us. It was as if he were ticking everything off his little check-list in recent months, before departing from us.
And so we give thanks to God, for such a remarkable lesson in fidelity and humility. We cannot begrudge him the rest for which he longed. But we commend his soul to God with fervent prayers. We ask for him a merciful judgement and speedy company with the saints. And the greatest honour we can pay him is to add to these poor prayers of ours our own resolve to be faithful to the memory of our dear Father Wulstan by our own perseverance in prayer and fidelity and attentiveness to Christ’s call to each of us.