St Benedict was no sentimentalist. Even though he thought that human nature would make us tender-hearted towards the most vulnerable, he nevertheless stipulated that the Rule must protect both the very old and the very young. He adds that they should not have to observe the rigour of the Rule as regards mealtimes but be allowed to eat earlier. Thus, in two short sentences, he sums up what we, in our wordier way, seem to need endless reports and official recommendations to ensure: how to look after those unable by reason of age or infirmity to look after themselves.
It is worth thinking about that for a moment. A monastic community is not (usually) made up of people tied to one another by the natural bonds of family or kinship. Quite often there are substantial differences in background and outlook as well as age and fitness. It is the shared enterprise, the quest for purity of heart and the realisation of the Kingdom, that unites the community. That is why mutual encouragement and sharing one another’s burdens is so important. It is also why Benedict never, for one moment, suggests that anyone in community is superfluous or beyond the scope of the community’s love and concern. No matter how weak some are or how badly individuals may behave, the community has what we would call today a duty of care that every single member must exercise towards his/her fellows.
How do we measure up to that in society today? How often do we hear mumblings about how ‘the Government’ has failed us because X did not get the medical care we thought he should, or ‘the Council’ has failed us because it did not provide Y with the childcare solution we think it should? Yes, we pay taxes and expect services in return, especially for the young (e.g. education) and the old (e.g. healthcare), but that does not mean we can ignore our own individual responsibility to look after those who need help. During Lent we have an opportunity to think more deeply about the meaning of almsgiving and what may be asked of us. It is comparatively easy for most of us to drop a few pence into a Charity collection box, but to give time to that grumpy old neighbour or provide a safe environmnet for the young to play in may prove much more demanding. Perhaps that would be a useful subject for us to ponder today?