The old and the very young are always someone other, someone we notice or ignore, but somehow never think of in relation to ourselves. The truth is, of course, we have all been very young and some of us may live to be old, but we are never very young or old inside. What we are is ‘normal’, which may be one reason why we are sometimes not very good at entering imaginatively into the world of the young and old. We prescribe what we think they need or want rather than what they may actually need or want.
In this context, St Benedict’s brief chapter (RB 37, read today) on the old and very young members of the community is striking for its awareness of what is in his view of consuming interest to both young and old: food, and the times for food. He asserts that ‘human nature tends of itself to be compassionate towards theses ages of life, the old and the very young’ but still wants the Rule to make provision for them. He asks for their lack of strength to be taken into consideration and explicitly forbids the strictness of the Rule as regards food to be applied to them. They are to be allowed to eat earlier than the rest of the community.
To an outsider, this might seem no more than a little tenderness on Benedict’s part, something to pass over with a smile. How typical of a monk to concentrate on food! Think back to the monastery of the sixth century and a very different picture emerges. Benedict is asking quite a lot of the monastic cooks, to have two meals ready at different times, one geared to the needs of the young and old, the other to the stronger members of the community. Even today, those of us who have been monastic kitcheners in large communities, blessed with all the gadgets that make life easier, from electric beaters to gas hobs, have often found it difficult to prepare meals for different groups and still observe the monastic schedule. How much harder when cooking on open fires!
It seems to me that what Benedict is saying is that we can easily be sentimental about the young and old; we can quieten our consciences by insisting that someone else should do the caring for them, but he wants us to take personal responsibility. In Benedict’s monastery no one was excused kitchen service except those who were not strong enough, or who were assigned to some other important business of the house. In other words, everyone had a duty of care towards the young and the old. Their welfare was the concern of all.
With all the recent scandals about child abuse, elder neglect and so on, I wonder whether we could usefully spend a few minutes today thinking about how we ourselves fulfill the duty of care towards both young and old, especially if our immediate family/community does not have any young or old members. It could prove more searching than you think.