Of Young and Old and the Voice of Experience

Today’s chapter from the Rule of St Benedict (RB 37, Of Old Men and Children, to give McCann’s title) is just a few lines long and comes immediately after the chapter on the care of the sick. I like the fact that it is so down to earth. Benedict starts by saying that our natural human sympathy should incline us to compassion towards both old and young, and that there should be constant consideration of their lack of strength. Then what does he do? He homes in on food! The strictness of the Rule as regards food is not to apply to them and they are to be allowed to eat before the regular times (RB 37. 2, 3). Only someone who knows how hungry a young person can get could write that, or perhaps someone who is so old that ‘little and often’ is the only way they can keep body and soul together. Either way, it is the voice of experience not theory.

I wonder how many of the decisions we make are based on experience rather than theory. The current angst in the UK over Brexit/non-Brexit is a case in point. The E.U. referendum gave us all one simple choice — in or out — but it is interpreted by some as meaning this kind of policy, by others as that kind of policy, and by others again as anything they like to name. We easily lose sight of the fact that, at present, Brexit policies are largely theoretical, i.e. they cannot be based on experience as we have not been here before — being an ex-member of the E.U. will be different from never having belonged. What is true of a major decision affecting millions of people is also true of the decisions we make as individuals. I marry this person; I join that community; my career choice is such and such. Often we give remarkably little thought to the choices we make but somehow slip into them. We can only give thanks that so often they turn out to be the right ones. And when they don’t? That is when I think we have to remind ourselves that the apparently ‘wrong’ decision may actually be the right one for us. It may not bring us the personal happiness and fulfilment we dreamed of, but it will have brought us something. Like Robert Frost we may say

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
N.B. This post is not about Brexit and I won’t be posting anyone’s comments on Brexit.

Always Someone Other?

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.