With all the talk of failures in NHS care of the sick and especially the elderly, I was glad to have to re-read what Benedict says on the subject this morning. We could take the chapter apart, line by line, and use it as a manifesto for good health-care practice, but doing so might be rather tedious. Instead, I should like to concentrate on just two sentences.
The shock of Benedict’s opening sentence may be lost on anyone who does not live in community. Here we are, gathered together as a community of prayer and praise, with an elaborate liturgical structure to our day, and what does Benedict say? ‘Care of the sick should come before and above everything else, so that they may be truly served as Christ himself.’ (Rb 36. 1) That seems to contradict what he says elsewhere about the opus Dei, the Work of God, coming first in our lives. In truth, there is no contradiction, for the opus Dei embraces more than the hours spent in choir: it is the whole life of the monk. We are called to glorify God at every moment, and Benedict is very clear that persons represent God to us. The abbot, the old, the young, the guest and the sick are singled out for special mention. The sick demand our attention because they are more dependent on us than the rest; to neglect them is to make a nonsense of our professions of love and devotion to God. We must be prepared to let go of anything that stands between us and meeting their need, even things good in themselves.
Notice, however, that Benedict sees this service of the sick as having something of a covenant relationship . ‘The sick themselves should appreciate that they are being served out of reverence for God, and let them not with their excessive demands weary their brethren as they serve them.’ (RB 36. 4) Although he goes on to say that the sick must be patiently borne with, it is clear that Benedict is well aware that illness can be made an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. If we are ill, we can at least try to lighten the burden on those looking after us, if only by not grumbling too much.
It’s all a little idealistic, did you say? Well, of course, in community, we are striving after an ideal of holiness so we need frequent reminders such as RB 36. I think the significance of the chapter is wider than care of the sick, however. Reading it, I am reminded of the way in which I assess my priorities for the day. Very often my priorities don’t seem to be God’s. Could it be that I am myself one of the sick being served by others without my being fully cognizant of the fact?