Care of the Sick

Chapter 36 of the Rule of St Benedict is about care of the sick which, according to Benedict, should come ‘before and above everything else, so that they may be truly served as Christ himself.’ Until recently I had never had to think about that from the point of view of the one who is served as I was always in the lucky position of serving. It makes a big difference. To be sick, to be reliant upon others, is to know dependence, weakness, anxiety and frustration. They are not qualities we aspire to, and they are very far from being comfortable to live with. Benedict’s strictures about not making excessive demands on others can make us unduly scrupulous. Dare we ask such and such; can we manage without this or that? The kindness shown us, the services rendered, cannot be repaid. We are now cast in the role of debtors where once we were creditors. That is what it means to be sick.

I cannot honestly say that I regard my illness as a blessing, but I don’t resent it, either. It is just part of me, something I live with; but it has helped me see Lent in a new light. We spend so much time putting up barriers to God, just as we do to other people. As long as we want to be always in the position of giving, we can never really learn how to accept. Effectively, we cut ourselves off, pretending to be self-sufficient, when, of course, we are nothing of the sort. Lent is an opportunity to allow God into our lives in a way we don’t normally permit. We can take down the barriers, admit our need, let him take over. Jesus not only shares our sickness, he is our healer too.

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Care of the Sick: RB 36

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?

 

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