The Very Young and Very Old (Again)

Yesterday we re-read St Benedict’s challenging chapter on the care of the sick; today he gives us just a few sentences about the very young and the very old, most of which concern food and the times of meals (RB 37). I think that demonstrates his first-hand experience of community life and his sympathy with those who might easily be overlooked as ‘too demanding’. Most of us can remember what it was like to be really, really hungry as youngsters, when we could devour huge plates of food and remain whiplash thin. Some of us may have reached the age when the appetite has to be tempted, or when a delay in regular meal-times causes all kinds of discomfort. Either way, we know that something as basic as food profoundly affects our sense of well-being.

I think RB 37 is a good reminder that we can be too focused on our own agenda to be truly mindful of the needs of others who may be less able than we are to express their views or ask for help. Benedict is ever the realist. Human nature inclines us to be sympathetic to both old and young, he says, but the Rule must still make provision for them (RB 37.1). He knows we can fail those who are weak and defenceless because we don’t really ‘see’ them. This morning I re-read an oldish (July 2018) article in the Independent about the numbers of terminally ill people who are homeless and dying on our streets. We don’t ‘see’ them, either. As our M.P.s and others debate the proposed Brexit exit deal Theresa May has announced, we need to recall that, in the end, abstractions like sovereignty must be enfleshed in the lives of real people; that, whatever decisions are ultimately made, serving the common good may require sacrifice as well as gain. Both young and old have their own special vulnerabilities. A civilized society will not ignore them


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.

Of Old Men and Children: RB 37

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?


On the Old and Very Young: RB 37 by Bro Duncan PBGV

BigSis decided I was a ‘natural’ to write about today’s chapter of the Rule (RB 37), being the oldest in community — although I do act young at times, she says, and I like to think there’s something of the dashing youngster about me still.

Being old is no fun. Everything creaks a bit. The eyes are dimmer, the hearing not so sharp, and visits to the Vettery increase in number and discomfort. So, I was pleased to find Benedict making four points about how we oldies and the very young should be treated. He says that, although everyone should feel compassionate towards us,

  • the authority of the Rule must still make provision for us;
  • our lack of strength should always be taken into account;
  • we should not be expected to observe the strictness of the Rule regarding food but should be allowed to eat earlier than the others;
  • we should be treated with sympathetic consideration.

In other words, we need the protection of the law, not just occasional warm, fuzzy feelings towards us, which can be switched on or off when you please. That means sticking at the business of looking after us, even when we become a tad uncertain about lifting our legs at the right time and all that kind of thing. I admit, we can become awkward as we grow older, and our ability to burp after meals is no longer regarded as the triumph it was when we were young, but so what? It shows there’s life in the old dog (human) yet!

I’ve heard dreadful rumours that old dogs are sometimes ‘put to sleep’ and there’s a feeling among some that there should be a law about that for humans, too. I don’t think St Benedict would have approved, do you? I certainly don’t! Let us conk out when we have to; but equally, don’t take any extraordinary means to keep us alive.

Our weakness should be recognized for what it is: lack of strength, not some diminution of our humanity (Them) or doggyness (me). It’s important we should be properly nourished, as Benedict says, which means serving meals that are appetizing and suited to our digestion — and we shouldn’t have to wait for them too long, either. (Quietnun, please note.) Finally, there is that ‘sympathetic consideration’: treating us kindly, but as one of yourselves, not something indeterminate called ‘an old person’, a ‘young person’, or ‘a decrepit old dog’ (snarl), as the case may be.

It’s really all about treating us as you would like to be treated yourself now, not as you imagine you would like to be treated in the future. The thing is, old age isn’t as we imagine it will be. We don’t change inside. It’s our outsides that crumble and wrinkle. So, please, be kind to us oldies. We may be slow and doddery, but we have our dignity; and one day, you yourself may be one of us and understand what it was all about.