Visiting the sick is one of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy. To me it always conjures up visions of cool, wide-aisled hospitals in southern Europe around the turn of the seventeenth century; or Victorian ladies bringing soup and improving literature to the hovels of the poor in industrial Britain. Recently, however, I have been confronted by its contemporary reality. I’m not exactly well, so people visit me, either here at the monastery, by telephone, or online via email and Social Media. It may amuse you for a minute or two if I share a few thoughts, from the point of view of one being visited rather than doing the visiting.
It is very nice to know that people care, especially when one is no longer able to do many of the things one used to take for granted. The unexpected ‘phone call from an old friend living far away, the brief visit from a friend, old or new — these are (usually) a delight. But the telephone call that comes just as one is about to go to bed; the ‘friend’ who claims to be of long-standing since we met twenty years ago at a conference and therefore drops in unannounced; the group that turns up expecting tea and cake as they do their Christian duty of visiting the sick — these sometimes strain the charity of the one being blessed by their presence. The truth is, when one isn’t well, one’s mood is unpredictable. There can be sudden and dispiriting losses of energy; one can become peevish over trifles; one isn’t always as welcoming as one would like to be, and then is left full of regret when one hasn’t risen to the occasion. The people one would most like to see tend to be very reluctant to put themselves forward. They don’t telephone or visit for fear of intruding. The net result is that the sick see rather more than they want of people they don’t greatly care for, and far too little of those they do. It is part of what it means to be sick, losing the ability to choose how one spends one’s time and with whom; and because I am a lazy letter-writer and am eternally slithering about on the slopes of the monastery’s email mountain, I am full of regret at the friends I haven’t been able to keep up with, and the people I have (unintentionally) ignored.
I think Benedict probably got things right when he spoke of ensuring that the sick should suffer no neglect and be patiently borne with, while the sick themselves should take care not to weary others with their excessive demands. It’s a two-way thing. We are all ill at some point in our lives; and we all have to care for others who are ill. We do the best we can, whether sick or well; but when we are well ourselves, it is difficult to enter imaginatively into the feelings of those who aren’t, no matter how hard we try. Loneliness and fear can affect anyone , and for the elderly, in particular, who may have no family living near and whose friends are probably in the same state as themselves, a visit, especially from a younger person, can be a great joy. It is, however, not always easy to gauge what would be appropriate or when. That is why I myself have opted for total honesty. I have now learned to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m really too tired for a visit today and I find it difficult to plan ahead,’ although I haven’t yet learned how to cope with the reaction such honesty may sometimes provoke.
That brings me to my final point. Illness tends to be a messy business, as life itself is. We shouldn’t be surprised that we ‘get it wrong’. On the days I’m tired and tetchy, I have to work hard to convince myself that my current unsociability is not the whole story. Whatever my failure to respond to the kindness of others, I know that their kindness will be rewarded; that the sacrifices they have made to serve the sick are not in vain. As they say in the Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated; but one day we’ll see how it all works out.