Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: “I was sick and you visited me “(Matt 25:36), and, “What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me” (Matt 25:40). ~Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 36
In his chapter on “Caring for the Sick,” Benedict offers us several wise principles to consider in times such as those we live in today. An initial caveat in times of widespread fears of communicable disease, such as the global pandemic of covid-19: we are wise to follow the guidance provided by our local health department, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, regarding how to keep disease from spreading, and how to care for our own health, while seeking to care for another who is sick. With such preventions in mind, I offer Benedictine principles for caring for the sick from chapter 36 of The Rule of St. Benedict.
First, “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else.” Benedict ranks caring for the sick above all other kinds of care within the faith community. Why is this so? Benedict understood the true nature of being human, which includes a wholeness of body, mind and spirit. Putting priority upon the care for sick bodies keeps the community healthy for the greater works of worship, prayer, prayerful reading of Scripture, and loving one another. When we get sick, we are less able to be about those most important spiritual exercises. Thus, Benedict places “care of the sick” as a top priority in the community.
Second, when we care for the sick, we are truly serving Christ, for Jesus himself tell us that on the last day, “I was sick and you visited me.” Benedict quotes from Jesus words in Matthew 25. When we care for one of the least of these brothers or sisters, we are really caring for Christ in our midst. Benedict is brilliant with his Christo-centric vision of caring for others.
Third, Benedict reminds us when we get sick to let our sickness teach us virtues of humility and gratitude. Many people find it hard to allow someone else to serve them or care for them while they are sick. We are often overly independent minded and often rebuff the efforts of those who love us to reach out to care for us when we are not well. Learn humility, and be grateful for people who seek to help us.
Fourth, Benedict calls spiritual leaders to take the lead in not neglecting the sick. Make wise decisions within the faith community that practically express the compassion of Jesus Christ for those who are sick, either in body, mind, or spirit. Spiritual leaders “should be extremely careful that they [the sick] suffer no neglect.” How easy it is to focus all our attention upon the healthy, upon the influential, upon those who have power, position, prestige. Jesus loved to be with people who were outcast, sick, misunderstood, and those who had no power or position. He calls us who lead to love in his way of love.
Fifth and finally, Benedict recommends special acts of compassion in times of sickness, love put into action for the sick and for the rest of the community. A special room is set aside for the sick, to isolate them from the rest of the community, so as not to infect the whole community. Benedict recommends physical distancing in times of sickness! The sick are to be attended to by a uniquely qualified person who is “God-fearing, attentive and concerned.” Today, we pray especially for health-care workers, including chaplains who offer special care for the sick, though we may not be able to be present ourselves. The sick are given special treatment, such as taking baths and eating meat, two “luxuries” that healthy monks gave up as expressions of their vow of life-long conversion. Benedict understand well how to flex the rules of the monastery to be kind and compassionate to the needy, including those who are sick. Spiritual leadership was to be communicated from top levels, down through middle management levels, through the various roles and responsibilities within the community, so that no sick person is neglected or overlooked.
In our time, in March 2020, with a global pandemic threatening the lives of thousands, and the increasing need for physical distancing, Benedict’s words of wisdom are needed, and serve as a poignant reminder to continue to live lives of compassion in the face of the sick and dying, whether in body, mind, or spirit. May Christ be glorified in the face of those in our communities and neighborhoods and homes who are sick, and may the compassion of our Lord help us to reach out with wisdom and healing grace to the sick as we put “best practices” into action, both from the CDC, and from the voices of ancient wise ones such as Benedict.
St. Benedict’s “Care for the Sick,” Chap. 36
“Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: “I was sick and you visited me “(Matt 25:36), and, “What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them. Still, sick brothers must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward. Consequently, the spiritual leader should be extremely careful that they suffer no neglect. Let a separate room be designated for the sick, and let them be served by an attendant who is God-fearing, attentive and concerned. The sick may take baths whenever it is advisable, but the healthy, and especially the young, should receive permission less readily. Moreover, to regain their strength, the sick who are very weak may eat meat, but when their health improves, they should all abstain from meat as usual. The abbot must take the greatest care that cellarers and those who serve the sick do not neglect them, for the shortcomings of disciples are his responsibility.” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 36)