CHAPTER XXXVI. Of the Sick Brethren
15 Mar. 15 July. 14 Nov.
Before all things and above all things care is to be had of the sick, that they be served in very deed as Christ Himself, for He hath said: “I was sick, and ye visited Me.” And, “What ye have done unto one of these little ones, ye have done unto Me.” And let the sick themselves remember that they are served for the honour of God, and not grieve the brethren who serve them by unnecessary demands. Yet must they be patiently borne with, because from such as these is gained a more abundant reward. Let it be, therefore, the Abbot’s greatest care that they suffer no neglect. And let a cell be set apart by itself for the sick brethren, and one who is God-fearing, diligent and careful, be appointed to serve them. Let the use of baths be allowed to the sick as often as may be expedient; but to those who are well, and especially to the young, let it be granted more seldom. Let the use of flesh meat also be permitted to the sick and to those who are very weakly, for their recovery: but when they are restored to health, let all abstain from meat in the accustomed manner. The Abbot must take all possible care that the sick be not neglected by the Cellarer or servers; because whatever is done amiss by his disciples is laid to his charge.
It is striking that our father Saint Benedict begins this chapter on the sick brethren by saying, Infirmorum cura ante omnia et super omnia adhibenda est, “Before all things and above all things care must be taken of the sick”. The expression Saint Benedict uses recalls what he says in Chapter XLIII: Ergo nihil operi Dei praeponatur, “Let nothing, then, be preferred to the Work of God”. The care of the sick is, in its own way, opus Dei, the work of God. If in Chapter XXXI, Saint Benedict says, “Let [the cellarer] look upon all the vessels and goods of the Monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels of the altar,” he tells us today, in so many words, that we are to look upon the sick brethren as members of the Body of Christ and to care for them as we would care for the very Body of Christ. Christ Himself consecrates the sick among us with these words, “I was sick, and ye visited Me,” and again, “What ye have done unto one of these little ones, ye have done unto Me” (Matthew 25:36 and 40).
This principle does not absolve the sick brethren from the practice of virtue. The sick are to correspond patiently and gratefully to the care offered them. It is well known that, in addition to the physical pathology that afflicts them, sick people can suffer from an exacerbated sensitivity. This can make sick people demanding, impatient, and capricious. The two virtues that become a brother laid low by infirmity are patience and gratitude. No one has as much opportunity to practice patience and express gratitude as the brother who is in the grip of illness.
It can be a serious temptation to begin to think, even secretly, that the monastic family would be better off without sick brothers. One plays the devil’s game by thinking that the infirm brother spoils the regularity of the observance, consumes resources of time and energy, and somehow holds the community back from reaching an imaginary ideal of perfection. It may well be the sick brother who, in the sight of God, is the community’s most precious member. A wise abbot once said that when a monastery makes a new foundation, it is a grave mistake to send out only monks who are in the prime of life, who are strong and healthy. Always include, said this wise abbot, one old monk in declining strength and one sick brother requiring special care and attention.
To want to purge a community of weak, and fragile, and suffering brothers is to want to cast Jesus out of the midst of a monastic family. The greater a brother’s weakness, the more does he represent Our Lord in the humiliations of His most bitter Passion. The Holy Face of Jesus and His Head crowned with thorns are reflected in the brother who suffers innocently, not having chosen his brokenness, but enduring it as something inflicted upon him from without.
Suffering is the visible manifestation of the ravages of sin. The devil has long worked at weaving a web of suffering to cover the whole world, and the threads from which this web are spun are the sins of men held in the grip of the devil. Where there is sin, there will be suffering: suffering in oneself, around oneself, and even in the innocent over whom the web of sin has fallen. «Who sinned, then, this man or his parents?» was the question put to Our Lord after He gave sight to the man born blind. The sin that brings such suffering into the world is an invisible web so tightly woven that no man can escape it save by the hand of Christ, and by the power of His Blood, and by the virtue of His wounds.
We, poor struggling men marked in one way or another by infirmities of mind and body as Saint Benedict says in Chapter LXXII, can break the web of sin that holds the world in the grip sufferings of every kind. To souls who pray much and who make the offering of their own sufferings Our Lord gives the power to break the web of sin, to obtain healing for the sick, deliverance for those in chains, light for those who dwell in darkness, and consolation for those crushed by grief. Satan’s web will be unwoven, thread by thread, until, in the end, it is entirely destroyed and the peace and glory of the Kingdom of God fill the whole earth.