A Reflection by Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
“Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ … the abbot must take the greatest care that those who serve the sick do not neglect them.”
—Rule of Saint Benedict 36:1, 10
Two months before my dad passed away, I spent several weeks living with my parents in their apartment in a large senior living community in Greenwood, IN. My dad had advanced cognitive dementia that eventually inhibited him from doing the things healthy people take for granted. I am blessed to live in a monastic community that honors family relationships – especially care for aging and elderly parents. So, in early April Father Abbot gave me permission to live with my parents for as much time as it took to assess and help address their situation.
My mother needed whatever help I could offer and within just a few days, mom and I, and my brothers, knew our dad needed more professional care than any of us was able to provide. Unfortunately (or so it seemed at first), we had to wait for a room to be available in the memory care unit of the senior center, so I faced a few weeks of having to provide my dad 24/7 assistance to dress, toilet himself, bathe, get his meals together and just accompany him in his struggle with dementia and increasing physical frailty.
I say parenthetically “so it seemed at first” because at first it all seemed too daunting – physically, yes, but emotionally too. Immediately, however, he began to teach me what he needed, how much help to give and how to give it. By careful listening and offering encouragement at every turn, especially at difficult times of the day when his confusion seemed more acute, I was able to be for him what he needed me to be. I learned to forget myself and focus on him and his needs.
I was there to help, not to “fix” him. It was a time of grace as I grew to perceive that Christ was tutoring me through my dad’s frailty, teaching what patience really means and what it demands, and about humility, because to accept this level of help from his son the way he did required enormous humility on my dad’s part. His humble receptivity allowed me to provide for him what he needed to stay safe, have dignity, and above all, for both my parents, to feel loved and not abandoned.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make – the elderly, the infirm, the sick, those vulnerable because of physical, mental, or emotional difficulties, are Christ for us. Not “like Christ”, but what St. Benedict says in the Rule, they are Christ for us. The frail and vulnerable are those with whom Jesus chose to identify. Through them we are provided ample opportunities to serve Christ in his suffering, and to love God by loving a sister, a brother, or in my case, my elderly parents.
In a midweek address delivered the day my dad passed away, Pope Francis spoke about how faith and hope are tested by “the weakness that accompanies the passage through the fragility and vulnerability of advanced age.” Such weakness, he said, whether because of age or illness, becomes an opportunity for “deception, and for prevarication and arrogance which at times prey upon the elderly in this throwaway society, this throwaway culture, where elderly people are cast aside and suffer these things.”
The monastic way of life strives to witness to the intrinsic value our elderly and sick brothers have for us who are in the prime of our lives. Yes, they are a rich source of wisdom and experience from which the community can benefit, but even before that, they are our brothers, they are Christ! This demands a response in justice on the part of the community (and society) to care for the vulnerable and not neglect them.
Furthermore, our elderly and sick confreres provide the community a way to witness to the value of human life from conception to natural death. To care for the sick and the frail disposes us to what Pope Francis called a “magisterium of frailty” – an experience of what St. Benedict calls the “school of the Lord’s service”- whereby we learn what love demands.
St. Benedict legislates that care of the sick “must rank above and before all else”, which is consistent with his direction to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72.11), for to care for the sick and the elderly is to care for Christ. Through patient care for the sick and the frail, we share in the sufferings of Christ, “that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.” (RB Prol 50)