Daily Meditations on the Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter 36

To be read: March 15, July 15, November 15

Before and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, that they may be truly served as Christ, 2because He said, “I was sick and you visited Me”(Mt 25:36), 3and “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me”(Mt 25:40)4But let the sick themselves also consider that they are served for the honor of God, and let them not grieve their brothers who serve them by unreasonable demands.  5Nevertheless, sick brothers must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a more bountiful reward. 6The Abbot’s greatest concern, therefore, must be that they suffer no neglect. 7A separate room should be made for the sick brothers, and a God-fearing, diligent, and careful attendant should be appointed to serve them. 8The use of the bath must be offered to the sick as often as it is needed, but the healthy, and especially the young, should not be given permission often. 9Also, meat may be given to the sick who are very weak to speed their recovery, however, when they have recovered, they should all abstain from meat in the usual manner. 10The Abbot must exercise the utmost care that the Cellarer and the attendants who serve the sick do not neglect them, for whatever shortcomings his disciples may have are his responsibility.

Before there were hospitals, there was the Church.  As Benedict points out in verses 2 and 3 above, Jesus said, “I was sick and you visited Me” (Mt 25:36), and “As you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me” (Mt 25:40).  The early Church took this seriously.  A nursing tradition quickly developed during the early years of Christianity when the benevolent outreach of the church included caring for the sick.  And much of that ministry was carried out in the monasteries.  Monasteries added wards for their own members and outsiders who came to them for healing.  These infirmaries, to care for the sick, meant not only physical comfort but spiritual sustenance and healing as well.  St. Basil the Great, who himself had established a monastery and written a monastic rule about 200 years before Benedict, is credited with establishing the first hospital in modern times.  He did it to fulfill Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to “heal the sick” (Matt. 10:8).

What is new and different today is the distinct separation of religion from medicine.  This is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States.  And in some countries this change has still not occurred because modern scientific medicine is simply not available.  People in these places must rely on the Church—rely on the Lord—to experience physical healing.  Throughout most of recorded history, religion and medicine have been strongly linked together in one way or another, and physical disease understood largely in religious or spiritual terms. 

So what does this tell us?  We live in this land of separation not only of Church and state, but of Christ and healing.  It need not be that way, and Benedict is summoning us to return to the Lord not only for our spiritual sustenance and wellbeing, but also our physical wellbeing.  It is interesting and instructing to note that in the Book of Common Prayer (1979), the first rubric in the service of ministration to the sick says:  “In case of illness, the Minister of the Congregation is to be notified” (p. 453).  When we are sick, is that the first place we turn?  Do we run to the medicine cabinet before we turn to prayer?  Who has the ultimate healing remedy?  It is a promise of the Lord that if we call on Him, He will answer.  The Apostle James says, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:14-15).  That is a promise that we need to reclaim for the Church.

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