Care of the sick must rank above and before all else so that they may be truly served as Christ who said: “I was sick and you visited me” (Matt 25:36) and, “What you did for the least of my people you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honour for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress anyone who serves them. Still, the sick must be patiently borne with, because serving them leads to a greater reward. Consequently, the prioress or abbot 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 have 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 and prioress must take the greatest care that cellarers and those who serve the sick do not neglect them, for the shortcomings of disciples are their responsibility.
When the rule is read separate from the experience of community it can seem full of inconsistency and undue compromise; it seems to undo itself. For example, in this chapter, those who care for the sick, do they serve Christ, or do they serve the sick? And the sick, while asked not to demand excessively, are to be borne with patiently even when they do so. Yet, within the context of communal practice, the rule has depths that are ready to be discovered as we live the practical ways of prayer and work each day. What may seem to be inconsistencies at the surface, actually address the complex ways we tend to live with ourselves and each other.
The rule seeks the simplicity of love-in-action as a way of life. This simple way sees a need and acts without self-focus or self-observation, that is, humbly. Being sick and caring for the sick are ways to practice into this kind and simple way of love.
When sick, how do we live with ourselves? Are we trying to ‘tough it out’, to ‘soldier on’? What might this say about how we live generally? Is being sick too much of a weakness, an unwelcome vulnerability? Or might we tend to the other extreme, where being sick is a time for others to drop everything for us? From being overly independent to overly dependent, there are dynamics at play here within us; dynamics that the occasion of being sick can reveal.
What is it to be “God-fearing, attentive, and concerned” while caring for the sick? This means that the carer is both discerning enough and loving enough to give the sick what is actually needed; that they too are not so caught up in dynamics of self-reliance and/or co-dependency that make appropriate care too hard or unknown.
Being sick and caring for those sick, can show us that life is more about vulnerability and openness, rather than strength and efficiency, or being overwhelmed. Yes, all of this can happen, however the experience can open us up to life as something to live in and with, rather than something that needs to be controlled or just takes our autonomy from us.
The present moment has in it all we need. In the now of sickness and caring we can experience deeply that we are all in Christ. To care for the sick is to care for this Christ, revealing simply that love is divine. Any duality that is ‘you, me and Jesus Christ’ is transformed into a communion that preserves and reveals the uniquely human we all are. Humanity, in all its vulnerability and need, is embraced in acts of mutual love. In community, we are invited to grow responsible for this love, wherever we are starting from.
‘…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36, NRSV)