Care for the Sick and the Fathers of the Church
1. Whence Evil
The subject of this paper leads us to think about events which are very far-away, where our memory and human history do not reach. And the tale which comes to us, in addition to the innate drama of every man, is of a religious or mythological character. By natural instinct man seeks stable and integrated happiness, he continues to hope for it. But despite this innate vocation, this divine dream, he is that being o n the earth which can suffer both physically and spiritually. The reconciliation of these two real and practical tendencies, the need for happiness and its denial, is the permanent drama of man.
Those who profess a faith in an absolute Being in their way of thinking about existence, a Being who is transcendent, infinitely perfect, the sole cause of the universe and of all created things, can but ask themselves about a fundamental question when they are faced with pain. This question relates to the grea t difficulty we face in crossing a frontier to enter into an area of a metaphysical and mysterious character which touches the responsibility of God: "where does the evil come from of which man, contradicted by an instinct to happiness, is the principal victim? And yet, in actual fact, the finger which made him offers all the guarantees we could need!"
I would like to know how to translate into two Michelangelo-style frescoes that description of the world and of man (who is its principal and mos t responsible tenant) which St. Augustine makes in the City of God, a distinction between beauty and horror of the world of which man is the subject.
The world (where our life takes place!) when observed from the point of view of the mineral, vegetable, animal and spiritual worlds, is in itself an enchanting harmony and beauty. And man should have enjoyed his friendship with God in tranquillity, until the point when he was by his own wish received into his celestial homeland.
St. Augustine s peaks in the following way about the human body:
"So great is the rational beauty of the human body, and even of the lower and less noble parts, that they are considered pleasant and superior to any other visible form according to the judgment of the spirit of the eyes which are used. In painstaking fashion certain physicians called anatomists, moved by the harmony of the human body, have dissected its limbs to see if such limbs are made for a function or for beauty. None of these parts has a u seful function without at the same time having its own beauty."
St. Augustine concludes by referring to the wonders of the human mind, its technological achievements (even during his own times), and its artistic production in the sphere of literature, in sculpture and painting. "A day will come." he asserts, "when we will enjoy each other"s beauty alone."(City of God, XXII, 24, 22).
But such beauty and the enjoyment of such beauty is in permanent contrast with the historical reality which man, above all other creatures, perceives and suffers. The contradiction between the beauty which informs the creation, which is given for man's enjoyment, and the pollution in which man is immersed, is very striking. Man is both the compelled creator of this contradiction and its victim. However much we may be materialists, we cannot accept the idea of being mere toys which are breaking up.
"Res sacra miser!" exclaimed Seneca: he who suffers in body or soul is a sacred being. That is to say, he is worthy of respect, pity, and solidarity.
It is difficult to answer this question, and it has proved an impassable obstacle for many spirits. And not only for the spirit of St. Augustine who for many years embraced the Manichean doctrine, an approach which perceives two princes locked in struggle: the prince of good and the prince of evil, light and darkness, the spirit and matter. Desperate in his search for the truth, he ended up by concluding that if one begins with the ex perience of evil in the world, one finishes by being pessimistic or skeptical.
If God is infinite goodness, an ocean in which everybody is born and everybody is enveloped, and if the created being is immersed in that ocean like a sponge, then why-St. Augustine pondered-is this sponge so infused with pollution? Where did it absorb it from? At the outset he drew near to the bible (the sin of free man against God the creator, rebellion of his liberty to be master of an independent happiness without God); rationalism, pride; lack of humility and reasonableness; rejection of the supernatural and of grace-all of these elements led him to perceive the bible as a collection of tales of little literary merit!
At a very young age he abandoned the Christian faith of his mother Monica.
The recovery of these values was a very arduous process for St. Augustine. It was the outcome of reading the works of non-Christian philosophers: Cicero (who in one of his works demonstrated the emptiness of earthly values an d proposed spiritual values which were immutable and transcendental); Plotinus who followed Plato in demonstrating the spirituality, the absolute, and the infinite goodness of God. Plotinus explained evil not as a substance but as the absence of substance, and in more specific terms a wrongful lack of the presence of God (Conf. VII, 10, 16, "And I saw a light...").
He then read the works of Ambrose who was at first read out of a sense of literary taste and because of his Latin eloquence which m ade him a kind of second Cicero. St. Augustine then read him because of a deep interest in his biblical preaching. He then went on to the letters of St. Paul. The letter to the Romans (pain and death have entered the world through the sin of free man) was suggested to him by the mysterious voice of youth ("Take it and read it") and provoked in him the experience of being thunderstruck by grace. It also produced his immediate conversion to Christianity in the house of his garden in Milan.
As I sa id previously, the intense and difficult path taken by St. Augustine was the path trodden by many spirits, including those who were intellectually and morally chosen. But it was also, I might observe, the path taken by each one of us.
That initial rebellion which was a very serious act of personal wrongdoing by those who carried it out was a test. It was a way of seeing whether the free will of man would accept the supremacy of a personal and liberal God, his free gift. It was a test to see if man woul d remain forever on the side of God. That rebellion is bequeathed to human descendants like a void, a pathological inheritance, a lost wealth which cannot be regained and which has left a deep wound within the whole organism. In this process it has generated pride, ignorance, superficiality, and a lack of care in inquiring into the distant and real cause of impoverishment and unhappiness. If man is the created being of God he could but be created in happiness and for happiness.
Thus it is that it neces sary to make a diagnosis of this original evil, as one does for every evil. That is to say through philosophical inquiry, through the acceptance of the instruction of supernatural revelation. (Plato and human navigation: the sail, the oar..."unless one has a safer means of transport which is divine revelation." Cf. Phaidon 85A/86B).
That the radical evil suffered by man is the fault of initial pride is not a doctrine of the bible alone where there is indeed a description of our mysterious condit ion. It belongs to all cultures, to all religions, and to all mythologies. In the autumn of the year 385 AD St. Augustine decided to read the Holy Scriptures for a second time, texts which he had deemed unworthy of his literary aesthetics.
He was obliged to do this because of a moral and religious crisis, and he engaged in his task with humility. He proceeded to define the bible as a masterpiece of instruction and a picture-gallery with a poor entrance. But to cross the threshold-what artistic splendor !
Genesis describes the prohibition about eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Adam, with Eve, disobeyed.
St. Paul comments: because of the sin of one person, disorder, evils and death entered the world....
There is a law in my flesh which is in opposition to the law of my spirit. As a result I do not do what I would like to do, but what I would not like to do.... Poor me! Who can free me from this body of death?
The reply he received was:
Grace! My grace should be enoug h for you.
Man was created in grace.
Supernatural and sanctifying grace is friendship with God.
But friendship of a kind which creates a loving intimacy, a sharing of nature.
He had to be confirmed by a test: so that man, created in the image and likeness of God, with a free will which could choose and a limpid intelligence in order to choose well, could become the stable master of his happy condition, together with God.
However he deceived himself into thinking that he could be hap py without God. He lost the wager, the dignity of a friend, and fell...
And he did not only lose grace, but also other things as well.
For example, integrity: harmony between the intelligible and that which could be reached with the senses, between the senses and the will...Whence the inner contradiction of every man: law of the flesh against the will of the spirit (St. Paul).
He lost the physical immortality of his corporeal life: (our body, a building built with matter wh ich by its very nature is destined to destroy itself...). Dear friends, if we do not convince ourselves of the truth of this diagnosis, if we do not begin again from these truths, from this distant but always radiant revelation, we will not be able to understand anything about life: darkness will fall! And today mankind walks in the dark: rejection of the supernatural, and of grace. Self-sufficiency!
We have to care for both souls and bodies. Given what happens in the world, because of a lack of moral values, we doubt at times that there is a will to even care for bodies: ill health! The substance of the bible tale is neither Judaism nor Christianity; it is not denominationalism.
It is truth which forces even pagans to ask themselves:
Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (Ovid)
Veggio il meglio ed al peggior mi appiglio (Petrarch)
Here we encounter the same thesis to be found in the Bible and in St. Paul. Sin: the source of the river of our moral evil and even of physic al pain and the illnesses of the body.
Death entered with pain and was a protagonist.
"The immense corruption with which we were inundated because of this transgression, the agitation of many strong and contrasting sentiments, should not make us think that this was a small and slight moral act..." (City of God, 1. 14, c. 12).
2. Redemption in the Incarnation
But it was precisely from this abyss that Christian rebirth and optimism were born. It should have been an irreversi ble process.
But God accepted the challenge of man and revenged himself with an event of mercy, an event which was greater than the creation of the universe, even if risky.
God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world.
The mystery of faith which, whether recognized or not, links man to God, even when man rebels and flees from God. It offers us the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, who takes on human nature, takes on himself our sins and our pains, and accepts death to achieve the redemption of man. Paradoxical!
Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
The incarnation of Christ, the Word of God, is a disturbing dogma which is acceptable because of an explicit and insistent revelation of God, begun by, and intimately linked to, the sin of man.
Because human reason (see Plato, see Aristotle) manages to know the nature of God, who is spiritual, unchanging, absolute, transcendent, infinitely g ood and the source of being.... It manages to discover even the Word of God.
But if I were to say to Plato: That God to whom you refer and whom you define as being the highest good of man, I met on the roads of Palestine. I saw him suffer and die for the salvation of man. He rose again after death and he guides us to eternal life, in both body and soul."
If I said that, Plato would laugh in my face as if I were pronouncing some philosophical heresy. The absolute cannot become contingen t, the eternal cannot become temporal. The spiritual by its very essence, the pure act, cannot become corporeal and of the senses.... The incarnation, the most ineffable doctrine of Christianity but at the same time the most difficult, opens the human intellect like a window so that the solar light of the intimacy of God can be received. "Believe to reason; reason to think."
The dogma of the incarnation has so much importance for humanity that it cannot be confined to a mere religious creed: it has universal value.
The person of the Word, who remains of divine nature, not only unites himself in history to human nature, but also shares its humiliation, its physical and moral pain, and its death, and all this in a dimension which is the highest expression of all the humiliations, all the pain, and all the deaths in the history of mankind.
3. Christ, the Man of Pain
Isaiah: Servant of Yahweh (Is Ch. 42-53).
The Agony of Christ in Gethsemane: the universal human tragedy in its first three-dimensional expression; from Adam, to Abel, and...to the death-rattle of the last man.
The outflowing of blood, a phenomenon which doctors call "haematridosis," something which is connected to a major disturbance of the nervous system: "Sad is my soul, until the moment of dying."
From the moment of his birth , Christ wishes only to die for love of man: "I must receive baptism, and I will be troubled until I receive it."
4. Care for the Sick and the Fathers of the Church
The Fathers of the Church were an expression of the continuity and the authentic interpretation of the message of Christ and the doctrine of the Church.
They were men of holiness and great intelligence.
They were great philosophers who renewed and rewrote the thought of the Greek philosophers of the pre-Christian era. They were great theologians and profound experts in the language of God and in matters relating to the ancient civilizations of mankind.
And it is here that we come to the subject of this paper.
Care for the sick. This was a major aspect of the Redemption but was of apparently secondary importance-bodies are healed, but God is interested in souls. But man is an integral "unum" when taken as a whole. If you cannot love man, whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see? This is n ot therefore a secondary aspect; it is at the very least "aeque principalis." The love of God is for the whole man, and in its corporeal and spiritual value cannot be divided into two. It is a love which is freely given and not won, and which restores the mutual friendship between man and God, and between man and man. It is a new right to a life of infinite happiness which is shared with God himself. God is man's loyal friend: "animae dimidium meas!" Who is my neighbor? The vicar of God!
Christian redemption gave us the mother Church, teacher and expert in humanity. How could mankind ignore the Church of Christ even if-while knowing that she was present and working-it neglects her, turns its back on her, and listens to other teachers?
The redemption gave us priesthood (that of every ministry and every baptism). It gave us grace which is more abundant than original grace, even though in the new order we have become the objects of pain, of illness, of death and of the struggle for good.
And here everything changes:
Pain and death are no longer punishments. They are reasons for expiation, of merit (think of the suffering of those who are innocent!). They become an asset (in relation to Christ something which is completely given; in relation to man, a question of participation).
The phrase of St. Paul is very beautiful (with my suffering "I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, in the Church, in me" (Col 1: 24).
There is another miracle: pain (both physical and moral) can become the source of great joy. "I am overflowing with joy in every trial.... The sufferings of this world bear no comparison to the future glory which awaits us." (St. Paul)
The cross, that sign of ignominy, becomes an instrument of triumph.
"He who does not take up his cross every day to follow me, will not be recognized by me."
Care for the sick and for physical misfortune-a visible sign of the Messiah: "Go and tell John: the blind see, the dea f hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, the lepers are clean; and to the poor is proclaimed the Good News."
Charity, love, solidarity! Without barriers, even towards the enemy. The Good Samaritan...who stops at the side of the wounded man, who cares for him and places him on his pack animal (the ambulance of those times), and then takes him to an inn to get better, paying for him with his own money. This inn is the first "Hotel-Dieu," as hospitals are called in France!
5. Church-Fathers-t he Sick
Christ created the Church and was its corner stone. For twenty centuries she has watched over mankind and guided humanity with her divinely guaranteed Magisterium. Some Sundays ago John Paul II referred to the thirty years of the life of the Council's Constitution Gaudium Spes. He declared that it tackles "the problems of the contemporary age: marriage and the family, culture, socioeconomic reality, politics, the promotion of peace and solidarity between peoples."
Christ...spouse ..without blemish or wrinkle...The mystic and visible body of Christ down the centuries ("Total-Christ...").
The root is him, the good tree cannot produce bad fruit. "Rooted in charity and founded on charity." In the Church, as in a mine, there is the golden vein of charity.
Immediately after being born there is nothing but continuity between the work of Christ and the emergent Church:
The Church seeks to welcome the sick as Christ had done:
"They carried the sick (to Peter) to b e healed by his shadow alone."
The Eucharist: "the sacrament of pity, a sign of unity, or a bond of charity!" To the sick: heal, soothe, comfort... (Justinian).
Apostolic Church and the preaching of the suffering Christ.
Peter: "Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world." (1 Pt 5:9)
"And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." (Ph 2:8).
"Having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." (Col 2:14).
"But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:14).
"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Cor 2:2).
"And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Gal 5:24; 1 Cor 1:13).
"But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).
The funds raised by Paul from the churches in Asia for the impoverished Church in Jerusalem.
The Church and her apostles, true to the teaching of their Master, are concerned with both souls and bodies, and in equal measure.
In unique fashion the Christian religion promises that the body, as well as the soul, will have eternal life.
Before Christ there was Stoicism: "substine et abstine"...Resistance to pain.
Christ gives us the ability to overcome suffering and to smile: St. Francis and the cure of eyes with red-hot tears...And then the sick woman in an iron lung: "My special Ferrari with a red head".
How many people have resisted the violence of pain by looking at the Cross in order to be like it.
Chataubriand (evil breeds of Christianity, passim).
Christian charity which separates Christians from other men, something which was unknown to the ancients, was born with Jesus Christ. In his gospel it was the emblem of the renewal of human nature.
The first Christians shared their goods in order to help the needy, the sick, and pilgri ms.
It was in this way that hospitals were born!
From that moment, works of mercy no longer had barriers in their way. It was as if compassion overflowed into misery to the point of neglecting it and running after it: so much misery but an equal amount of compassion.
Here we ask: how did the ancients manage without places to go when ill, without hospitals?
In order to rid themselves of the poor and the unhappy they had two solutions which Christianity did not recognize: infanticide and slav ery! Are the ruins of hospitals or hospices to be found amongst the ancient monuments of Rome or of Athens?
Some local hot baths dedicated to some divinity had the mere appearance of a health care structure, like Hepidaurus.
(Lucretius: "Mussabat tacito medicina pavore" (the plague of Athens).
(Martial: "I was rather ill. I called the physician, Heliodorus, who arrived with a band of his disciples: forty cold hands pressed my stomach. I did not have a temperature-I do now!")
< br>As the Church gradually acquired freedom of action (the apostolic period, great monks, and then the great Fathers of the East and the West) hospitals, leper colonies and isolation hospitals (this last in Latin being derived from the name of poor Lazarus from the Gospel parable) sprang up.
In these institutions monks or mere Christians engaged in volunteer work with joy. Without any repugnance at all they bore the presence of all forms of human misery in order to serve Christ in person within their si ck brethren.
"I was sick and you came to me, helped me, and took care of me."
St. Basil created a hospital-town in the environs of Cappadocia. They called it "Basiliade".
John Chrysostom, the great Christian orator who was also called the "panegyrist of alms" was exiled by the Empress Eudoxia. He had denounced her publicly for having wrongfully gained the vineyard of a widow which had been destined for a hospital for the poor which he administered. The protector and the defender of the poor, he was consoled by their defense when he was persecuted by the powerful. Helping the sick gave John Chrysostom the chance to get to know doctors and to observe their humanity in their care for the terminally ill (the sick person has a fragile psychology which is in need of help, and the slightest thing can depress his spirits).
He describes how a sick alcoholic was desperate for a mouthful of wine. The understanding doctor made a small earthenware jug out of clay impregnated with wine. He filled it with water and heated it on a stove. He pulled down the blinds of the window to darken the room and took the jug to the sick man. The alcoholic was deceived by the smell of wine and drank the mixture with satisfaction. Chrysostom praised the sensitivity of the physician.
St. Jerome in letter number LXXVII to Oceanus gave great praise to a certain Fabiola, a woman who was the subject of much gossip but was a convert to Christianity. Fabiola had paid for the creation of a hospital for the poor.
"She was the first person to establish a hospital for all the sick people she found in the street: deformed noses, empty eye sockets, withered arms and legs, extended stomachs, skeletal thighs, rotten flesh full of worms.... How many times did she herself carry those suffering from leprosy to the hospital on her shoulders...She fed them with her own hands and gave a spoonful of broth to those living corpses" (Letter number LXXVII).
Augustine of Hippo, according to his b iographer Possidius, only went to homes where there were orphans and the sick. In the rules of the monastic order he established there is a special chapter relating to caring for the sick. He presents Jesus as the great physician of humanity who does not write a prescription for the chemist but creates the medicine with his own blood, in the exercise of his Humanity. "Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
He gave a fine sermon on the transfiguration of Christ w here Peter said: "It is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and Elijah" (Cf Mk 9:4; Mt 17:4).
The Holy Doctor said: "But come down Peter.... Yes, it is well! But not now. Come down, there are poor people to help, sick people to care for, the gospel to preach and to bear witness to.... Come down immediately; the vision will come afterwards."
There was a similar statement when Marta was in the kitchen preparing lunch for the guest and her siste r Maria was in the living room enchanted by the voice of Jesus.
This episode gave rise to the dispute about the relative supremacy of the value of the contemplative life or the active life. St. Augustine provided the answer to the debate with one of his usual general summaries:
-Caritas Veritatis ('love for contemplation')-Mary;
-Necessitas Caritatis ('emergency action')-Martha. This emergency action is of primary importance in certain circumstances because of the needs of one"s n eighbor: poverty, hunger, or illness. This is an action which is: Delectatio Caritatis et Veritatis (joy in loving God in one's neighbor, recognizing Him and contemplating Him).
"In caritate fundati et radicati!" The root of this charity is truly vigorous, for it has animated the Church and inspired important figures for two thousand years. These figures are: Camillus de Lellis, John of God, Cottolengus, Orion Guanella, Giovanna Antida. In our times we can think of Padre Pio, Follereau... and thousands of others, everywhere, missionaries in the leper colonies.
But let us not speak only of the past. Let us speak also of the present, of those who are alive today. Mother Theresa, and many, many others ignored amidst the fire of warriors.
This is what the official world knows how to do: not to love but to kill!
All the good of which man is capable is the exclusive gift of God. Outside this there is only misery and sin.
And yet the created being has a positive value which God doe s not have-suffering!
God envied man this condition and took it upon himself by being a victim of suffering.
St. Paul says, "Not only man, but the whole of creation is waiting for the moment of birth."
And St. Peter says, "There will be new heavens and a new earth."
St. Augustine, echoing Plato's invocation of a safe means (a divine revelation) by which to reach the shore of happiness, suggested its character: "So that there could be a means by which to go, he to whom we wa nted to go came from the beyond. And what did he do? He prepared the wood with which we could cross the sea. Nobody can cross the sea of this age without being carried by the cross of Christ" (Com. Jn. Tr. 2, 2).
On one occasion Jesus asked:
"When the Son of Man returns, will he still find faith on earth?"
Perhaps we can reassure him:
"Faith, Lord? Who knows?"
"Hope! We believe in the capacities of men but they always make us lose hope."
"But charit y, no. There will not be less charity. Because you, suffering and living with us, are charity. You, who promised to be with us until the end of time."
"Fides, spes, caritas: tria haec!
Maior autem horum: Charitas!" (1 Co 3:3).
FAITH belongs to man....
CHARITY belongs to God....
It is not biodegradable!
Rev. Carlo Cremona
Vatican Correspondent for Italian RAI TV