Aleppo and the Absence of God

I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.

As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:

“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”

I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.

At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.

I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.

This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.

We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.

Together

It has been a very difficult week, and I don’t think I have any new words for how people are feeling. For myself I’m feeling grief, anger, and sadness. I’m feeling guilty and ashamed. And I’m feeling betrayed. Betrayed by my own ignorance, and by the Church, at least its expression here in the United States.

What was clear to me when the final announcement was made that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, was what a small world I was living in. I went into the evening confident that there was no way in hell the country would elect someone as dangerous and divisive as the current President elect. Even as he gained more and more states I felt confident that the map would begin tilting in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Any minute now. My wife and I watched well into the night and were eventually left stunned and dumbfounded. It felt like a nightmare. It still feels like a nightmare. But, it is now clear to me that I have almost no idea what the rest of the world looks like outside of my own safe little echo chamber. I don’t understand the hurt and the pain of huge swaths of our country. I don’t understand an expression of Christianity that sided with a person like Trump who extols the virtues of power, aggression, and self-obsession. I do not understand.

This week, article after article has encouraged those of us who reject sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and hatred in all its expressions, to get organized and let the incoming administration and the world know that we will not sit silently while hatred and fear become the law of the land. Yesterday, that call was made more urgent by the news of Steve Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist in the Trump cabinet. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, is a white nationalist who peddles in xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and hate. If there was any hope that President Trump might tone down his alt-right agenda, it must certainly have flown the coop by now. I am echoing the call of many, and asking that we make our voices heard. That we not be conquered by despair and apathy. I am asking that those of us who try to follow Jesus make it known that policies of hatred and bigotry are not consistent with our vision of the Kingdom. I am asking that we stand in solidarity with those who are targeted by these policies, even when (especially when) that requires us to place ourselves, mind and body, between victims of oppression and the oppressor.

But, I am asking us to do something else as well. Something that struck me as I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. One of my professors mentioned that Bonhoeffer has been a comfort to her in the last week, and it inspired me to return to his writing. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, dated 14 August 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

“In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris. Of course, one can cultivate human relationships all too consciously in an attempt to mean something to other people…it may lead to an unrealistic cult of the human. I mean, in contrast to that, that people are more important than anything else in life. That certainly doesn’t mean undervaluing the world of things and practical efficiency. But what is the finest book, or picture, or house, or estate, to me, compared to my wife, my parents, or my friend? One can, of course, speak like that only if one has found others in one’s life. For many today man is just a part of the world of things, because the experience of the human simply eludes them. We must be very glad that this experience has been amply bestowed on us in our lives…” *

Here is wisdom for us today, written over 70 years ago by a man imprisoned by a totalitarian government hell bent on the destruction of the other. We must be about the business of people, before we can be about the business of politics and religion. It seems that often, even our own families can be torn apart by the destructiveness of partisanship, politics, and doctrine. It sounds so trite, but the most important work we can do in the service of equality and justice, is at home and in our neighborhoods. It is the work of affirming the dignity and belovedness of all people, starting with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and the members of our worshipping communities. One of the things that struck me as my wife and I watched the election results, and as it became clear what message was being sent to women in this country by a Trump Presidency, was the realization that I still had so much work to do dismantling my own unconscious sexism. This realization was spurred by the love I have for my wife, for my mother and my sisters, and for all the incredible women in my life. These fundamental relationships require so much care and focus, and are often our starting points for healthy relationships with others. If our relationships at home are a mess, that often shows up in other ways and can interfere with the ways we encounter the world. The fostering of relationships is the beginning of justice, and is central to the call of Christ as we encounter him in the Gospels. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” **.

This means that for those of us seeking to stand in solidarity with the victims of hateful ideologies we must also begin the more fundamental work of building relationships with those we want to stand with. If we speak a powerful truth but are unable to realize that truth in the expression of our own lives, I think we may be nothing but clanging symbols. Can I still believe that racism is bad if I don’t know any people of color? Of course I can, but my call to destroy the systemic walls that separate us ring a little hollow if I haven’t even begun to destroy the walls in my own life. We must be about the business of human relationships, and stop seeing groups of people as one of many items in the “world of things”.

I would place politics and religion firmly within Bonhoeffer’s “world of things”, at least as it applies to the way we encounter people. This entire election we have talked about voting blocs as if they were not made up of individuals with their own stories and contexts. I have conveniently focused my own outrage on the right, or Evangelicals without actually engaging the people around me who might claim those identities. As we organize efforts to combat the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia it will be important for us to find the balance between denouncing dangerous ideas and holding those who encourage them accountable, and engaging productively and proactively with those in our own lives who think differently than we do. This will require a healthy dose of humility and patience, and if I’m honest, I don’t know if I have that capacity yet. I certainly wouldn’t expect it from anyone else either. I’m only suggesting that we will need to find ways to be about the business of human relationships if we want to see the kind of lasting and powerful change that looks like the work of Jesus.

Again, this is why I love the invitation of Benedictine Spirituality. At its heart the Rule of St Benedict is about how people live and work together. What has struck me this week as I encounter the Rule is how many chances a disobedient monk is given in the monastery. When a monk is disobedient he may be instructed to eat alone, or work separately from the rest of the community. And yet, the monk remains under the care of the Abbot. In chapter 21 Benedict says:

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt 9:12). Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

I am less concerned with who we may assign the role of excommunicated brother in our own contexts, than I am with the Rule’s demand that we engage with those who we might otherwise dismiss. I’m not suggesting that it is the job of the oppressed to reason with the oppressor, but I am suggesting that those of us who can must be about the business of human relationships across the dividing lines in our contexts. It is the only way that a better world will be made possible.

I’m with Bonhoeffer here. I believe that human relationships are by far the most important thing in life. I think that so many of our divisions are curated without either side knowing one another. We fear the other because we don’t know the other. That doesn’t mean that all people are gentle and lovely once you get to know them. It doesn’t mean that hatred and fear are not governing principles for some people. It just means that much of these dark and frightening ideologies are grounded in the fear of the unknown. It means that to truly love someone, they must be known to us in a way that honors their authentic self-expression rather than our characterization of them. This election revealed to me how sheltered I am from the experiences of people unlike myself in this country. It has challenged me to work intentionally on the relationships I already have; seeking to always provide a safe space for expression and conversation, dignity and respect. It has also challenged me to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Not to observe them like some kind of anthropologist, but to build relationships that can traverse ideology, class, and experience. So that I can curate a practice of empathy and compassion. That is the foundation out of which justice flows; love rather than fear. If we continue the practice of dismissing people and dehumanizing them, despair wins and we keep fighting the same battles over and over again. I refuse to let despair win. Not anymore. If we’re going to fix this, we are going to need to do it together.

*Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Letters and Papers From Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

Psalm 120

I am grieving. I am afraid. I am sorry.

 

In my distress I cry to the Lord,
   that he may answer me:
 ‘Deliver me, O Lord,
   from lying lips,
   from a deceitful tongue.’


 What shall be given to you?
   And what more shall be done to you,
   you deceitful tongue?
 A warrior’s sharp arrows,
   with glowing coals of the broom tree!


 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
   that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling
   among those who hate peace.
 I am for peace;
   but when I speak,
   they are for war.

 

A light shines in the darkness…

Political Idolatry

So, it’s Election Day and I couldn’t be any more exhausted by the spectacle of the last two years. I’ve already heard folks on the news discussing their relief that this day has finally come. That finally the nation will put to rest this campaign rhetoric, stump speeches, and stupid CNN countdowns. I think I can understand this feeling, though if I’m honest I am feeling a little differently. At this moment, as the polls are opening, and lines are forming, I’m feeling a twinge of fear, and a healthy mix of shame and disappointment. I do not feel very good about the state of our politics, our religious institutions, our national media, or even with the fundamentals of how we as citizens interact with each other. Mostly, the last two years have left me feeling pretty gross.

And that’s where I am feeling the most challenged as a follower of Jesus. How do we engage with a world so toxic without becoming a part of the toxicity ourselves? This has always been a challenge for the world’s religious, but it has been highlighted for me as the election has droned on. We have seen commentary after commentary about the Evangelical vote, and have witnessed the complete and total high-jacking of the Gospel in service of a political platform by leaders on the right and the left. We have made idols of our politics and the fruits of that labor have been on national display for the last 18 months or so. When we make and worship idols, whether they be politics, religion, or God herself, we find ourselves quickly descending into to traps of tribalism, violence, and fear. It didn’t work for the Israelites in the wilderness, and it’s not working for us now.

Christians on the political left and the political right often read the Gospel as an affirmation of their politics, but then quickly flip it around to commandeer the supposed authority of the Gospel for their own political position. This is why we see so many articles and blogs about how Jesus would or would not vote, as if that question makes any sense at all. This is not to say that the Gospel is not political, of course it is. But if we encounter the person of Jesus as someone who came to operate within the existing power structures of empire, I would suggest that we take a second look. Over and over again we will encounter a Jesus who simply has no time for the politics of the day, or for the institutional structures that maintain them.

Greg Boyd in his book Myth of a Christian Nation says, “…we must also recognize that people who have diametrically opposing views may believe ‘they too’ are advancing the kingdom, which is all well and good so long as we don’t christen our views as ‘the’ Christian view. As people whose citizenship is in heaven before it is in any nation (Phil 3:20), and whose kingdom identity is rooted in Jesus rather than in a political agenda, we must never forget that the only way we individually and collectively represent the kingdom of God is through loving, Christlike, sacrificial acts of service to others. Anything and everything else, however good and noble, lies outside the kingdom of God”*. This is a powerful reminder to me that our responsibility as followers of Jesus, in the midst of the ugliness of politics, is to serve one another in humility and love. This includes those that we disagree with, even those who we believe are the enemy. Enemy love and sacrificial service are the Jesus platform, and this orientation radically repositions us in the context of politics and empire.

The reason I feel so gross this morning as the polls open, is that to this point I have not seen the willingness to serve one another, or the humility required for enemy love. Not only has it been absent from the broader public, but it seems to me also absent among those of us who claim to follow Jesus. This is certainly true for me. I have spent this entire election routinely participating in the kind of dark and angry rhetoric that dehumanizes those who disagree with my politics. I have justified my politics by using the Gospel and the person of Jesus as talismans of my own political agenda. I have dismissed entire groups of people as unworthy, simply because of their political or ideological positions and choice of leadership. I have done all of this while pretending that it was my faith leading my politics, rather than the other way around.

I want to be clear, I am not saying that Christians should not vote, or be politically active. I am voting today because I believe it is important for us as citizens of the empire to demand better of our leaders and systems. I can tell you as well that I do believe that the rhetoric and policy of one of the nominees is flat out dangerous and wherever I am able I try to criticize those ideas that I believe cause harm. I am asking that we reconsider how we do politics. I am asking that we lead with humility and service, and that we strive to affirm the belovedness of all people, regardless of politics or ideology. If we are unable to do this, then the fallout from the election tonight will just continue to drive us apart and make the world a truly more dangerous place.

In Chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict the monks are instructed, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away from someone who needs your love”**. I’m going to reflect on this chapter as this day unfolds, and I hope that it will inspire me to reconsider the ways in which I have approached my politics. I hope that those of us who follow Jesus will relinquish our grips on the empire way of doing things, and claim instead the service and humility of the kingdom of God. I hope that we can begin to come together, affirming our essential belovedness, and live into the wonder of the beloved community. Because, when the polls close and a new President is elected, there will be a lot of healing that needs doing, and I want to be a part of that.

*Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

Spiritual Junk Food

We are seven days away from an election that has dominated the national consciousness for over a year. An election mired in sexual assault allegations, email security, racism and xenophobia, and even some violence. Not only that, but last week water protectors in North Dakota were violently removed from sacred land facing destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have continued to witness police brutality against African Americans, the steady stream of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, and the assault on Mosul. This is just a handful of the messages and stories we are consuming daily, and if I’m being honest, I’m starting to get spiritual gut-rot.

Honestly, it is exhausting to be an informed and concerned citizen. The constant stream of negativity that comes across our Twitter feeds or cable news is simply too much for one person to bear. It feels like we’re being continually pushed down before we’re even able to stand back up. The temptation is to say screw it, walk away, and shut out the world. I have some video games that haven’t been played in ages, maybe I could spend my time trying to kill dragons instead. Sometimes it seems that this tactic might be more productive than trying to engage a world that feels so damn broken.

But, for those of us trying to follow Jesus, this temptation is one that we need to resist. We cannot simply exit the world emotionally without also turning our back on Christ. In July at St. John’s Abbey, our Oblate Retreat was led by Sister Christian Morris. Sister Morris asked us to consider where we could see Christ dying in our midst. This struck me as a very powerful lens through which to see the world, and the seemingly hopeless litany of tragedy and evil that often comes with it. Sister Morris played a video for us that strung together images of Syria, Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence, and other tragic narratives that we have encountered over the last year. As the video ended she reminded us, however, that the story doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, asking us to stand in hope of resurrection. It reminded me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon “It may be Friday now, but Sundays coming…”

Now that’s all well and good, and I do think that this is the challenge and the duty of the Christian; to proclaim resurrection to a world that proclaims death, but sometimes that duty feels just too damn difficult. While the grace of God can swallow whole the horror of this world, sometimes as people, we just get tired. And often we find that our spiritual health works an awful lot like our bodily health. When you get tired and run down, your spiritual immune system weakens, and all that toxic sludge starts to eat away at you. You begin to believe in the hopelessness, even calling it realism. Apathy starts to take the place of empathy, and before you know it, you’ve retreated from the world completely. Often we don’t even realize this has happened until we’re already bogged down in it.

Joan Chittister says it perfectly in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily:

“…without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing…And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer”. **

I think this is where Benedictine spirituality has a lot of wisdom. For Benedict, the monastery is governed by the rhythm of the Work of God, the Liturgy of the Hours. This constant and daily prayer and recitation, along with the monk’s daily tasks, grounds the community in the present moment. It reminds the individual that there is something greater than the fear and negativity one might encounter, and it reminds the community that only together can we challenge the prevailing narrative. This is what Benedict is saying in his introduction, “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to (God) most earnestly to bring it to perfection” *. By centering ourselves first in the spiritual well-being of our own person, and then in the community, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, the light within the darkness of the tunnel. As Chittister said, it reminds us why we are doing what it is we are doing.

I have found this to be true from my own experience. When I begin to feel weakened by the stress of my own life, and overwhelmed by the negativity and tragedy of the world, the first thing that I often neglect is my spiritual practice and the small daily tasks that need to be completed. This often snowballs, and before I know it I’ve binge watched some show on Netflix, the dishes are stacking up, laundry is out of control, and the thought of a time of silence makes me shudder. I completely disengage from the world and from myself. I ignore the news in favor of entertainment, and I neglect silence in favor of distraction. This is spiritual junk food, and as I said before, gut-rot is imminent. I know what it is that I need. I know that I need some good old, organic, free range, spiritual discipline. I need to ground myself in the rhythms of prayer, and the discipline of my daily tasks. This is the practice that plants me firmly in the moment, and rejects the temptation to try and predict the future based solely on the crushing negativity of the world around me. I think this is what hope looks like; a lived life in the face of a world that says life isn’t worth living. As stupid as it might sound, every time I light my candle for prayer, or finish cleaning the dishes, or take the dog for a walk, I feel just a little bit more hopeful. It reminds me that life is good, and re-energizes me to proclaim resurrection in the face of death. Spiritual burnout is inevitable if we are not grounded in the present, in the daily.

For myself, I am rededicating myself to the discipline of daily work and prayer. I intend to spend this week tidying up, domestically and spiritually. I will proclaim resurrection first in my own heart, so that from a place of fullness I can proclaim it to the world. There is so much happening in our world that requires our attention, and the work of our hands. Let’s not neglect our own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Let us act out of a place of wholeness, grounded in the present moment. No more spiritual junk food. It just makes you sick.

 

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily” (Seriously, this is one of the greatest resources our their concerning Benedictine Spirituality)

Caring for the Sick, Including Ourselves

I woke up this morning to a congested head, a headache, and the chills. I don’t often get sick, but when I do I always feel compelled to just push through it. I don’t have time to get sick. There is simply way too much to accomplish in twenty-four hours, and I am not about to neglect those duties. Of course, I often pay the price for this later, but I never seem to learn well enough to do it differently the next time around.

So, this morning, I forced myself out of bed for Lauds. I could barely keep my head up, but I was determined to start my day the way I wanted to start my day, illness be damned. I made it to the Benedictus before I couldn’t keep my head up any longer. I popped a couple Dayquil and crawled back into bed. As I drifted off into sick sleep, I thought about what being sick in the monastery looks like. What would Benedict have to say about my inability to make it through prayer?

Luckily, Benedict is very explicit in the Rule. Chapter 36 is entitled “The Sick Brothers”, and in it Benedict lays out the care for brothers who are ill, and the overarching theme of this chapter is radical compassion as spiritual practice. Benedict says, “Care for the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” *. For Benedict, caring for the sick is not only our duty as Christians, but is an opportunity to serve another as we would serve Christ. This compassion for the sick even supersedes some of Benedict’s most rigorous rules. The sick are given their own room, they receive a personal attendant, and they even get to eat meat. It’s as if Benedict throws the book out the window in order to serve the sick brother or sister.

This is where I confess my own shortcomings when it comes to caring for the sick in my own life. As I said before, when I get sick I feel like I cannot take time to recover, I need to power through it and just hope it goes away eventually. This lie I tell myself filters into the way I treat those around me who are sick. My wife often receives the brunt of it. When she feels sick (as she is right now), I find that my first thought is, “Well, get over it”. Not compassionate in the least. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would let sickness stop them from doing the things they need to do. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t. This judgmental and unreasonable response to another person’s need is completely antithetical to the nature of Benedictine spirituality, and of decentness itself. But, if I refuse to care enough about myself to consider my health and recovery, how can I ever expect to care for someone else who needs my care and compassion?

I suspect that I am not alone in feeling like I simply do not have time to get sick. So much of this feeling is wrapped up in my fear of being perceived as weak. As an American man it has been programmed into my mind that sickness equals weakness, and the worst thing an American man can be is weak. So we push through it, neglecting our own self-care at our peril. A survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that 36 percent of men only went to the doctor when they were really sick, and psychologists who looked at this survey speculated that societal and cultural sensibilities about what is “manly” may also play a role. “According to one study by researchers at Rutgers, for example, men who strongly endorsed old-school notions of masculinity – the ideal man being a strong, silent type who doesn’t complain about pain – were only half as likely as other men to seek preventive health care” **. Even if we don’t fully endorse this image of what a man is, we’ve picked up enough messages over the course of our lives that remind us to be tough, and to push through the pain. Unfortunately, this masculine myth may help to explain why women tend to outlive men. We’d rather appear tough and capable than take care of our own health needs.

Part of becoming whole selves is the requirement that we care for our own well-being. This is something that is often rejected in our culture of efficiency and productivity. We apply these values even to our health and our relationships. We avoid the necessary maintenance of our bodies and minds so that we will not be perceived as lazy, or unproductive. It’s bad enough that we do it to ourselves, but this poor treatment of our own needs often is transmitted to those around us. This is exactly why I struggle to be compassionate when my wife becomes ill; I’m buying into the myth that sickness equals weakness, and weakness gets in the way of my productivity.

I wonder if this mindset plays a role in the battle for Paid Sick Leave in congress. Many people in this country have to decide between missing work and losing out on a paycheck, or recovering from an illness. It seems like common sense that people should be able to recover and not be put in economic danger, but our cultural value system rejects this notion. Time is money, and time off shouldn’t be rewarded. A New York Times article published last week discussed the Obama Administration’s rule that all federal contract workers will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. This piece-meal effort to enforce paid sick leave nationwide is in response to congresses refusal to pass the Healthy Families Act. The article states that “…more than 35 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave” ***. That is a huge number of people who may not be able to recover from an illness, or be able to care for a sick family member, without jeopardizing their economic position. This is not an experience that I know personally, but I cannot imagine the fear that illness might represent to those who cannot afford to recover. I hope that our leaders will do the right thing and mandate paid sick leave nationwide.

To care for the sick is to see a person as worthy of love and compassion. It is to recognize the Beloved in them. Benedict’s admonition to serve the sick as we would serve Christ, reminds us that the love of God in Jesus is to be found in the hands and feet of our brothers and sisters, and our willingness to care for their needs as we would care for our own. This means that we must learn to recognize the Beloved in us, so that we can also learn to care for our own needs. If we cannot see our own worthiness, we will never be able to see it fully in someone else. When we can see our brothers and sisters in this light, we will find that we are willing to throw whatever rules impede our compassion, straight out the window. So, rather than continue to play into the myth of sickness equals weakness, I’m going to get up, take a few more Dayquil, and go get my wife and I some soup. Just like Benedict would do.

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**http://www.everydayhealth.com/mens-health/men-and-doctors-understanding-the-disconnect.aspx

***http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/business/economy/paid-sick-leave-government-contractors.html