IT is part of our culture in Zimbabwe and Africa in general that we go and visit the sick, in their homes or in hospitals. When we hear, a friend is unwell, we go to see him. No one is supposed to stay alone and try and cope with the malady all by himself.
By Fr Oskar Wermter sj
We have to give our support. Nobody suffers alone. This makes illness bearable.
Big crowds of visitors fill the corridors of our institutions of medical treatment and healing. That is the belief of nurses, the professionals in this world of medical care. “We treat the sick with our hands, applying medicines and our wisdom. Only God can heal them in His Spirit.”
Healing has a spiritual dimension. It is not merely something mechanical like in a repair shop. It is a sharing of love. It shows our respect for the humanity of our brothers and sisters. It is a community event and involves all. That is why we ask quietly the help of spiritual guides. They have no authority as doctors have. But they face up to the consequences of illness and lead the way if the patients have reached the end of the road and we can only offer guidance for these last final steps.
They are still there even when the doctors can no longer be of any help; they attend to the patients still in need of a good word and a prayer, connecting the living and the dead.
The end of the road may never be so very far. The visitors are often on the last stretch when the pilgrims and travellers are about to complete the journey of their lives, close to the ultimate moments. Or else they hope for resurrection and a new Life.
Death is a quiet companion, often not as far as we think. They may move in our direction, catching up with us on these last few yards, unexpectedly.
Spiritual forces were always present where illness slowed us down, or disease cut us off from the healthy and strong. This was the case in our own inherited culture, it is still the case today. Healing was always part of the church’s work. Saints like St Albert and Saint Hildegard dug out healing roots and attracted afflicted people with such healing medicine. It was easy to be accused of black magic or even witchcraft. This was the tortuous road that eventually led to modern medicine. Do not look down upon it. St Teresa of Calcutta had an open ear and a loving embrace for anyone. No one, however miserable, was denied a great welcome, which was meant for everyone without exception.
Visiting the Sick is a work of mercy according to Jesus of Nazareth’ practice and teaching. And this has had a tremendous effect on the time after Jesus.
Classical Greece had a very high culture, it had physicians and scholars, but it never developed a medical culture as we know it now. It was the early Christians, who made the care of the sick their duty within the community, and even without.
This is an inheritance that we now have to develop and renew. “The parable of the good Samaritan, as well as the parable of the son, have in fact become proverbial . . . This shows that the biblical message of compassion, sympathy and mercy has deeply impressed itself upon human consciousness and also lives on in secularised form . . . He wants to say: just as I act , so too does God himself act. So we learn about Jesus existence for others. (Cardinal Walter Kasper, Mercy, p. 71).” It remains the task of the church to come to the aid of the sick and downtrodden. She must also, and especially, accompany the healers and health workers, help them solve medical problems and teach them about the latest insights in medicine and ethics, both healing of the body and of the soul.
The early Christian communities (monks, nuns, contemplatives, teachers) learnt this and practised it for the benefit of later Christian families and Christians united in common practice.
I still remember my own community, and how we were inspired to practice charity and aid to our brothers and sisters in the community.
Don’t we remember how the first messengers of the Good News had three tools to make God’s goodness present? There was the church for the Good News, the school for developing mind and intelligence, and the hospital/clinic to protect and restore the health of children, of mothers and others still to fully develop their potential.
Father Ignatius instructed his men that they should go to the hospitals and wash, clean and feed the sick and restore them to good health. They were highly learned theologians of the Society of Jesus, who were engaged as consultors to advise the bishops of Trent (Council of Trent 1545 to 1563) about the church and church relationships.
If we take the same trouble with the poor, the sick and the uneducated, then we build a new Christian culture.
Today we meet the people, who yearn for a new culture, a new friendliness, solidarity among strangers, migrants and many others who are lost and no longer have a home, or an environment where they belong.
Those brothers of mine of the 16th century, whom Saint Ignatius sent into the hospitals of those days — scholars turned nurses and healers — to demonstrate that the church is a work of charity and must forever care for the poor. Today, others in the footsteps of St Ignatius are engaged in similar action, go out to the highways and byways offering migrants a welcome in their houses.
Africans from the north of the continent, from Arabic speaking countries, on their way to the land of gold and easily earned money find a new life for themselves and their families, unless they meet tragically with death on the high seas, drowning or killed in overcrowded boats. Or they escape death on the way to South Africa while crossing the Limpopo, even though some don’t make it: the crocodiles are sometimes faster.
When there is danger to life and limb, we must stand-by each other. Danger is always shared danger. Fear and anxiety are overcome by love and affection.
Father Oskar Oskar Wermter sj is a social commentator