Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Visiting the sick: some practical considerations

Mark Shea is always an interesting and profound writer, and this piece of his about visiting the sick is no exception:
Similarly, Jesus has no truck with the assumption that had grown up under the Old Testament dispensation that sees quarantine as the only possible approach to defilement, whether physical or spiritual. This was the Pharisaic approach ("Pharisee" means "separated one"), and Jesus' repudiation of it is no small part of why He was so hated by them. Note, for instance, how Matthew describes Jesus' actions after the Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 8-10. Jesus is noted not simply for curing the sick, but for curing and insistently associating with the icky and ritually impure. He heals the leper, for example. When Jesus reaches out and touches him, He commits an act that, under the Old Law, should render Him unclean. But instead, Jesus cleanses the leper.

That act summarizes the New Covenant in a nutshell. We see the same message repeated over and over: What renders you unclean under the Old Covenant is instead itself made clean by the Messiah of the New. In addition to touching the leper, Jesus consorts with Gentiles, touches bleeding women and corpses, and (notably for the author of that particular Gospel) welcomes the company of a tax collector named Levi or Matthew. The thread that binds all these incidents together is the power of the Spirit to make clean what was unclean.

It is this conviction that animates the Christian tradition and urges on us the duty to visit the sick. It is also this conviction that links, in the Catholic tradition, two sacraments in particular as the "sacraments of healing": Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. This connection is already present, of course, in the words of our Lord: "They that are sick need the physician," He says, noting that He has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mk 2:17). Once again, the image of sickness of body and sickness of soul are linked, but sickness is not identified with sinfulness. Similarly, in each of these sacraments, the relationship of sin and sickness is noted, yet the Church also does not make the mistake of conflating them, as though sin is surefire proof of God's wrath. That's why there is a distinction between the sacraments -- Reconciliation for the sinner, Anointing for the sick -- yet the sacrament of Anointing, while certainly directed at physical healing, is also primarily intended for spiritual healing.

It should be noted that, beyond the sacramental life of the Church, what the tradition commends as a work of mercy is visiting the sick, not curing the sick. What is in view is not the development of the science of medicine (though that will be a happy side-effect as the Christian tradition invents the hospital system and encourages the growth of the sciences). Rather, what is in view is, once again, the human dignity of the sufferer. Being around sick people means being around vomit, pus, running sores, blood, stool, mucus, ghastly injuries, tears, misery, fear, pain, and death. All the corporal work of mercy asks us for, at its most basic, is to screw our courage to the sticking point and have the guts to enter a room, sit down, and hold somebody's fevered hand. And even that is often more than we can muster.
Do read the whole thing, especially Mark's warning at the end that our anti-life culture may soon see exterminating the sick (especially the elderly) as, on the whole, preferable to visiting or caring for them. I hope he's wrong about that--but I suspect he isn't.

Being both female and a mother, I can't help but read a piece like this and start to wonder how I'm doing with the whole "visit the sick" thing. Of course, as a mother, the first thought that comes to mind is, "I don't get to visit the sick. I have to live with them--and they have to live with me, when it's my turn." All mothers can relate, I think; the primary way in which we act according to this particular corporal work of mercy is in our ministrations to our own husbands and children when they are ill, and our efforts to overcome our own illnesses in order to continue to serve our families. It's easy to overlook this, of course--what is it about the works of mercy (both corporal and spiritual) that sometimes tempts us to think that our actions only "count" if we're aiding neighbors, friends, or total strangers--but not, you know, the people under our own roofs and the ones we're related to?

But sometimes the opportunity to visit some sick person who doesn't call us "Mom" or "Honey" may arise. What should we do then? How should we respond to such an opportunity?

For one thing, we can't lose sight of the virtue of prudence, which the Catechism defines this way: "Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; "the prudent man looks where he is going."65 "Keep sane and sober for your prayers."66 Prudence is "right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle.67 It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation...." (CCC, 1806). Now, visiting the sick is a good, ordinarily--a virtuous and even courageous action. But if the sick person is being kept in a quarantine unit of a hospital with an unknown and potentially deadly respiratory virus, and the would-be visitor has both a six-month-old infant at home and an elderly relative who is on oxygen, then it's not especially virtuous for the visitor to sneak past hospital staff and into the patient's room. Of course, most circumstances won't be that drastic, but each person has to consider the circumstances of his state in life and the nature of the sick person's illness before venturing forth; this doesn't mean that one may never visit someone whose illness is contagious, for instance, but it does mean that one at least needs to consider his or her other obligations before visiting someone who has a highly contagious illness.

Another thing to consider, even when visiting someone who has cancer or a broken leg or something that's not contagious in the least, is how much time one can justly devote to these and other works of mercy. I mention this only because I've encountered, in real life and online, good, holy Catholic women who have a tendency to beat themselves up for not doing more in this and many other areas. If you have a lot of leisure time and can easily volunteer at your parish to visit the sick (perhaps to accompany EMHCs when they are bringing Holy Communion to the sick), or to bring meals to those who've come home from the hospital, etc., then you might prayerfully consider the best way to offer your talents to God in service to the sick. But if you have a numerous or growing family whose many needs preclude you from making a regular committment, there still might be ways to get involved. Even the busiest person can make it a regular habit to pray for the sick, especially the ones in one's parish or community; our parish women's group sends get-well cards to those who are ill, which is another way to "visit" when one can't be physically present (though I agree with Mark, in that the physical presence is the best way to fulfill this work of mercy). If prayer, cards or letters or phone calls, the dropping off of the occasional meal, etc. are the best you can do, though--then do these things, and be present to the sick in this way.

The final thing I want to mention might bring up images of the old joke about the Boy Scout helping the little old lady across the street even though she didn't want to cross it--be sure the sick person actually wants to be visited. This might be hard to figure out, as some people hate to be a burden when they are ill, and don't wish to admit that they'd like a little company; but a little tactful probing will soon uncover the truth. This is especially important to discover when the sick person has been hospitalized--some people absolutely hate to be visited in the hospital by anyone other than immediate family members. Since patients often are loosely-clad in a hospital gown, haven't been able to shower properly for days, and (in the case of women) can't fix their hair or makeup, this isn't so hard to understand; then, too, there's the reality that doctors and nurses will continually pop in and want to give shots or administer medicines, ask embarrassing personal questions, and otherwise make a visit more of a work of mercy on the part of the poor person being visited than on the visitors.

Even if the person is not in the hospital or has been released from one, make sure your visit is convenient (e.g., sick people don't always love drop-in visitors), and keep it short unless the person has asked otherwise. If you offer to bring food, check to be sure it's something the person can have (likewise, if you are cooking for the family--there are lots of food restrictions out there these days). A rule I read long ago which is true whether you are trying to help someone who is sick or a family dealing with a loss is this: offer something specific. In other words, don't ask, "Do you need help getting groceries?" but instead say, "I'm going to the warehouse club grocery store and the pharmacy tomorrow. What can I pick up there for you?" If the sick person (or his or her family) insists, though, that they're fine and don't need anything but your company, then take their word for it.

Mark's essay dealt with some beautiful philosophical and theological thoughts about the corporal work of mercy which commands us to visit the sick. My practical suggestions as to ways to do this are not in any way complete or exhaustive. For those of us who are wives and mothers, our training ground for this kind of mercy begins at home; if we can cheerfully and lovingly take care of our own husbands and children when they are ill, cranky, out-of-sorts, etc., it won't be hard to take that same cheerful and positive attitude into other sickrooms when God calls us to enter them.


JMB said...

Having been in a few crisis situations, I echo your thought on offering SPECIFIC help. The banal - call if you need anything- just doesn't cut it when you need everything and can't muster the courage, strength, peace of mind, moxie or whatever to call that person. Just say: I'm bringing over dinner on Tuesday night, or I'm picking up Susie to take her to ballet for you.

Years ago, when my daughter got home from the hospital after breaking her femur (in a body cast!), the doorbell rang and there was her teacher and aide who came to see her during their lunch hour. I cried when I saw them. We weren't friends, I barely knew them. But they came and visited her. I will never forget that as long as I live.

Melanie B said...

Great suggestions. I echo what you say about prudence. Last fall my sister had an appendectomy and as I am her only family in this part of the country and she's only recently moved and thus doesn't have many friends yet, I knew that I was the only person available who could visit her. So I took myself and the three kids to the hospital to cheer her up for an hour or so. She did greatly appreciate it. Unfortunately, a few days later the entire family, starting with me, caught the flu and I had the opportunity to care for the sick in the persons of my three year-old and my one year-old and my infant as well as my husband and then my sister who was discharged from the hospital and then promptly caught the flu from the rest of us.

In hindsight perhaps visiting the hospital during flu season wasn't the most prudent act. It can be hard to remember when you have small children that your first duty is to keep them safe and healthy.

Anonymous said...

As a young person I stayed away from sick people (and funerals), but as I've had the opportunity to work with elderly (in nursing homes) and those with various ailments in the hospital do have something in common, a tendency to to be marginalized to a certain extent.

My friend recovering from broken hip and shoulder seems to relish visits at the convalescent center where she's attempting to gain a terrific amount of strength in a short time to recover and return home before fall. Albeit, clothed in a gown and confined to wheelchair, she's still the same Ingeborg, annoyed at the inconvenience of plaster and limited by mobility, wanting to invite get back home with her little dog and and invite me over for tea (strong coffee, actually).

In a way, calling someone something e.g. sick, or ill, or this or that, confines them to a category which dehumanizes them a bit, and makes it easier not to pay as much attention.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

When it comes to caring for and visiting the elderly, my own choice, for myself as I age, is that if I am chronically or permanently and systemically incapable of giving informed consent, then nobody should authorize major surgery or any invasive procedure to prolong my life. (I've read that some 70 percent of medical costs are in precisely that age range, some of which is appropriate, but I'll pass on spending $150,000 of your tax money to give me an extra six months drooling in a nursing home).

That is totally different from proactively putting me to sleep. Just let nature take its course. We all have to go sometime. Thanathasia poses more subtle moral conundrums than euthanasia, but both are fundamentally wrong.