Including the Chronically Ill in Community Life
During my discussion with Tim Keller, we talked about “family traditions”, ways to bring the Faith into the home and make it come alive. I have many fond memories of my family’s traditions. For instance, on Holy Thursday evening we would “strip the house” by removing pictures, decorations (and clutter!) in imitation of the stripping of the altars in the churches. The absence of usual items about the house was very striking and made Good Friday feel different. On Easter Sunday we lit a special vanilla scented candle that was only burned on that day. That smell is now the smell of Easter for us. At Epiphany, three of us would dress up as the three kings and process with our gifts to place in front of the Nativity set. As well as many traditions tied to the liturgical year, we had other traditions associated with birthdays and anniversaries.
When my mother and two of my siblings became chronically ill, it was difficult to keep these traditions going. Many of them were scaled down or discontinued. This was unfortunate on many levels, but particularly because they could have helped to dispel the depression that chronic sickness in a home can produce.
This problem goes far beyond family traditions. Chronic illness puts an individual or family into survival mode. All sorts of things get dropped, from social interaction to hobbies and recreation, simply because there isn’t the time or energy for them. The chronically ill can become invisible, dropping out of society and disappearing into their homes; they are rarely missed or remembered. They often feel abandoned by friends and family and by the Church.
A supportive community can at least partially solve this problem. In Tim Keller’s community, the whole community participates in various traditional activities. Such community participation would make it easier for families dealing with chronic illness to participate in religious and social rituals.
Unfortunately, chronic illness makes it harder for a family or community to participate in or form community. Beyond the obvious drain on time and energy discussed above, the chronically ill face many unique challenges that can make it hard for them to find community.
Healthy members of a community or social group can unconsciously push the sick (and their family members) away. Particularly in our culture, there is a lot of pressure on individuals to “get over” things. People feel the need to “put a cheerful face on it” so that one doesn’t “drag the whole group down.” Compassion literally means “suffering with” and is by definition an uncomfortable emotion. The sick or sorrowful act as a sort of “memento mori”, an unpleasant reminder of the troubles of life, that many people would rather not encounter.
Even if a group makes every effort to be accommodating, these cultural mentalities can cause the sick to feel that they are “being a burden” and withdraw from social interaction. In our culture, being independent and self-sufficient is honored as a virtue, and those who are forced into dependency feel that they are failures. This is the result of a certain “muscular Christianity” which ignores the fact that we are all totally dependent on God’s mercy.
The physical disabilities that accompany chronic illness, of course, can also hamper social interactions. These disabilities may not be obvious to those who haven’t suffered from them, and so are not taken into account. For instance, I know three people, two family members and a friend, who are unable to be out in the sun for more than a few minutes due to lupus and other chronic conditions. This of course makes certain social activities impossible for them, and family members have to choose whether to go to events and leave them behind. (Maybe this one is more obvious to me because I live in Colorado, where the Sun is like a giant hairdryer in the sky!)
The necessity for a special diet is a particularly difficult physical disability. In our episode on cult mentalities, Peter DeGeode and I discussed the way that the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament kept the Chosen People separate from surrounding groups. Sharing food is a “material sacrament” that helps a group to bond. Those who need a special diet can’t participate in it, leaving them feeling left out and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, people sometimes misunderstand this need as a mere preference or fad, and try to “encourage” sick people to “just try things!” This can lead to awkward and unpleasant situations.
These difficulties can be overcome, but it is impossible to do so if the community is based on human strength instead of Divine grace. Both Tim Keller and Jack Sharpe discussed this spiritual danger that can infect intentional Christian communities. A community can see itself as made up of a spiritual “elite”, as superior to those around it. Instead, a community should realize that it is made up of weak and broken human beings who are dependent on God’s grace. This spiritual humility can translate into greater acceptance of the physical and mental weaknesses of others.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed the importance of “going to the peripheries”, of paying attention to the marginalized. This is critically important for community building. We’ve previously discussed the necessity of reaching out to the poor to prevent an intentional community from becoming a “Christian suburb.” The chronically ill should be seen as a particular kind of “periphery”.
If those in a community do not reach out the marginalized, they are not heeding the words of Christ.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”‘Matthew 25:34-40
Due to the social invisibility of the chronically ill, community members should consider active and intentional outreach to them. Without such active outreach, it is unlikely that they will become part of a community.
How can a community do a better job of incorporating the chronically ill? What spiritual advantages can this encounter with the periphery bring to a community? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Leave a comment below, or contact us.
Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Thank you for this. Our Church needs to be one *for* the poor and sick – these are the people Jesus spent much of His ministry with! Unfortunately, the health and wealth gospel has corrupted the Gospel message of love, solidarity, and compassion, telling us lies about our faith not being strong enough or about the importance of the idol of freedom.
I remember visiting a church which featured a very stoic, ‘Art Deco’ style crucifix above the altar. Jesus was ripped, firm, enduring whatever pain He was feeling with no emotion or grimace. We have replaced our Savior who came to suffer on this world with an alternate image of strength, machismo, ‘muscular Christianity’ Jesus who had no time for the weak and burdensome.
I believe the COVID pandemic was our opportunity, our chance to be this Church for the sick. As Pope Francis has repeatedly asked, did we come out of it for the better or worse?
Exactly. I was really intrigued by Chris Arnade’s book and project Dignity in which he noticed that strip mall churches are the place people who have hit rock bottom. In other places it has been observed that, in Anglo-America at least, Catholicism is a middle and upper class religion statistically.
The only place I know in my own diocese in which the Church exists in solidarity and closeness with those at the lowest in society is the local Madonna House called The Marian Centre. I know my own parish and others has a float with which they can give out to those in need.
What I want to know is how we can change the perception of the Church as one where you can actually get that type of help; where we accept those tweaking, where we love the prostitute. I’m not sure…
Yes, I’m not sure how to change this problem. My experience in the USA is that there’s a strange divide; among non-Hispanic Americans, Catholicism tends to be a religion for the well-to-do; the old inner-city parishes are dying out. Among Hispanics, it tends to be the opposite.
Lots of the local parishes run food banks and other services, but that’s not the same thing as being a church which actually welcomes the poor. I think part of the solution is building local communities that really welcome everyone who happens to live in a given place, simply because they live there.
I think it also starts not just with the materially poor, but as shared here, the poor in health and the ones who aren’t gifted in traditionally esteemed ways (e.g., always seeing the musically inclined or the lector with a great voice or the connected project manager as the face of every parish community.)
We once stumbled into a church on a rainy Saturday night on the wrong side of the tracks in Austin (I know, too cliche), and I will never forget the image I had of *that* being what Heaven must look like. The lector stuttered, the usher had down syndrome, and the woman sitting next to us in her wheelchair had not had her bag changed in a while. The music was not pitch perfect, and yet everyone joined in. It was probably the most moving Mass that I have ever attended, and it wasn’t because of perfection in any way other than God was present.
How do we ensure that participation in community life isn’t just for the gifted and talented or the most able? How often are the weaker ones ‘allowed’ to participate only out of kindness and not because they are seen as valuable parts of the Body of Christ?