Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 63, The Treatment of the Elderly

Chapter 63 in The Rule of St. Benedict deals with rank in the monastery, which mainly determined the order in which the monks received the kiss of peace, received communion or led worship.

How was rank assigned? Not by age, but by how long you had been at the monastery. Thus, a younger monk who had been a part of the monastery longer had a higher rank than the older monk with less time in the community:
1The monks keep their rank in the monastery according to the date of their entry...5Absolutely nowhere shall age automatically determine rank...
And yet, the chapter goes on to describe all the ways the younger monks are to defer to and respect the older monks:
10The younger monks, then, must respect their seniors, and the seniors must love their juniors. 11When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name; 12rather, the seniors call the younger monks "brother" and the younger monks call their seniors nonnus, which is translated as "venerable father"...13Wherever brothers meet, the junior asks his senior for a blessing. 14When an older monk comes by, the younger rises and offers him a seat, and does not presume to sit down unless the older bids him. 17In this way, they do what the words of Scripture say: "They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other" (Rom. 12:10).
Reflecting on this, I think age discrimination is a big problem in a lot of churches. Reflecting the idols of the American culture, youth, energy and vitality is prized, honored and worshiped. Old age is shunned, pushed to the margins. Once your hair greys you aren't much use to a hip, vibrant, young church.

I think you can tell a lot about a church by the way they treat, yes, the poor and the disabled, but also the way they treat the elderly.

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6 thoughts on “Fridays with Benedict: Chapter 63, The Treatment of the Elderly”

  1. This brings to mind two sayings by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

    “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.”

    “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

    I spend much time with the elderly, and it is true that gray hair is no guarantee of wisdom. But if we give each elderly voice an audience we will learn more than we knew when we first greeted the day. Besides, compassion is not just for those who make our visit a comfortable one, but for those who try our patience. This is when we are stretched, when we often, in our difficulty to listen and to understand, whisper to God, "Please forgive my frustration". It is the difficult ones that teach us humility.

  2. Thanks so much for bringing this up. I think for a lot of church people there is a halo effect when they talk about "the poor" or "the elderly." But when you get down into the trenches you encounter the difficulties that you mention. And it's in that crucible where true compassion is forged.

  3. A couple years ago I had moved to a new town, and was looking for opportunities to volunteer. I have some experience with youth ministry, and they had just opened a new youth shelter, so I called and asked if they needed any volunteer work. They told me they didn't, but that the "Better at Home" organization - which helps seniors who still live in their own homes but who need assistance getting around, doing yardwork, etc. - was always looking for more volunteers. To my shame, I politely said thank you and hung up and did nothing. In my work as a pastor I already spend a lot of time with elderly people, and it wasn't as exciting as the idea of working with troubled youth. After a few days my conscience got the better of me. Shovelling snow off of an older woman's driveway is not particularly glamorous, but I realized I was acting a bit like Naaman when he was told to bathe in the Jordan - looking for something big and important when I was being called to a small, simple thing. I picked up the phone and called them, and I've been volunteering for the organization since then - and it's been immensely rewarding. I think our culture - and I include Christian culture here - has glamorized caring for the poor and for orphans and even for those in prison, but has neglected one of the groups most often commanded to be cared for in the Bible: widows. I'm grateful that God tapped me on the shoulder and made me aware of that own prejudice in myself, and has started to deal with it.

  4. Senior members are refusing to be pushed aside. Look at how many active senior member groups there are - the "Silver Lights," the "Primetimers," etc. Others believe that congregations are too segmented. Whatever verse justifies taking a bus load of young people to Six Flags is the same verse that justifies taking a bus load of seniors to Branson. The most neglected age group in the church are the "empty-nesters." The treatment and use of seniors vary from congregation to congregation. One that I know expects elders to resign when they reach 65. For others, you don't qualify unless you are at least that old. Currently, most seniors are upset because "they don't sing songs from the book." Having once conducted numerous aging ministry workshops from Abilene to Nashville, there are many needed ministries in almost every congregation that use the talents and skills of seniors in constructive ways that don't cost money, such as "handyman service," and "phone reassurance," etc.

  5. Over forty years ago I saw a movie entitled "The Cardinal" staring Richard Chamberlan. One scene has stayed with me. On a visit with the aged and sickly pastor of an unimpressive little parish, the accomplished middle-aged prelate reacted with utter kindness and compassion to the quaking, weeping old priest who had kneeled before him asking forgiveness for his failure. But he was reminded that when we give our best it is enough and even more. The older man was comforted by the superior younger. I feel certain that Benedict would have approved.

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