Visting the Sick

J--Butterworth-Florence-Nightingale--Incisioni-a-mano--38692Two Biblical texts, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, bear witness to the extreme importance of visiting the sick. (4). In Sirach 7:35 we find the exhortation ‘Do not hesitate to visit the sick. You will be loved for things like these’. This text means that when visiting a sick person a man obeys the commandment to love his neighbour and is in his turn loved back. In Matthew 25:36 Jesus, the eschatological judge, proclaims: ‘I was sick and you visited me’. A visit to a sick person becomes a mysterious and yet real encounter with Christ who is present in a sick person: in visiting a sick person experience is had of Christ who visits us in that sick person. And yet at the same time the Bible affirms that a visit to a sick person is a very delicate and risky operation. The acquaintances who visit a sick person in Psalm 41 become his enemies; the friends who visit Job in reality fail in their meeting and are perceived by Job as ‘doctors who can’t heal anyone’ (Jb 13:4), providers of comfort that is ‘only torment’ (Jb 16:2), and as people who cover up their ‘ignorance with lies’ (Jb 13:4): troubling and hostile presences. The example of their failure is instructive for many people who, when wanting to engage in a work of corporal mercy, think that good intentions to ‘engage’ in a visit are enough for good to have been done. But a visit to a sick person is not something to be taken for granted: it is always difficult to encounter the other but it is even more difficult to encounter a sick person with truth.

The mistake of Job’s friends, a mistake which is often one that we ourselves commit, was to present themselves to the sick man as ‘saviours’, that is to say in the belief that they knew, more than the sick man himself, what the patient should do; in the certitude that, in visiting the sick man, good was being done to him and before God; and that they were without doubt able to comfort him and help him. People often visit a sick person with ‘full hands’ and not ‘empty hands’, that is to say armed with instruments (the Bible, a spiritual book, gifts, and so forth) which more than helping to achieve an authentic encounter become elements for defence and distancing against and from the powerlessness of the sick person. In going to the sick man as ‘saviours’, Job’s friends set in motion a perverse triangle in which they turned the sick man into a victim by becoming his persecutors, ending up by becoming in their turn the targets of Job’s accusations and resentment.

Thus each of the three actors of the drama (the visitors and the sick man) appeared from time to time as persecutors and victims, starting with the claim of the visitors to be saviours and thus figures that the sick man needed. But a relationship based on need is outside the free-giving and freedom which are essential to its success. To visit a sick person one needs to enter into the perspective that one does not have power over that person and that it is only by trying to share, inasmuch as this is possible, in his or her powerless and weakness that one can encounter him or her. One must understand that the bedside of the sick man is not a setting for preaching or a lesson in morality or theology and the weakness of that sick person cannot become an unconscious conformation of one’s own strength. A visit to a sick person is located in the space of an encounter that is meaningful for the other, an encounter that brings out the personal quality of the patient: he or she is not a ‘number’ or a ‘clinical case’ but a person who is going through the dramatic today of sickness. (5) It would be a very bad thing if the visit became an event where the visitor felt of greater value because of the weakness of the patient and strengthened in his or her significance! The patient must be allowed to guide the visit, it is he or she that must be listened to, it is he or she that must be allowed to speak, and he or she is the teacher who must be listened to: Christ identifies himself with the sick person and not with the visitor (cf. Mt 25:36).

imagesIf the visit takes place in the patient’s home, then one must in an absolute way adhere with infinite discretion to the relational framework established by the patient: the walls of the home are impregnated with meaningful memories, they are rich in affective history, and they are the vital space of that sick person. One should also take into account the inevitable asymmetry that exists between the patient and the visitor: the latter forms a part of the world of the ‘healthy’; when he or she draws near to the sick person lying in a bed he or she runs the risk of seeing that person from a superior position, thereby making visible the power that he or she has over that sick person: whoever accompanies a sick person knows that they must bend down and be at the level of the eyes of the patient so as to be able to communicate with that person. The sick person – and here we find the difficulty of an authentic visit – asks the visitor to lower himself or herself, to become weak, to become poor; he or she asks that person to enter into communication that is made up not only, and not so much, of words but, rather and above all else, of vigilant silence, of listening, and of discernment of the language of the patient’s body. Above all in extreme situations one communicates with one’s eyes and hands, with a look and with touch.

The sick person, who often is a manipulated body and forced to endure tactile approaches which, although they are curative, are also intrusive and aggressive, seeing that he or she is the recipient of gestures of delicacy and tenderness then feels accepted in his or her weak body and thus respected in the intimacy of his or her personal being. Thus it is essential for the sick person to feel accepted in his or her emotional states without an attitude of censure on the part of the visitor. Given that the visit to the sick person is of this character, it is advisable not make it be the subject of improvisation and good intentions without discernment. One should always, at least, ask oneself two questions: why am I going to visit a sick person. How should I visit that person? One then understands that the art of visiting a man who is sick is not something that has to be done, an initiative where we always and whatever the case do good, but, rather, an event that requires deep work in relation to oneself and discernment about what dwells inside us, about the deep motivations that guide us. In definitive terms, about what we are and the meaning that other people have for us.