Medieval lay ministry to the sick – joining in their sufferings to meet Christ

medieval-doctorsAnd here is a bit more from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis on the “charitable revolution” in late medieval Europe, with its outpouring of personal care to the sick – founding of hospitals, waiting upon the sick hand and foot, entering into their sufferings with compassion, and finding in all of that the personal presence of Jesus Christ, just as Matthew 25 promised.

A paragon of the new model of lay involvement in healthcare was Elizabeth of Hungary. A wealthy laywoman on the model of the ancient Roman Christian hero Fabiola, the 13th-century lay saint Elizabeth began, after her husband’s death, to feed, wash the feet of, sew clothes for, and bury the sick poor. No arms-length philanthropist, she delighted in the unpleasant, humiliating labor of personally attending – after the manner of a modern nursing assistant – to the basest and messiest physical needs of her charges.

One might interpret such devotion to healing tasks as self-interested, since the theology of the day at times seemed to virtually assure salvation to those so engaged. No doubt this was a motivator, but theologians also stressed the attitude of the heart in ministering to others. Because Matthew 25 clearly showed that charitable acts to the needy were, in fact, done to Christ himself, physical charity wove itself into the fabric of one’s heart relationship with God (see “affective devotion” chapter).

In fact, Elizabeth’s actions represented (and promoted) a new, strongly affective theology of healthcare: in com-passion, the empathetic experiencing of others’ pain and suffering, she—and increasingly the Western church at large—found redemptive value because it brought them closer to Christ. By helping the sick and poor, they were not only imitating the example of Christ, but at the same time pouring out their love to him “in the most intimate and sacrificial way.”[1]

Remember that from the 11th century on, a new emphasis on the personal, emotional dimensions of faith was rising. We see it in Anselm of Canterbury’s intimate prayers and devotions to Christ and Mary, and Peter Abelard’s love-centered atonement theory. Closer to home, most laypeople in this period had heard many impassioned sermons from traveling Franciscan evangelists. From portable outdoor pulpits and within chapels whose walls were often covered with life-sized Passion scenes (painted as graphically as possible so as to elicit emotions of compassion and empathy from the viewer), the preaching friars stressed as never before the emotions of Jesus during his ordeal—and the answering emotions of the worshiper. And this emotion was not only to be expressed in worship, but also in action. “Don’t spend all your time meditating on the Passion to the neglect of your fellow Christian,” warned the 14th-century English Augustinian Walter Hilton. “Wash Christ’s feet by attending to your subjects and your tenants.”

We hear this new affective devotion in the language of those leaving money to hospitals in their wills. Often the benefactors would say that they gave “to sustain the poor compassionately,” or having “been moved by the zeal of compassion.” When Jacques de Vitry wrote model sermons intended to be preached to hospital workers, he emphasized that the appropriate motive for caring for others in this way not a thirst for public reputation or a desire to secure a place in heaven, but rather a pious empathy with the sufferings of others.

Again, this compassion not only mirrored Christ’s love for us in suffering on our behalf, but it was also a heartfelt personal response to that love. And working in a hospital for the poor and lepers became the quintessential expression of holy compassion: “A large proportion of saints canonized during this period were lay women who devoted themselves to working in hospitals for the poor and lepers. Of course, some of the saints of old had been charitable as well, but unlike most of the more contemplative saints during the periods immediately before and after the 12th and 13th centuries, many of those from the late 12th and 13th centuries were venerated for founding hospitals and other social welfare institutions.” [Davis]

The “laicization” of healthcare in this period did not, however, mean its secularization. Your experience as a hospital patient, sick or injured, not wealthy enough to have the luxury of a private physician, perhaps traveling, would have been a thoroughly religious one. Most likely, “you would find yourself in a setting with fifteen to thirty other patients,” largely adults, though “some hospitals did take in abandoned babies and orphans.” Your accommodations would probably have been some distance from the center of a town, in the “suburbs,” where land was cheaper and “there was more space for buildings and gardens and more quiet for prayer and contemplation.” If a stream was nearby, then so much the better, not only because running water was a useful commodity, but also because the ritual service of prayer and confession that attended your entry to the institution might involve footwashing.[2]

After the initiation ceremonies, which likely included taking communion, you would be given a bed, whether private or shared. A small chest of drawers might house your personal belongings, and a tray stretch across your bed for supporting the meals served to you while you recuperated. Most important was the proximity of your bed to worship spaces, as “the round of worship in a medieval hospital was considered to be one of its most important functions.” All seven of the “monastic hours” were likely observed, and “mass was usually said every morning as well, provided the hospital had a priest on staff (most did).”[3] There would have been no confusion about which God was being honored and served in the serving of your needs.

[1] [Adam J. Davis, “The Charitable Revolution,” Christian History Issue 101, 35]

[2] (Jennifer Woodruff Tait, “The Hospital Experience,” Christian History Issue 101).

[3] (Jennifer Woodruff Tait, “The Hospital Experience,” Christian History Issue 101).


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