The Work of Mercy I want to talk about today sounds like an easy one – to visit the sick. Of course it’s easy to visit someone you are fond of; and that is very important, for we should never neglect our friends and members of our own family. But even that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
What about if they are in a coma or if they have become confused? Then, it suddenly becomes a much more difficult thing to do. And what if the illness is not physical, but mental? Then, all our fears of what it might be like to visit a mental hospital, and encounter people who may say strange things to us, or face a friend who also may say weird things, or will hardly speak at all, rise to the surface; and we can easily lack the courage to make the visit. Then there are those we might visit but we don’t know so well. Here we might avoid going, because we worry that we are imposing, or that the person would prefer to see family or closer friends.
In a minute I will give some suggestions about things that we might do to make these harder visits a little easier, but first let’s look at why we should make the effort at all; and the answer, as some of you might have guessed, lies with our Bible readings especially our Gospel
The Gospel (Luke 15:1-3.11-32) is the very familiar story of the bad son who eventually returns home to his father. Now you might well say “What on earth has that got to do with visiting the sick?” The answer is an awful lot, because the parables are not principally about the human story, but are told to get over to us underlying truths about God. In this story the important person is the father, and what is important for us today is the action of the father when the son comes back. It’s crazy really. What father would spend day after day looking out for his stupid son to return when he has a farm to run? And what father would then run to greet his son and totally ignore his attempts to say sorry.
In this, as in many other parables, Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not like us. God’s love for us stupid humans is, in one sense, quite crazy. Or as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (2 Cor 5:17-21) “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”So this story is actually about the amazing love of God, and by extension it calls us to reflect a little bit of that crazy goodness in our own lives. We are not called to be good and kind in any nicely controlled way. We are called to love others as God loves us, beyond all reason and all limits, and that’s what every work of mercy is all about. So we are not visiting the sick just to be nice and kind. Anyone can do that. We are called to reach out to the sick even when it is difficult to do so.
Normally a priest has it easy here, because he is bringing the person the Blessed Sacrament, or anointing them. But I remember one occasion when a lady was in a coma for weeks. I had already anointed her on my first visit, what should I do now? One thing that Doctors recommend is to assume that people in a coma can hear you, and talk to them. The problem then is that one runs out of things to say. In the case of this lady, I simply said the Rosary out loud for her to listen to, and she got better. You can do that too, or simply say an Our Father etc for the person. That’s a very powerful prayer. Another thing one can do is to read to them something that might interest them, their favourite novel, or a magazine or newspaper. This can also be a way to visit someone with who is confused and elderly. Always treat them as if they can understand even if they appear not to.
One of the reasons some people find visiting exhausting is that they stay too long or they talk too much. For many sick people a short visit of no more than 15 minutes may be more helpful than staying too long, and exhausting yourself and the patient. Sick people need to be listened to, not talked at, so we must not make the mistake, if they find it difficult to talk much, of talking too much ourselves.
Finally it is so important that we Christians work hard to overcome the hang-ups our society has about mental illness. 1 in 4 of us will have mental illness at some time, and visiting people in this situation is so important, even if we find it difficult. Whatever the illness (mental or physical) let us make the resolution today to be better at doing this important work. Remember what Jesus said? If you do this to someone, however insignificant they may be, he will be there in that sick person, and in helping them, you will be serving the Lord Jesus himself.