Tag Archives: hospitals

C S Lewis’s quasi-medieval ministry of mercy – part I


Kindly Lewis photoHere is the first bit of the conclusion of the “compassionate ministry” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (the second part is here). Here Lewis helps us see the breadth and spiritual dimension of the classical medieval virtue of mercy:

How can we benefit today from this consistent though evolving medieval witness to compassionate charity through healthcare? For one thing, I believe we can see in that witness a clear reminder of the supreme role of mercy in living out the gospel. Lewis, who knew the tradition well, insisted that “if one virtue must be cultivated at the expense of all the rest, none has a higher claim than mercy.”[1] He understood, of course, the teaching of the scholastics that mercy both is and is not Christianity’s highest virtue. It is not the highest virtue, as Aquinas taught, because the theological virtue of caritas, love for God, must be counted greater, since its object (God) is greater than that of mercy (humans). But as far as “external works” are concerned, we know that “the sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy.”[2]

This puts individual acts of mercy in the right context: they are agape, caritas, made concrete through action. “Agape in action,” as Lewis put it in a letter to a Mrs. Ashton, who has taken in a poor illegitimate child to her household. “Charity,” he wrote to her, “means love. It is called Agape in the New Testament,” which is the kind of love that “God has for us,” which is “all giving, not getting.”  As the word was used by the medievals: not just throwing a few dollars at a problem—though giving money can be one kind of charity—but actualizing one’s love, which is why “to give time and toil is far better and (for most of us) harder.”

The unfortunate history of the word “charity” actually illustrates the breaking of this holism between acts of mercy (social ethics) and Christian love (personal ethics, character). Continue reading

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The medieval charitable revolution: Healing as “the Jesus thing to do”


Works of Mercy

Works of Mercy (Photo credit: jimforest)

More from the “hospitals chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

During this time, a new theology of sickness sprang up: “like monks, martyrs, saints, and finally apostles, the sick could function as mediators between God and His people. Their intercessional prayers on behalf of patrons and caregivers were believed to be valuable.”[1] This was an important development, and in the 12th century, in a more urban and more economically stable and flourishing Europe, it would contribute to a massive uptick in the foundation of hospitals by wealthy lay donors.

And that was a good thing – the “charitable revolution” of the 12th century – because by the 11th, monasteries were nearing the end of their hospitalling. The culprit? Economic change: Continue reading

Monks, illness, demons, and sin


Monastic hospitalFitting right into the modern Monty Python stereotype of medieval people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious is the assumption that especially the monks of the Middle Ages sought only supernatural explanations for things. Understanding that up to the 12th century, healthcare took place almost exclusively in the monasteries, we jump to the logical conclusion: such care couldn’t possibly have attended to the physical causes of illness. Didn’t those monks just believe that illness was caused either by demons or by the sins of the sick person? There’s a germ of truth here (pun intended), but the reality was quite different. That’s the subject of the next section of the hospitals chapter in my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Monastic phase

The distinctly monastic flavor of healthcare during the Middle Ages – even when it was provided by lay orders like the Hospitallers – deserves a bit more probing. From the beginning, monasteries in the West took Benedict’s cue and made caring not only for ill monks but also for needy travelers one of their primary tasks. The “stranger” was always an object of monastic charity. This “rather broad category,” says medical historian Gunter Risse, included “jobless wanderers or drifters as well as errant knights, devout pilgrims, traveling scholars, and merchants. . . .”[1] Monastic care for the stranger and the ill was formalized in the 800s during Charlemagne’s reforms, as assemblies of abbots (leaders of monasteries) gathered to reform and standardize that aspect of monastic life. At that time many of the scattered church-sponsored hostels (xenodocheia) across the Holy Roman Empire were given “regula”—quasi-monastic rules, and “monasteries . . . assumed the greater role in dispensing welfare.”

Organized, ubiquitous, stable, pious: the monasteries of the West became sites of care and of medical learning. “Benedict’s original rule ordered that ‘for these sick brethren let there be assigned a special room and an attendant who is God-fearing, diligent, and solicitous.’ This monk or nun attending the sick—the infirmarius was usually selected because of personality and practical healing skills. The latter were acquired informally through experience, as well as through consultation of texts, medical manuscripts, and herbals available in the monastery’s library or elsewhere. . . . The infirmarius usually talked with patients and asked questions, checked on the food, compounded medicinal herbs, and comforted those in need. . . .”[2]

“A rudimentary practice of surgery (‘touching and cutting’) at the monastic infirmary was usually linked to the management of trauma, including lacerations, dislocations, and fractures. Although these were daily occurrences, the infirmarius may not have always been comfortable practicing surgery on his brothers, for it was always a source of considerable pain, bleeding, and infection. Complicated wounds or injuries may have forced some monks to request the services of more experienced local bonesetters or even barber surgeons. . . .”[3] Risse notes other popular healing practices of the Middle Ages that were integrated into the monastic medical routine, including herbology, bathing (not otherwise common!), preventive bloodletting, and diagnostic examination of pulse, urine, stool, and blood.

The mention of some of these “backward” medieval medical practices may raise another stereotype many have in their heads about the Middle Ages. Just as some still believe the fabrication that medieval people believed in a flat earth, some assume that medievals did not know, and were not interested in, the physical causes of illness. Instead, the story goes, they assumed all illness came from devilish or demonic sources, or, a variant, from some hidden sin in the sick person. Continue reading

From poorhouse to hospital – a medieval development


Basil

Basil (Photo credit: el_finco) Not actually Basil the Great, but the herb, which has been used since ancient times as an anti-inflammatory.

Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis, this introductory bit, and this description of the very first proto-hospitals in the earliest Christian church

Basil’s House of Healing

The hospital itself, it is generally agreed, begins to emerge in the fourth century from the compassion of a well-known monk—Basil, now called “the Great.” In setting the scene for this story, historian Timothy S. Miller reminds us that Lewis’s “two-edged” description of the faith (body affirming + spirit affirming) characterized monks as well as laypeople – in a way many moderns find surprising. Mentioning some of the monks’ more severe ascetic practices (for example, the unforgettable Simeon Stylites’ long stretches sitting atop a pole in the desert), Miller admits, “Their lifestyles of severe self-denial may seem to pull against the truth that God made us human beings and called us ‘very good’—bodies and all.”

“But,” continues, Miller, “if monastics really thought of the body as evil, then how is it that some of the greatest strides in the history of healthcare arose within monasticism? Monks cared for the ill in Benedictine monasteries, Franciscan leprosaria, the institutions of the monastic ‘hospitallers,’ the many hospitals of the Augustinians, and so on throughout the history of monasticism.” Basil started it all, and his story “decisively dispels” our “myths of body-hating monks.”[1] Continue reading

C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body


Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1] Continue reading

“Oh, yeah. Jesus did THAT too . . .” A story about mercy and the gospel


Jesus wept

Well, I’ve gotten a bit behind on posting – been busy writing the chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis about medieval compassionate action – through the case study of a thoroughly medieval institution: the hospital. Did get the whole thing written, so I’ll be posting it bit by bit over the next few days.

I don’t think I have to start this chapter on how medievals pioneered the hospital by making a case that compassion, mercy, and healing are good things. I’m pretty sure people of every age and religion will agree on that one. Nor will I indicate some flaw in evangelical culture on this matter of compassionate ministry. The healthcare system, schools, social services departments, and NGOs are full of compassionate evangelicals, as well as compassionate non-evangelicals and compassionate non-Christians. But as I have researched the ancient and medieval development of that innovative institution in world history—the hospital—I have wondered more than once: do modern Christians really “get” the relationship of mercy and the Gospel the way medievals did?

So, allow me to open this case study in Christian compassion with a question . . .

How central is mercy to the Gospel?

We know the story. Mary the sister of Lazarus got to where Jesus was. She fell down at his feet, overcome with grief and just a bit of accusatory anger: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He saw her crying. The others with her were also crying.

What was Jesus’ response? Continue reading

Christian History magazine issue #101, on the history of hospitals, is here–and there’s much, much more to come


Yep. The Christian History editorial team is celebrating the printing of Issue #101: Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church. For full access to this full-color issue (including a magnified view for us old people–just click on the magazine to enlarge), see here.

The issue tells the fascinating story of how early and medieval Christians pioneered the healthcare institutions on which we now rely, including the modern hospital.

Christian History itself is moving forward in full and glorious health. Projects in the pipeline for 2011-12 include the following:

–a guided tour of 1,000 years of worship from Constantine to Luther,

–a larger issue or even book on the history of Christianity in America,

–an issue showing how influential early African Christianity (especially North African) was in the development of the faith,

–an issue exploring the ways the church responded to the travails and malaises of industrial society from the early 1800s through the beginning World War II, and

–a special keepsake issue on the history of Christmas.

If you haven’t signed up for the magazine yet at http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org, now is the time! Tell your friends!