Chapter 37: Old men and children


Human nature tends to show sympathy to the aged and to children. The Rule also should make provision for them.

What is sympathy?

It would be too easy to skip past the opening of this chapter blindly accepting the statement that,

Human nature tends to show sympathy to the aged and to children.

without questioning whether we, as a society at the present moment, do show sympathy for aged and children. When pondering this question I find myself asking,

What is sympathy?

As I continue to pray for my own personal recovery from mild, stress related depression and after my public admission to suffering from this; I have received many expressions of concern and some sympathy from others. This has been nice, to some extent, but it has also not helped. The responses to my illness have fallen broadly into three categories: the first is what I might call ‘distanced concern’ and the second is ‘accepted reality’.

By ‘distanced concern’ I mean people who don’t know what it is like to feel and think like I do expressing concern that I am damaging myself and my behaviour is unknown and scary to them. This is not their fault; I don’t expect everyone to understand what I am going through and their concern is, I hope, truly genuine. It is nice to know that people want me to function and flourish; the fact they don’t know how to make that happen doesn’t belittle their desire to help. Their desire, however, stops at the point of action because they can’t help me. This is not their fault and I am not accusing them of some failure because there is none. Saying that one can get tired of expressions of concern when what you want is someone to help you. When you’re stuck down a hole there’s only so many times you can have people walking past wishing me luck in getting out,

Wow, that must be tough. I really wish I could help you up but I’m not sure how. Let me know how that works out.

The second category of responses, I want to name ‘accepted reality’. This is what I understand as sympathy; from the Greek syn (beside, to accompany) and pathos (feelings, passions). In both the Latin and the Greek, the words we use to get ‘sympathy’ have this sense of accompanying in another’s feelings. I have experienced this being manifested in worthy statements such as:

I know how that feels.

I have been through something similar to that and I know how the pressures impact me.

I too feel similar feelings to you. You’re not alone.

These are very well meaning and can help to know that you’re not alone in a situation. Again, however, there’s only so much sympathy I can take before I get tired of people sitting at the top of the hole I’m in telling me,

I’ve been down a hole before. It was a real struggle for me to get myself out. I can’t really help you except to sit and wait for the answer to become clear.

There is I feel a deeper part to sympathy which I’d like to separate from the mere accompanying aspect and I’d name that ‘empathy’. Empathy has a more intense dimension to it which is important. The difference in the root of this word is that instead of the syn (beside) it begins with en (in). There is a helpful video which distinguishes between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’.

If sympathy is a ‘coming alongside someone in their emotions and feelings’, then empathy, for me is about entering into the pain of the other. To continue this analogy of the hole: if some walk past offering good will and others sit at the top of the hole to keep a suffering one company, then empathy is when someone jumps into the hole and sits in it with them. I feel guilty, however, when there is a sense of empathy shown towards me because I perceive it as them having to take the same feelings as I have in an attempt to help me but the solution to the problem is not found, we just end up sitting together bemoaning the fact we feel this with no way out.

The third response, which has been rare in my case and I continue to pray for, is what I want to call ‘transformative compassion’.

When I read the gospels and particularly the stories of when Jesus ‘had compassion’ (Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; Mk 1:41, 6:34, 8:2, 9:22-23; Lk 7:13) I’m always struck by the way in which this leads him to action, to change the situation whether that’s raising someone from the dead, feeding the hungry or healing the sick. Jesus never seems to just sympathise or empathise with suffering but his response is to act in eradicating it.

For me this ‘transformative compassion’ is something altogether different from our usual responses to other’s sufferings. The two previous responses have been different by the proximity we have with the pain; the first is at arms length, one might say objectifying and observing, the second has two stages, one close enough to hear the cries and to pay close attention but remaining separate from the pain, the next stage is to enter the life and to allow the pain to change your life. This third response continues that trajectory through the pain to the other side and it is, I would want to suggest, a purely God activity. To say it is a God activity does not, I think, excuse us from engaging in it; we are to be instruments through which God works this compassion.

I cannot pass this opportunity to remind us of the fabulous Greek word for compassion: splagchnizomai. Trying to say it gives a sense of the sense behind it. It literally means to be moved in your gut, like being punched firmly in the stomach. It means to wake you up to the severity of another’s experience and to have no other option but to stop it.

Being the kind of person I am, I cannot allow injustices to continue unchanged. My tendency is to isolate the root cause of problems and to work towards bettering the system which perpetuates them. This task is never as easy as people suggest (and most of the time it is to destroy the system altogether which is neither helpful nor Godly… I could say more but I won’t.) It is from this outlook and with the little energy I currently have that I become impatient with ‘pastoral sympathy/empathy’. It is not effective to just sit and wait for someone else to do something. I have little time to sit and tell someone that it’s ok to feel pain while someone repeatedly punches them in the face, without actually turning and stopping the other person from punching them in the face.

George Orwell, in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, articulates this well in a scene where he describes a group of ‘tramps’ being fed by a church in London with a worship service afterwards. The ‘tramps’ behave ‘in the most outrageous way’. At the end of the chapter Orwell reflects,

The scene had interested me. It was so different from the demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we out-numbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature. (George Orwell, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ (London: Penguin Books, 2001)p.197)

He goes on to outline the need for practical action to change the circumstances and the cultural responses to the poor (which I’m afraid continues to this day!)

I say all this because St. Benedict’s use of the word ‘sympathy’, I think, moves into ‘transformative compassion’ by changing the situation for those who struggle. He does it with the sick and the wayward monks and now he does it for the elderly and the children. This is a practical response to the various needs to those who struggle with certain aspects of his Rule which does not pander or release them from obedience but encourages them to participate and move towards holiness.


Our society has sympathy for the elderly but it is, I would suggest, a passive sadness about their welfare. Individuals are left to care for our children, sick and elderly. Loneliness is a problem, but a problem which is insurmountable and so no one engages in systematic change. The church could be a radical force for change in the way we treat the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly. Here in York there is a move for the Church, via the One Voice York network, to provide twenty or more families to foster children along with the ‘Home For Good‘ initiative. One Voice York also is looking at establishing a practical network of visiting the isolated and elderly, providing them with company and practical help. These two initiatives, for me, go some way at transferring the sympathy of most to the ‘transformative compassion’ of Christ.

Many will say that parishes already fulfil this task of visiting the elderly but it often relies on the clergy and/or a few lay people. The inclusion of the elderly and the young is the task for the whole church. It is the whole church who should, as St. Benedict outlines, not think of this care as an extra part of the life of the Church but to be woven into our approach to community life in general. This might mean having small groups adopting children and/or elderly and discovering ways in which the tasks of the community can be adapted to suit them without changing the general Rule of everyone else.

This approach requires a change in ecclesiology and eschatology of the Church which currently sees everyone as part of the Church and that you go to worship to remind you of the peace that awaits us when we die. The Church has sanctified the status quo wholesale without a need to change it. The church sympathises with the struggle and waits for the pain to stop when we die or when Christ comes again (if they think he really will!) Instead, what I am proposing is that the church is made up of those who live out the reality of the Kingdom of God which is being born amongst us and that we are ‘co-labouring’ to establish. As disciples of Christ we actively seek and work out, with fear and trembling, our healing to be transformed more and more into the like-ness of Christ, image of God. Whilst we change we are placed within the Body of Christ as part of the community of others who are likewise being changed for encouragement and support. As we seek God’s will for us our eyes are lifted to others and we learn, through the Body of Christ and later outside to the world, to love others and to seek how they can live in the joy and hope of the Kingdom which God wants to establish here on earth. This will involve, therefore, the elderly and the children as well as everyone else. The Kingdom of God will manifest itself differently with different people and we encourage it however we find it.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that you are not satisfied with the way the world is and that you are moving to change it. I thank you for the gift of your transformative Spirit and I ask that you would come in power to change me, the world and all that populate it. May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.