Chapter 37: The Elderly and Children

1 Although human nature itself is inclined to be compassionate toward the old and the young, the authority of the rule should also provide for them. 2 Since their lack of strength must always be taken into account, they should certainly not be required to follow the strictness of the rule with regard to food, 3 but should be treated with kindly consideration and allowed to eat before the regular hours.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

After the sick, the compassion of our Rule turns to the elderly and to the children. We no longer have children in our monasteries today. We can certainly understand that if they were here, they would need most special treatment. Saint Benedict immediately softens the Rule regarding food so that neither the elderly nor the young are expected to keep the kind of eating schedule that we find in the Rule.

When Saint Benedict speaks about human nature being inclined to compassion for the old and the young, there is some truth to that, but it is not all truth. Today when there are political movements towards getting rid of the old who don’t function well and getting rid of the young unless they are just the way we want them, we have to be extra vigilant in our communities to have this compassion of the Rule towards the old in the community.

We know that Saint Benedict is no respecter of persons in the sense of giving special privileges to one group of monks over another. He does not want those who come from “better” families to be treated differently from those who come from “poor” families or from a background of slavery. We need to give strong attention then when he speaks about the lack of strength of the old and the young. This fits in well also with why we take care of the sick with special compassion. Today we know that some people are just stronger than other people physically. This needs to be taken into account.

Finally, we need to be aware, again, that Saint Benedict takes these people into the monastery–he does not reject them. Yes, of course, they must be able to live a basically strong monastic life! On the other hand, Saint Benedict does not expect all of his monks to be strong, to be capable of all types of work, to have equal capacities, to have equally strong moral backgrounds, etc. What Saint Benedict seems to be looking for is this basic desire to be a monk and a basic capacity to live a monastic life. Let us learn to do the same!