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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Visit the Sick?

When I was younger, I didn't understand the phrase "Judeo-Christian tradition." Now I understand a little better. Both Jews and Christians have some common directives, like visiting the sick. (Other religions that trace their common origin to Abraham, including Islam and the Baha’i faith, also tell their people to visit the sick.)

This past Monday, Sept. 29, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there was a beautiful, beautiful article on visiting the sick. The article explained how this tradition is a holy mitzvah (good deed/duty/ commandment) of the Jewish faith. 

 The article stated, “We are now in the Days of Awe, that time of contemplation and reflection – book-ended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – when Jews are called to stake stock of their lives and relationships. It’s an accounting of sorts, in which one hopes the good deeds – mitzvot – outnumber the shortcomings.”

The two Jewish women interviewed for the article explained that visiting the sick provides sacred moments when they are called “to see God’s countenance, his fingerprint, on each person.” Julie Frank, one of the two women, said, “The more you’re there for each other, the more God sheds his presence on you. And that’s what Judaism is all about – passing the light onto others.”

I happened to read this article right after returning from a visit to my mother-in-law, who has Alzheimer's disease. Occasionally people ask me why we should bother visiting someone who doesn't know who we are, who can't communicate. 

My answer is simply: "That's what we do."

Growing up in the Catholic faith, I was taught the corporal works of mercy, which include visiting the sick. This good deed/duty/ commandment is derived from a reading of Matthew 25:41-46 in the Christian scriptures. Those verses explain that we please God and have eternal life if we help God’s people, no matter how unimportant they seem – by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick and imprisoned.

I thought the most touching part of the article in the Journal Sentinel was the notion that visiting the sick is not charity. Indeed, the true giver is Rosalee Pemberton, who technically is the "sick" person being visited by Julie Frank and her friend Barbara Grande. By opening her home to members of her congregation so they can visit her, she presents a gift to them - the opportunity to "make themselves right with God."

Until I read the article, I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but I have often felt that I received something by visiting my mother-in-law who does not know me and cannot communicate. She is the true giver. She provides me the opportunity to visit her. There is purpose in her life.
[The photo above is from a year ago, when my mother-in-law was visited by her sister Mary Jane and her brother Dennis.]