I am grateful to spend the closing years of my ministry as a chaplain in a VA hospital. I often greet the patients with, “Welcome to our hospital.” When they seem a bit surprised by the greeting, I remind them, “A hospital should be hospitable!”
The hospital, of its nature, reminds patients, their families and friends that we’re in this together. We are all – to use Jesus’ word – neighbors. Because viruses and diseases cannot distinguish between rich and poor, black and white, male and female, the health industry cannot honor such distinctions. They simply make no sense and, if moneyed interests tried to impose such standards, they would throw the whole enterprise into disarray.
Pope Francis, relying as much on science and common sense as on traditional religion, has shown in his encyclical how care for one’s neighbor and care for the environment are one and the same thing. Nations might ignore the cry of the poor but they cannot ignore the storm surges, rising tides and encroaching shoreline that eat away at coast lines. They cannot ignore rising temperatures and the skyrocketing cost of air conditioning, especially for the vulnerable elderly, sick and imprisoned.
More than twenty years ago I attended a planning workshop for the diocese of Lake Charles Louisiana. An out-of-town facilitator helpfully asked us, “Where do you imagine Lake Charles will be a hundred years from now?”
“Underwater!” we said. The numbers were indisputable and the trend was irreversible even at that time.
The United States has had a fine time of its experiment with personal freedom and individual liberties. Many people believe with religious fervor in their right to own guns and have abortions and shop till they drop. They dare anyone to challenge their gated communities and segregated neighborhoods. Upward mobility, bought at the cost of marriage and family, leaves many delirious with loneliness. Life without neighbors is unbearable.
But these illusions will collapse. Anyone who fails to show mercy to the neighbor will have little claim on the mercy of others when his turn comes, and it will come. That too, I see in the hospital.
Mercy is an attitude of neighborliness toward others as well as oneself, toward the Earth and toward the Lord, toward religion and ideas. It is an attitude of kindness.
The German mystic poet Rainer Maria Rilke has a lovely poem about neighborliness:
You, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe
and know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.
The wall is builded of your images.
They stand before you hiding you like names.
And when the light within me blazes high
that in my inmost soul I know you by,
the radiance is squandered on their frames.
And then my senses, which too soon grow lame,
exiled from you, must go their homeless ways.
Jesus' neighborliness is an openness to people and life and God; it stands ready to help in whatever capacity, friendly, patient, unobtrusive but concerned. Because we are sinners and even a few hours of isolation can leave us feeling un-neighborly, we must daily call one another through the narrow wall of images which blind us to one another.
Those who depart from you will perish, my joy is to remain with you, my God.