Elder Respect

Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
Thursday, August 4, 2022

“[T]he younger monks call their seniors ‘nonnus’, which translated means ‘venerable father’ … when brothers meet, the junior asks his senior for a blessing … when an older monk comes by, the younger rises to offer him a seat.”
Rule of Saint Benedict 63.12, 15-16

Previously, I have written of the need to make care for the elderly and infirm a top priority. In this way we are obedient to Christ who comes to us in the vulnerable and the frail, those with whom Christ most identifies (cf. Mt. 25:40). Continuing to reflect on what Pope Francis recently called a magisterium of frailty, I’d like to address St. Benedict’s desire that the monks of his monastery cultivate a natural respect for the elderly members of the community.

Respect for the elderly is slipping away in our modern, “throw-away” society, where people are more willing to “cancel” others when they are of no use to us, or because they disagree with us, or simply are no longer perceived as “productive” members of society. This, Pope Francis said, is “a form of cowardice in which we specialize in this society of ours.”

When we are driven by fear – afraid of differences in culture and ethnicity, other points of view that conflict with our own, generational differences that feel threatening to us, etc. – we allow fear to determine our behavior, and we tend to defend ourselves by “canceling” the other, and marginalizing, scapegoating, or simply discounting the other as inconsequential.

St. Benedict insists that it will not be this way in his community. No one is inconsequential, especially not the sick and the infirm, nor the elderly. By discounting the experience of the elder members of society we set ourselves up to “forget the past” and condemn ourselves to repeating its mistakes. Our elders carry forward the collective memory of a community, and their stories are a blessing to the younger. The elders of our community continue to impart important lessons – for the young, and for us who are well within the bounds of middle age!

To honor the elders of our community (and society more broadly) – valuing the stories they tell, appreciating their need for compassionate patience when speaking and walking are more sluggish due to advanced age, when working memory is slower, and other considerations due to cognitive or physical decline - is how we who are younger demonstrate and practice respect for who they are, no matter whether their past contributions to the life of our community involved academics, administration, parochial ministry, spiritual formation and pastoral care, or the physical labor of grounds keeping or maintenance. Each of our elders carries a wisdom grounded on their experience of work (“labora”), and also from living for decades this common life dedicated to prayer (“ora”).

St. Benedict’s final item in his list of 74 “tools for good works” – never lose hope in God’s mercy (RB 4:74) – is arguably the most important of the tools of the spiritual craft. Pope Francis also mentions this crucial component of the treasure our aged members bestow on the community: “The very elderly, by virtue of their frailty, can teach those who are living in other stages of life that we all need to abandon ourselves to the Lord, to invoke his help.”

Apart from God’s mercy and our willingness to abandon ourselves to it, there is no real freedom, can be no true justice, and no lasting peace.