Little babies are so cute. With their bodies so soft and tiny and their bright eyes so innocent and trusting, how they pull on the heart. And when they break into their toothless smiles, how they charm. Even though babies have certain repugnant habits and seem to soil or break everything, we usually manage to overlook all that.
Not so with the care of older people. Few of us are enthusiastic to nurse an elderly invalid. Wiping drool from the mouths of infants is practically the same as wiping drool from the mouths of the aged, yet we make a distinction. The helpless child we consider to be a bundle of joy, the elderly invalid relative a burden.
This attitude toward the elderly is particularly common in the West. We see the elderly as usually sick and demanding, moving slowly when everyone else is moving fast. They can't eat the same foods as we, and they're not attractive. They can't work, yet they take up valuable space. They always want to have their say, but what can a foggy eighty five-year-old brain have to offer? Such is the utilitarian attitude of today.
Nevertheless, these are the same folks who raised us to be what we are today. So we feel some obligation to see them through to the end. Dutifully we pay the bills for the nursing home and drag the kids by on major holidays. Our children should see that aging parents are not to be abandoned.
But who cares for those people who grow old without the insurance of sons and daughters and IRAs? Who takes care of those who dedicate their lives to something greater than raising a family? Who serves those who selflessly spent their youth serving the needs of others, dedicating their active years to serving God?
Such are the questions confronting the Roman Catholic Church these days, as large numbers of nuns enter their senior years without financial support. An unreleased study by the National Catholic Council of Bishops shows a $2 billion gap between what these nuns will require for their retirement and what is available.
The sisters found, as they tried to raise money themselves, that young Catholics felt no obligation to support them. Sister Helen Sanders of the Sisters of Loretto in Louisville observes, "Lay people say, 'What the sisters did, they did in charity,' and that's true, so its kind of a hard case to make." The nuns feel uncomfortable collecting funds for what they see as a selfish interest. "The feeling always was that the less you earn, the greater is your service," explains Sister Anne Beitsinger of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee. "It was that long-range planning that was somehow in conflict with the providence of God."
So the nuns are fighting on the brink of poverty. Some have sold cherished, long-held properties and are living in meager quarters. Some have gone on welfare "as a last resort." The bishops claim that the Church has no money and that the problem is a sociological one. But secular society is certainly not going to shoulder the burden of a particular religious denomination.
The troubled nuns are a reflection of our twisted social values, as dedicated servants of God are left to age and die in neglect. Certainly plenty of money is available for the ambitious materialist, who is able to contribute to the aggregate well-being by providing something that moves faster or saves money or dazzles the senses. These are valuable contributions in a society that moves under the steam of sensual stimulation. But to offer little more than a spirit of saintly renunciation warrants no heed in this age.
The Vedic scriptures describe an ideal society, one that appreciates the contributions of the religious order. In a Vedic society, the brahmanas, or priests, lead the entire society by living simple, pious lives and teaching the scripture. Even great Vedic kings would take instruction from the saintly brahmanas, thus insuring that the ways of man would be harmonious with the laws of God. Everyone in society benefits when sinfulness is curbed and spiritual realization becomes the goal of life. The people were able to prosper not only in this life but in future lives also, because under the guidance of the brahmanas they could accrue good karmic results. To support the brahminical class, therefore, was considered the highest form of charity.
To expect such understanding from today's "me-centered" society, wherein everyone over the age of beauty and passion is considered useless, is asking a lot. The plight of the aging nuns symbolizes the very crux of the materialistic disease: the selfish pursuit of sense gratification. In such a scheme of life, the renounced spiritualist is seen as irrelevant. Says John F. Philbin, financial director of the archdiocese of Chicago, "If they open this thing up, well see how much Christian brotherhood is really out there."
Of course, the Supreme Lord is witnessing it all, from the sacrifices of the nuns to the reluctance of the bishops and the indifference of the laymen, and He is reciprocating accordingly. There is not a shortage of money in this world, or in the wealthy Catholic Church, but there is a lack of spiritual vision. If we could see things from God's side, we would be eager to care for those who are dedicated to serving Him.