Our Lady Health of the Sick
Our Lady was well used to the sick-bed, the death-bed. There is silence in the Gospels about most of the details of Her life, only those being told which concern the vital facts of Her cooperation in the Incarnation. So much is told, however, that we know Her character, the fundamental principle of which was Her dedication to duty. She had Her duty as daughter, as wife and as mother. Every one of these relationships demanded that She serve as an Angel of Mercy.
Art has been very fond of St. Joachim and St. Ann, the parents of Our Lady. It sensed the deep affection of that religious family. Joachim and Ann took good care of their Heaven-sent child. It was but a fair return that She take care if them, already old when She was born. It is no stretch of imagination for us to see Mary waiting hand and foot on the old couple, sitting by their sick-bed and folding their hands in death.
More so with St. Joseph. Theirs was a virgin marriage, but as it is souls that love, not bodies, their mutual love was the greatest love-match the world has ever seen. St. Joseph is the Patron of the Dying because Jesus and Mary sat by his sick-bed, his death-bed. Mary wet his parched lips, smoothed his pillow, kept vigil through the night, folded his hands, and closed his eyes. One likes to think that it is in memory of that, that She is first called “Health of the Sick,” that Her love followed Joseph to the grave and after.
But it was as Mother—Mother of God—that Mary was consecrated “Health of the Sick.” Jesus was immune to sickness and death, but He willed that He be struck as a leper, and He died. Who will try to estimate the source of strength Mary was to Him in His dereliction, in His scourging, His crowning with thorns, His way of the Cross, and finally in the three-hour passion and death? Every line of the Stabat Mater is a commentary on Her title—”Health of the Sick,” with its final prayer for a happy death, applying to us: “Christ when Thou shalt call me hence, be Thy Mother my defence; be Thy Cross my victory. While my body here decays, may my soul Thy goodness praise, safe in Paradise with Thee.” And “Health of the Sick” (Salus Infirmorum) primarily means our eternal health, our eternal salvation—for salus means not only “health,” but “salvation.”
That Mary should have a special love for the sick was necessary if She was to follow the example of Jesus. He was the Divine Physician for bodies as well as souls. To narrate the many cures of the sick by Him and His Disciples would be to quote most of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. He had come to destroy sin; He had sympathy for the sickness which man had brought upon himself by original sin. The healing of the sick man was not only a proof of His Divine Mission, a proof that He was Lord of Life and Death, and therefore God, but also a work of pure Mercy, the compulsion of His love. His love for the sick was so great that He instituted the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, one of the purposes of which is to restore the body to health, if it is to the spiritual benefit of the patient.
It is the Law of Love of Neighbor, of which He gave the supreme example. Hence, with this great incentive, Christians always have had a special love for the sick. The corporal works of mercy, as well as the spiritual, have always been a special mark of Christianity. True, there was care of the sick among the civilized pagans. The old Irish, for example, had a hospital three hundred years before the coming of Christ. But it was a Christian institution, par excellence. Almost as soon as the Church emerged from the Catacombs, we find the beginning of the modern hospital established in Rome, in 400, by the noble Roman lady Fabiola. Hospitals grew apace. In the Middle Ages, especially, they multiplied. Every place there were the Hôtels-Dieu—God’s hospitals, one of the loveliest expressions in any language. La Scala Hospital in Siena, where St. Catherine (1347-1380) served so devotedly could be taken as a model for the most modern hospital.
There were hospitals for the sick, for orphans, foundlings, the poor, the aged, the sick pilgrims. Many confraternities and Orders were founded just for the care of the sick. Even the Military Orders of the time of the Crusades considered it a special duty to care for the sick and the poor.
It is an interesting item that the first hospital in America was established before 1524 by Cortes, in the City of Mexico, and was called the “Hospital of the Immaculate Conception,” a tribute to Our Lady as “Health of the Sick.” And in speaking of hospitals, let us remember that one of Our Lady’s titles in an old litany is “Hospital of sinners.”
While on earth, Our Lady was ever kind to the sick. She has not ceased to help them now that She is in Heaven. The lives of the Saints are filled with manifestations of Her power over sickness. We have but to remember the case of the Little Flower. When she was a little girl she was given up for dead, but the statue of the Blessed Virgin smiled upon her and she was instantly restored to health, in order to work out her life of extraordinary sanctity. In that instance Mary was, as St. Ephrem calls Her—”the joy of the sick.” The restoration of health to the little Thérèse was not only for the welfare of her soul but for the greater glory of God. That cannot always be said. Many a sickness is a true blessing from God. St. Thomas More, when he was in prison waiting for death, wrote a book—”The Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.” It is one of the loveliest spiritual books ever written. One thought of his is this: “How many men attain health of body, that were better for their souls’ health their bodies were sick still.” Mary does not make such mistakes. She is concerned with what is effective for the soul’s salvation.
Salus InfirmorumBut even so, through all the ages of Christianity, She has been the constant nursing-mother at the sick-beds of Her children. It would be impossible to number, let alone name, the shrines where She has established Her hospital. At every one of these shrines, She has worked miracles of healing. Lourdes is the most notable, because it is of our day, but there were many in ages past no less famous than Lourdes. The miracles already wrought there are innumerable. There is no doubt that She has chosen certain places to be specially dedicated to Her—Loreto, Le Puy, La Salette, Fatima, Altötting, and innumerable others, but Her help is not confined to any one place. Every sick-bed is Her shrine, every hospital is Her basilica. There are so many Orders, with Her as Patroness, founded for the alleviation of suffering. When you think of the sick, you think, for example, of St. Camillus de Lellis who was a true world hero because he spent himself so much for the sick. The Order which he founded has a confraternity and scapular of “Our Lady, Help of the Sick.” In the Church of St. Mary Magdalen in Rome, which belongs to the Clerics Regular of St. Camillus, there is a picture of the Blessed Virgin under this title, which is attributed to Fra Angelico. It was before this picture that Pope St. Pius V prayed for the victory of Lepanto. A confraternity to help the sick was erected in 1860. The Black Scapular of the Confraternity has a copy of the picture, and at the feet of Our Lady is a picture of St. Camillus, Patron of the sick.
This is but one of the religious organizations devoted to the sick. Who can number the nuns in our hospitals who have given their lives to the care of the sick? Who can number those who in every war have been the Angels of the Battlefield? What is the motive power of their sacrifice? Is it not because they have taken as their model the merciful Mother of God, the Health of the Sick?
Health of body, yes; Mary wants us to have that, as Her Divine Son gave health of body. But most of all, She wants for us health of soul. Salus means salvation. And She who cooperated in the Redemption wants to see us healed of the disease of soul. Father Damien became a martyr to disease for love of God and love of souls. The world honours his memory because he saved bodies and eased their torments. More than all he gave his life for souls. But what was Father Damien in his zeal for souls compared with Our Lady? There is an old Irish prayer that runs—”O Lady, Physician of the most miserable diseases, behold the many ulcers of my soul.” So St. Simon Stock called Her—”Medicine of sinners,” as St. Ephrem called Her “Robust health for those who have recourse to Her.” Thus the Church applies to Her the words of Proverbs—(8: 3, 5) “He that shall find Me shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord.”
Mary is called the Cedar of Lebanon. It is interesting to note that healing virtues were attributed to this tree. St. Bernard has among his beautiful tributes to Her, this one: “O Mother of God, Thou dost not disdain a sinner, however loathsome he may be: if he send up his sighs to Thee, Thou wilt deliver him with Thine own hand from despair.” We can learn from Our Lady’s love for the sick.
Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton loved the sick; indeed all her life she was kneeling by death-beds. She said to her sisters—”Love the sick; they are the blessings of the community.” But most of all we should learn that Our Lady loves our poor sick souls and will watch by them till the end. An old Irish poem runs—”There is no hound in fleetness nor in chase, north wind or rapid river, as quick as the Mother of Christ to the bed of death.”
That is ever our confidence, as we pray the ancient prayer—”Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”