Comparative Portrayals of Patients in Hospitals and Monastic Infirmaries in Early Christian Sources
Helen Rhee, PhD, Professor of Religious Studies, Westmont College
This paper engages in a comparative study of two prominent groups of patients portrayed in early Christian sources in terms of their expected sick roles and implied sanctity. The first group, patients in hospitals, which were established from the mid-fourth century and on, were subject to prescribed religious expectations and roles resulting in their conferred sanctity. As institutions attached to churches or monasteries, these hospitals provided religious spaces with ceremonies, routines, and expectations intended to affirm and/or reaffirm Christian faith among patients—almost exclusively the destitute and strangers who needed nursing and doctoring. The second group, patients in monastic infirmaries, which were established from the early fourth century and on, were also subject to institutional expectations regarding their sick role but found ways to navigate or even deviate from the expectations relating to that role in pursuit of their ascetic sanctity. Monastic patients wrestled between the apparently contradictory ideals of ascetic piety and discipline. On the one hand, exceptional health and healing served as a (traditional) symbol of ascetic sanctity and self-control modeled after the life of Antony, along with a corresponding self-understanding of illness as a threat to ascetic aims. On the other hand, the experience and endurance of illness became a new form or mode of asceticism and ascetic progress in sources such as the Coptic life of Pachomius, Basil, and Syncletia. While these expectations for patients and their roles reflect a general destigmatization of illness and diseases and a corresponding emphasis on the dignity of the patient, they also point to efforts to control patients and to expectations of their conformity. At the same time, patients in monastic infirmaries in particular, found ways to circumvent the institutional expectations and to acquire sanctity by refusing their sick roles.