In the city of San Francisco, up until just a moment ago, there existed the last almshouse in the United States of America, a Hotel Dieu—God’s Hotel—a kind of hospital from the Middle Ages that evolved as a way of taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. Historically, each county in the U.S. had a place like this that worked alongside the county hospital. The county hospital took care of the acutely ill and the almshouse cared for those who needed chronic long-term care and who had no other place to turn. Over time these institutions have gone by the wayside, as community care has evolved and taken up part of its place in our society and as we have forgotten the proper nature and root of this work.
Laguna Honda, God’s Hotel in San Francisco, was set on a hill with peach-coloured walls, open wards where patients and staff could fraternize and cause trouble, lots of windows and turrets, a chapel the size of a small church and a statue of St. Francis in the wide central hall. In it a doctor, Dr. S., received her education in caritas, in love for the sick and the downtrodden. She learned from those she served and from a Medieval nun, Hildegaard von Bingen, who wrote a medical textbook along with reams of theology and the most glorious music.
An education in caritas
Caritas, “charity,” is a concept that came into our human understanding through the Church; from St. Jerome, in fact. At first, it meant the love of God, and later it came to mean the actions that expressed that love, especially caring for the sick and the poor. The root of charity—cara—means “to hold dear; a love that is precious and sweet.” The Medievals believed that charity had as profound an impact on the giver as it did on the receiver. It was for them the bond of love that draws us to God. This notion of the exchange of charity went deep in the psyche of a Medieval. A rich prince knew he could not live well nor enter into paradise without the prayers of the poor, who were the beloved of God, and these prayers were given in exchange for the alms the prince provided.
In the book God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, Dr. S. tells the story of her education at the Hotel Dieu. One of her teachers was a woman named Terry Becker, who because of a series of medical complications, a lifestyle that left her drugged and beaten on the street far too often and relationships that bound her to that life, had developed a bed sore so awful that no plastic surgery could mend it and that was threatening her life. Her wound stretched from the middle of her back to her sit bones and was so deep that you could see the vertebra of her spine and her organs. She had lost the protection of skin and fat and muscle and she was utterly exposed. It was blackening and almost gangrenous. There was nothing to do. But Hildegaard had taught Dr. S. the truth and the nature of something called “viriditas,” the greenness of our bodies, their natural propensity to move towards health, the body’s physical ability to heal itself.
Dr. S. asked what was in the way of viriditas, with Terry, and what it would take for her body to heal. Slowly, in the safety of her Hotel Dieu, Terry was invited to live and cultivate her body’s viriditas. Terry responded to the invitation and found ways to let go of the relationships that bound her, substances that impeded her and depression that gripped her. All the while she lay on her front and was given good food, sunshine, fresh air, sleep, time and caritas. Nothing else could be done. It took two and a half years for her wound to heal, but miraculously, it did.
The story of the birth of caritas
Why do I tell you this story? Because in the Lectionary, through the story of Tabitha’s return to life, we witness the historical moment that caritas burst forth to the ends of the earth.
The story of Tabitha, who is also known as Dorcas, a disciple of Jesus, is the story of the iconic nurture and release of the society of caritas in the life of the young Church. The narrative is part of a striking series of events that Luke weaves together to paint a vibrant picture of the work of Christ bursting towards the ends of the earth. Luke chapter nine begins with Paul’s conversion. Then, without break, we read of Peter wandering to and fro on the borderlands of the Jewish world. There, in the power of Christ, Peter heals Aeneas, a man bedridden for eight years, and many come to know the resurrected Lord.
Here follows the story of Tabitha of Joppa. After Tabitha is raised from death the Gospel is released from its Judaic limit into the world of the gentiles. The universal Church starts its expansion. But first the story of Tabitha of Joppa.
There must have been many widows in Joppa, because it had been the site of an awful massacre during the repression of a Jewish revolt by the Romans. Josephus reports that 8400 inhabitants were murdered in this uprising. Widows were left utterly without protection. Like Terry Becker, they were exposed because their skin of safety was stripped away with their husbands’ death in a patriarchal society.
But just like Terry, the widows of Joppa had a hotel of God in which to find safety. Instead of Dr. S., these women were cared for by Tabitha the Gazelle, the only woman to merit the feminine form of the Greek world for “disciple” in the whole of the New Testament. Tabitha, in the power of Christ, was busy at work making a new configuration of power in her world, a configuration where God would use what is lowly and despised in the world to bring to naught the awful barriers that stood in the way of the healing of humanity’s wounds. She was making Caritas.
But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. (Acts 9: 37-38)
Tabitha was dead. Why did they send for Peter? What hope did they have? What drove this community to send for Peter, the most powerful vessel of Christ’s resurrection, when they were in crisis? Love drove them.
They had known love, caritas. It had held them and healed their wounds. They knew its power and they were desperate. Caritas had just started its work—how could it so soon be stopped? These widows and the disciples with them would suffer no consolations of a better world “someday.” They would not tolerate that, because they already possessed a better world, and they needed it to continue. In the light of the resurrection and their own experience at the glimmers of this light in their being, they could not and would not abide its disappearance.
But caritas had already given them a gift that was not lost with Tabitha’s death, and this gift resonates loud and clear in their call to Peter. Tabitha had provided for them, she had sewed clothes for them and taken care of them, and now they had to reciprocate that care by giving back to her, gently washing her body in an upper room and crying out in hope for her spirit to return to her and to them. Charity was alive here and working its mystery of mutuality, gift-giving and hope.
Come, Peter, come in the power of the Resurrection of the source of all charity and prophecy to these bones that they shall live.
And Peter comes.
So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. (Acts 9: 39-41)
Tabitha, get up. In the reality of the resurrection and the community of the resurrection,
Death will not have the final say. There is power loose which is able to break the last recalcitrant region. In this new community, widows will not be left to perish… The name of the risen Jesus bears the same life and death-giving power as the creator of the whole universe. All the boundaries of life, the highest heaven, the breath of life obey his command.
Under his command, widows, the sick and the destitute now live in the power of his life and are given true hope.
To the ends of the earth
Tabitha is raised from the dead as a representative of the hope of caritas that will explode in the life of the Church and transform history. In the pagan world, there were no almshouses, no God’s Hotels. The gods of antiquity were gods of the strong, not gods of the weak; they were gods of the first, not gods of the last. The concept of charity could not exist in this world because there was no framework, no ontological reality to sustain it. The Jewish tradition had the law which preserved the weak and the widows, but that too was limited. It was limited to human duty and human capacity.
The Christian Church proclaimed that love will always go far beyond the law, as Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus Christ, God of all creation, in love and in charity had gone down to the depths of darkness and gathered up the weakest, the sickest and the most downtrodden, and brought them to life, sustained in his love. And now this love had opened up the kingdom to all believers so that all can participate in this loving life, where there is a mutual exchange, where gifts and dependence flow reciprocally between the strong and the weak the rich and the poor.
The book of Acts, and especially chapters nine and 10, offer an outline of the nature and the process by which the Church exploded unto the ends of the world. That the story of the widows and Tabitha is amongst these narratives gives priority and place to the fundamental ministry of charity in the life of the Church. Tabitha is raised from the dead in part to signify that the Word, Jesus Christ raised from the dead, will make charity possible and real; he will nurture it. In the life of this Word, the wounds of poverty and injustice, the wounds of orphans and widows, will be given what they need to heal, and time to do so.
The early Church and the community around Tabitha which was birthing caritas for the world was not yet ready to be without Tabitha. They could not go on without her—the barriers were too great. And so the widows did their part and begged Peter to come and pray. In the same way, God was merciful to the community he held sweetly as precious and beloved, and he acted in the simplicity and particularity of charity. Tabitha was given back to them to be God’s house for them, and for the concept of charity itself, so that there might be more time for the natural veriditas of love and the miracle of resurrection to do its work in humanity.
The Church and the veriditas of lady charity
We have been given time to participate in this veriditas of love. And time is what we have and what we steward. However, in our culture, this great concept of caritas seems to have been voided of its meaning and implications. To give charity is most often to give money to a cause. Governments do most of the work of caring for the poor, the sick and the widows, and tax us for the same. We have become estranged from charity and no longer know her intimately. Perhaps, like Tabitha, she has died to us and we are truly bereft.
The Church, however, knows how to call for Peter, and she does so in her liturgy and by the word, which comes to us in the story of Tabitha today. From its inception, the Church has called the members of its society of love to love the poor and the sick and the widows, to love them sweetly and to hold them as precious. We are called to do so in simple and particular ways, knowing that we are in a profoundly reciprocal relationship with the weakest and the least of these, and we need them. We need their prayers and their hard teaching. They are closer to the heart of God.
Let us hope that Peter will come to us, to this modern Church birthed from this burst to the ends of the earth, so that we might know again this lady charity and her foundational importance in our lives. For in the end there is a promise in which we are called to participate, there is a company in which we are to find our place beside Tabitha and her widows.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:13-17)
 Willimon, William. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts. John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky. 1988. 85)