Everyone knows that Pope Francis said that the Church should be like a field hospital, which I suppose could be thought of as a hospital near or in the middle of a battle, or like those tents set up a year or so ago to deal with people who had contracted the Ebola virus. The metaphor reminded me that Augustine says that the inn to which the Good Samaritan brought the man left half-dead by robbers is the Church. “Inn” as a translation may give the wrong impression. Etymologically, the Greek word refers to a place that takes in travelers, is open to everyone who comes by—perhaps like a hostel today. The Latin word that Augustine found in Lk 10:34 is “stabulum” (from which our “stable” comes), which my Latin dictionary defines as “a stopping-place or abode for animals or for persons of the lower class”—so certainly a very common dwelling. Two texts:
The inn is the Church where travelers are refreshed as they make their way from their wandering back to their eternal homeland. (Quaest on Gospels, 2, 19)
You remember, beloved, that half-dead man wounded by robbers on the road, how he was taken care of, receiving oil and wine for his wounds.... His weakness was healed in a lowly inn. The Church is that inn; it’s an inn now because, while we live, we’re always moving on. When we’ve reached the kingdom of heaven, it will be a home from which we will never move. Meanwhile, let us be happy we are being cared for in the inn; but, still weak, let’s not boast of being healthy lest by our pride we make sure that we are never healed. (Sermon 131, 6)
And here is a passage in which he uses the metaphor of healing of wounds, and explains the bindings or bandages that are needed if we are to be healed. I have kept “sacraments” as the rendering of “sacramenta,” which in Augustine’s usage does not refer only to our seven sacraments, but refers also, as the text indicates, to many other activities within the Church.
“He heals the broken of heart” (Ps 146:3), people with a broken heart. The healing of the heart will be perfect only when the promise of the body’s renewal is fulfilled. Meanwhile, what does a doctor do now? He binds up your breaks until you are completely strong, until what was broken, what was bound, will be strong again. And what are these bindings? The sacraments of this time (Temporalia sacramenta). They are medicinal bindings for our breaks, sacraments for this in-between time, for our comfort. All these words we’re speaking to you, transient sounds, whatever is done in Church during this time, these are bindings for our breaks. Just as a doctor removes the bindings when the patient has been completely healed, so in that city of Jerusalem, when we have become equal to the angels, do you think that we are going to receive there what we receive now? Will the Gospel have to be read out again so our faith will endure? Will hands have to be laid on someone by some bishop? These are all bindings for our fractures that will be taken off when we are healthy. But we won’t get to that point unless those fractures are bound now. (EnPs 146, 7-8; PL 37, 1903-1904)
A question Augustine asked elsewhere comes to mind: “In whom?” That is, in whom, of whom, is it true that the Church is a traveler’s rest-stop where wounds can be healed, or, in whom, of whom, is it true that the Church is a field hospital?