Hospital as Sanctuary, Home

By Gary Evans, PFCC Advisor

Gary eBlast

Gary Evans, PFCC Advisor

In Robert Frost’s epic poem, “The Death of the Hired Man, “there is a poignant sentence that has stuck with me ever since I first read it; “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

An elderly, seriously ill man who has worked for the family on many occasions in the past has returned. He came with a history of having worked for them but then leaving them during harvest season or at other times when he had the chance to make more money working for someone else. The family had tried hard to help but it seemed to have no impact on his commitment to them.

The essence of the poem concerns the return of the old hired hand now very ill and alone.  Mary, the wife, finds him resting in their yard when she returns home from errands.

Mary put the old man in bed and tried to make him comfortable. When her husband Warren returns home in the evening, the two of them discuss the hired man.  Warren has a lot of anger as a result of being let down by this old man in the past.

It is because of these past experiences that the husband wants the old man to go someplace else and leave them alone.  In anger, Warren wants him to go to his brother’s house and confess his failures so that the brother will forgive and take him in.  In responding to Warren’s anger, Mary says “Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man some way to save his self-respect.”

It is in this context of remembering old wounds, and considering why he chose to come back to their house that Mary said, “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”

It is with this story that I think of the place of hospitals and the responsibilities they have to all people. I find it significant that the word hospital appears within the word hospitality. For me, that is a statement and a testimony to Mary’s comment, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The entomology of the word comes from the Latin words hospitale  and hospes.  During Roman times hopitale was a guesthouse or inn while a hospes was a stranger or guest.  Many English words derive from these Latin words.  We have words like hospital, host, hostel, hotel, hospice and even hostile and hostage.

As time went on, early Christians from European countries began to make pilgrimages to holy places in the Middle East. Poor as many of these pilgrims were, they counted on other Christians along the way to assist them. As a result, many hospitals were established in difficult of dangerous areas for travel.  They welcomed strangers as guests into their guesthouse or inn.

Over time, these guesthouses began to provide more and more treatment to the sick and wounded. By the 16th century hospitals began to take on the meaning we now associate with the word hospital. The Council of Nicaea in 325AD instructed the bishops of the Church to create hospitals in all the cathedral cities of Christendom. Most Catholic hospitals are the result of what began with the Council of Nicaea.

The Romans and the early Christians understood that a hospitale was a guesthouse or inn and a haspes was a stranger or a guest. Today hospitals serve as home to strangers and guests with medical problems and medical emergencies. Hopefully they still exist within the wise and humane words of Mary in Frost’s poem, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

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