When King David was on the run from his revolutionary son Absalom, Barzillai helped him (II Sam. 17:28). After Absalom’s death, King David returned to Jerusalem. On the way, he met Barzillai.
Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim, and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan. Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man. And the king said to Barzillai, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” But Barzillai said to the king, “How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be one added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king repay me with such a reward? Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. But here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you.” And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you, and all that you desire of me I will do for you.” Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over. And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home. The king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him. All the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel, brought the king on his way (II Sam. 19:31-40).
Barzillai knew he was too old to carry on. He refused the great honor of accompanying King David back to Jerusalem. He knew he would be a burden. He knew his advice might be poor, because of his infirmities. So, he wished the King well, but stayed behind.
Pope Benedict XVI has decided to imitate Barzillai. He will retire to a monastery, where he will be cared for. Someone else will replace him. Someone else will bear the burdens.
His decision is unique in modern papal history. It may set a trend. Or it may be regarded as a unique decision like no other: a Pope who admitted he was human, and therefore no longer fit for duty in old age.
I hope I depart with equal grace when I have a terminal case of Barzillai syndrome.