When I use the term Benedictine, in reference to hospitality, I’m indicating hospitality according to St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries. It’s a species of hospitality anyone should be able to expect from Camaldolese and Cistercian as well as from Benedictine communities. We all follow the Rule, are informed and shaped by the Rule with it’s demands and challenges, yet always possible since its aims are moderated to average human potential.
Perhaps one of the most striking description of Benedictine hospitality is introduced by the opening sentence of Chapter 53: Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ… That’s quite an insight and quite a risk. It’s a striking insight to me since the legends about St. Benedict speak of him more as a host than as a guest; the tradition may suggest that he’s not telling us how he wish he had been treated. And it represents his insight in applying Matthew 25:23 (I came as a guest and you received me) to his experience as host. We know from the Rule itself that can be a difficult and demanding role to play; for example, entertaining the gyrovague monks he describes in Chapter 1 would not be pleasant. Mentioning pilgrim monks in Chapter 61, it’s clear that certain guests can be unpleasantly critical of what they find in the host community. Against the background of such experiences, it’s quite an insight to recognize Christ–even in his image distorted by human frailty–in each guest. From what I’ve already written, the risks would be obvious.
What else can be said? How I respond to a guest can be illuminating: what might that tell me about my relationship to Christ or my perception of Christ? In a conversation just this week, one of the brothers made a real neat distinction between a reaction and a response. My initial reaction to something new, for example, could be embarrassment; but a moment later I may realize, “This is really good! This is a way to connect”. By contrast, my reaction is quite positive. Do I just react to a guest or do own and hold the reaction to myself–like I might savor the first sip of a really good wine before I swallow it–and than offer a considered response? Couldn’t that make all the difference between being off-putting and sharing mutual respect? To recognize Christ in the Guest I may have to step back a bit (metaphorically speaking) to get the stranger in proper perspective. Sometimes we may meet Christ in his most unattractive state, like Isaiah’s suffering servant who had no beauty in him and was dismissed as being of no account. I sometimes wonder whether the late Byzantine and late Gothic images of the Suffering Servant–Christ after his scourging, bloody and crowned with thorns–empowered the devout of those times to recognize Christ in the outcasts of their societies. Can I recover that vision today?
But that is only one aspect of receiving the guest as Christ. Who is a guest?
I was very struck by the remarks of a speaker at a seminar I attended some years back at a Benedictine monastery. He was the abbot of a community with a very good school and he explained how his community had come to understand their ministry in education not so much as their monastic work but as their Benedictine hospitality: if you will, Let all students…be received like Christ. Benedictine hospitality is just not confined to the Guest House or the Gift Shop. In a very real sense wouldn’t it operate in any instance when I welcome someone into my life?