The Reception of Guests
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35)." Proper honor must be shown "to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10)" and to pilgrims.
Once guests have been announced, the prioress or abbot and the community are to meet them with all the courtesy of love. First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, but prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil.
Stereotypes come hard in the Benedictine tradition. Is this a spirituality that centers on prayer or work? Does it recommend fleeing the world or embracing it? Does it set out to create a world unto itself or to leaven the wider one? The difficulty with understanding Benedictine spirituality comes in reading some sections of the Rule without reading the entire document. The fact is that Benedictine spirituality is not based in dualism, in the notion that things of the world are bad for us and things of the spirit are good. We are not to pray too long but we are to pray always. Self-discipline is a given but wine and food and the creature comforts of a bed with bedding are also considered necessary. The Rule is for everyone, including the abbot or prioress, and yet everyone is a potential exception to it.
In this chapter on guests and hospitality, the wholism out of which it emerges is startlingly plain: This is a monastery and guests are to be received. As Christ. "Hospitality is one form of worship," the rabbis wrote. Benedictine spirituality takes it seriously. The welcome at the door is not only loving--a telephone operator at a jail can do that. It is total, as well. Both the community and the abbot receive the guest. The message to the stranger is clear: Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today.
And to assure us all, guest and monastic alike, that this hospitality is an act of God which we are undertaking, the community and the guest pray together first and then extend the kiss of welcome so that it is understood that our welcome is not based on human measurements alone: we like you, we're impressed with you, you look like our kind, you're clean and scrubbed and minty-breathed and worthy of our attention.
Hospitality in a culture of violence and strangers and anonymity has become the art of making good connections at good cocktail parties. We don't talk in elevators, we don't know the security guard's name, we don't invite even the neighbors in to the sanctuary of our selves. Their children get sick and their parents die and all we do is watch the comings and goings from behind heavy blinds. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our hearts so that this generation does not miss accompanying the innocent to Calvary as the last one did. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in.
All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored and welcomed in them. After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray; then the abbot or prioress or an appointed member will sit with them. The divine law is read to all guests for their instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to them. The prioress or abbot may break their fast for the sake of a guest, unless it is a day of special fast which cannot be broken. The members, however, observe the usual fast. The abbot or prioress shall pour water on the hands of the guest, and the abbot or prioress with the entire community shall wash their feet. After washing they will recite this verse: "God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps 48:10)."
"In India," Ram Dass writes, "when people meet and part they often say, 'Namaste,' which means: I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides; I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us....'Namaste'." In Benedictine spirituality, too, hospitality is clearly meant to be more than an open door. It is an acknowledgement of the gifts the stranger brings. "By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration....Christ is to be adored and welcomed in them." But Benedictine hospitality is also a return of gifts. The stranger is shown both presence and service. After a trip through hard terrain and hot sun, the guest is given physical comfort and a good meal, spiritual instruction and human support. Not even a fast day is counted as important as eating with a guest. Not even asceticism is counted as holy as care for the other. Obviously, from the point of view of the Rule of Benedict, it isn't so much what we do for those curious others in our lives, the strange, the needy, the unscrubbed, as it is the way we do it. We can give people charity or we can give them attention. We can give them the necessities of life or we can give them its joys. Benedictine hospitality is the gift of one human being to another.
Benedictine hospitality is not simply bed and bath; it is home and family.
Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.
"It's a barren prayer," St. Cyprian wrote, "that does not go hand in hand with alms." For the Benedictine heart the reception of the poor is an essential part of going to God. We cannot be too busy, too professional, too removed from the world of the poor to receive the poor and sustain the poor. Anything else, Benedict warns in a society that is by nature class structured, is not hospitality. It is at best more protocol than piety. Those who can buy their comforts or demand their rights are simply receiving what they can get, with us or without us. Those who have been thrown upon the mercy of the world are the gauge of our open hearts.
It is an important distinction in a culture in which strangers are ignored and self-sufficiency is considered a sign of virtue and poverty is a synonym for failure. Hospitality for us may as much involve a change of attitudes and perspectives as it does a handout. To practice hospitality in our world, it may be necessary to evaluate all the laws and all the promotions and all the invitation lists of corporate and political society from the point of view of the people who never make the lists. Then hospitality may demand that we work to change things.