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The Reception of Visiting Monastics

Thursday, August 15, 2024

Visiting monastics from far away will perhaps present themselves and wish to stay as guests in the monastery. Provided that they are content with the life as they find it, and do not make excessive demands that upset the monastery, but are simply content with what they find, they should be received for as long a time as they wish. They may, indeed with all humility and love make some reasonable criticisms or observations, which the prioress or abbot should prudently consider; it is possible that God guided them to the monastery for this very purpose.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote once: "There is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler." The Benedictine rule presumes the fundamental truth of that. In an era when monastics from small monasteries made regular pilgrimages to the shrines of Europe, Benedictine life not only welcomed them, fed them, kept them and accepted them as one of its own, Benedictine life opened itself to learn from them. And we can learn from that kind of radical acceptance, too. Wisdom is welcome from any direction. Our task is to open ourselves to it, to see criticism as an occasion for growth, to see the value of continued evaluation and never to close ourselves off from challenge, even when it comes from places we don't expect and people we don't know.

If after a while they wish to remain and bind themselves to stability, they should not be refused this wish, especially as there was time enough, while they were a guest, to judge their character. But if during their stay they have been found excessive in their demands or full of faults, they should certainly not be admitted as a member of the community. Instead, they should be politely told to depart, lest their ways contaminate others.

Benedictine spirituality never requires perfection. It does, however, demand effort and openness. Complaining and complacency are the two evils that community life most abhors and can least afford. Any community, any group is poisoned by people who criticize constantly and exert themselves little. Benedict warns against them both here. "Don't keep them," he insists. Better to do with fewer and do the life well than to swell the numbers of a group with what will eventually corrode it. It is a hard lesson in a culture that measures its success in numbers.