The Rule of Benedict devotes one of its longer chapters, chapter 53, to the reception of guests. But there are a couple of things in this chapter I would like to point out.
First, and most obviously, there is a chapter in the Rule completely devoted to hospitality. And as I say, it’s one of the longer chapters. It’s shorter than the big chapters, 4 and 7, but longer than most. In the top 10 anyway. There are all kinds of rituals laid down there which we no longer follow, such as the washing of the feet of the guests by the whole community. Can you imagine trying to do that when there were 240 monks here? Your retreat would be over before they were done. Also, the Abbot’s table is always with the guests. We can presume that this was not for the advantage of the abbot, better food or whatnot, but for the guests, to honour them. What this means is that guests are not an intrusion on the life of the monastery, but an integral part of it. Benedict says regarding guests, that “monasteries are never without them.” A monastery without guests, then, is not a complete monastery. And this has been true from the very beginning of monasticism.
Even in the desert, the monks had guests. St. Anthony famously fled further and further into the desert to escape the crowds which tended to congregate around him. One of the most extended discourses in the Life of Antony, by Athanasius, occurs during the visit of some philosophers. Cassian was a travelling guest when he collected his Conferences. Here’s a story from the Apophthegmata, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. One of the eternal questions for the desert fathers and mothers was whether a monastic should set aside his or her regular practice, the normally Spartan diet, for the sake of guests. So, the story goes that it was the week before Easter, and all the monks had been ordered to fast. But some guests came to Abba Moses, so he cooked a meal for them. Some nosy neighbours noticed that there was smoke coming from his chimney, and since the fire wasn’t probably to warm anybody, they concluded he was cooking. They went to the elders of the community and told them about this. The elders said, “We’ll take care of this.” On Saturday, when Moses came in for the synaxis – explain a little? – they put him in front of everyone and told him, “Good for you, you broke the laws of men but obeyed the laws of God.” There are many other similar stories. Guests have always been a part of monasticism.
That’s the first point I wanted to make – that monks and nuns do not accept guests out of the goodness of their hearts, or tolerate them as a necessary evil (well…), but that guests are an integral part of monasticism and have always been.
The second point I wanted to make is obvious from the way Chapter 53 begins. “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” You can see this quote just outside the front door of this very retreat house. It is our intention to welcome everyone who comes here as Christ. We probably fall short many times, but you guys keep coming to give us more chances. But this chapter goes on to say the same thing twice more. In verse 7, it says, “By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them.” And just in case we haven’t gotten the point yet, in verse 15, again Benedict tells us, “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.”
So three times he reiterates the same point – that guests are to be received as Christ. I can’t think of another place where Benedict is so insistent on a point – ok, maybe about the evils of murmuring – but he is rarely so insistent. The guest as Christ, then, is central to Benedict’s theology, shall we say, of hospitality.
There’s a story you may have heard, and I’ll probably get this wrong because I’m just going from memory. A woman living by herself saw a vision of Jesus in a dream and he told her that he was going to visit her in person the next evening for dinner. Well, she was the sort of person who believed in dreams. So, the next day she bustled around – he didn’t give her much notice – went shopping, bought the best ingredients she could afford, and cooked up a storm. When she was done, and everything was ready, she went outside to wait at the door. An elderly man was walking down the street coughing, obviously sick. He came up to her and asked if she had anything she could spare to give him to eat. At first she was reluctant, because she was expecting Jesus, but thought that if she gave him the soup she had made, there would still be enough for the two of them. So she went inside, got the soup and gave it to the old man. She kept waiting. Then she spotted a beggar coming toward her, staggering, probably drunk. She thought, Oh, no. He came right up to her – he smelled really bad of B.O. and alcohol. He said, “Ma’am, I’m starving – I haven’t had anything to eat for two days, been on a bender. I hate to ask, but do you have anything you could spare?” Again the woman hesitated. After all, this guy had gotten himself into this pickle, it was his fault if he’d spent his money on booze instead of food. But she thought, ah, darn, I suppose I could give him the vegetable dish I’ve made – we’ll still have the main dish when Jesus gets here. So she went inside, got the nice vegetable dish she had made, with all the spices, and brought it out to the drunk guy. She kept waiting. It was getting late. Then a young woman came along carrying a baby. The young woman was very thin. The baby was crying. The woman said to herself, Watch, she’ll come right up to me. Sure enough, the young woman came up to her. She said, “Please Ma’am. I’m living on the streets with my little baby. I’ve got no husband and nowhere to go, and I don’t have any money to get food for either of us. Might you have something to spare?” The woman hesitated. That she had no husband meant that she had been rather loose, and probably her family had disowned her. Why was it her problem? But then she thought, Oh, well, it’s really late now. Something must have happened to keep Jesus away. And how would he get hold of me to tell me? I’d have to be dreaming for that to happen. So she brought the young mother inside, sat her down at the table and took out the roast lamb she had prepared and they ate it together. Then she warmed some milk for the baby. Finally she said, Look, it’s dark outside now. Why don’t you stay the night here? The young mother was very grateful, so the woman made up her own bed for the mother and her baby and went to sleep on the couch in the kitchen. She only had, like, the two rooms. So in the middle of the night, she woke up, and standing at the foot of the bed was Jesus, all bathed in light looking at her. She said, “Jesus! Now you show up! Where were you? I waited all evening! Well it’s too late now. I don’t have a scrap left to give you. And it serves you right. Showing up at this hour.” And Jesus said, “I did come to you this evening, three times, and three times you served me. And the last time, I brought my own mother with me, and you gave us both shelter.” And the woman could see the young mother then, standing at Jesus’ side.
So I tell you this story to illustrate something fundamental about thinking of guests as Christ. We might believe that we are receiving guests as if they were Christ, that is, we are behaving toward them as we imagine we should if they were Christ, but of course they really aren’t. You know the verse from Hebrews, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” This gives the impression that every so often a guest might come along who is actually an angel in disguise. Or that Jesus may pop round disguised as a drunk, so we ought to be on our toes just in case. If we think this way, we are acting out of our own self-interest – what would we say if Jesus told us he had visited us and we did not feed or clothe or visit him. We’d be stuck over there with the goats. So we better watch our step.
We might think that this is what Chapter 53 in the Rule is telling us. Receive guests as if they were Christ. But I would challenge that. In the other two iterations of nearly the same words in this chapter, Benedict says, both times, that Christ IS received in the guest. We bow or prostrate to a guest, because “Christ is to be adored, because he IS welcomed in them.” And again, we welcome the poor since “in them more particularly Christ IS received.”
What does this mean then? You might remember St. Augustine, in the Confessions, saying to God, “You are more intimate to me than I am to myself.” God is not only around us, or above us, but inside us. This is all over the New Testament – how many times does John have Jesus describe the mutual indwelling he shares with the Father and the disciples? “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” (14:20) “Remain in me as I remain in you.” (15:4) Just two examples. Paul says, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). I could go on, but you get the point.
What I would like to suggest is that this is not a metaphor. Christ actually does dwell in our hearts, literally. We can be more or less conscious of him there, but he is always there. This means that he dwells in everyone’s heart. So when we welcome a guest as Christ, we are actually welcoming Christ, not in disguise, but in person.
This has ramifications beyond the guest – host relationship. I think that one of the great tragedies of modern culture is that the human being has been understood primarily as an individual. Particularly in the west, the idea of the self-made woman or man is pervasive. To stand on your own two feet is a great virtue. To fend for yourself, to stand up for yourself, to make your own way, to blaze your own path, all of these are familiar phrases which indicate the ubiquity of this idea. We are taught that we are responsible for our own success, or failure. As a result, many, many people feel isolated and alone. We can be surrounded by people at a party and feel lonely. We can walk down a street filled with other people and feel like we don’t belong. We can feel like an alien in the midst of our own family.
The truth is that we are primarily social creatures. You only have to look at a map to see that. We congregate. Generally, human beings are not found in isolated areas. It is in our nature to gather together into towns and cities. We were made by God to need other people. Augustine, again, once said that “Self-sufficiency is the greatest sin.” It is the sin of Satan – Satan did not want to need God. We should not be measured as individuals, but as communities. The community is our fundamental unit, not our selves. We are only truly human in the company of other humans. Certainly we are unique, every one of us, and we have specific talents and gifts, and flaws, that are unlike any other person’s on the planet. But these gifts are meant to be shared, these flaws are meant to be seen by others. This is how we practise compassion.
Bernard of Clairvaux, in the Steps of Humility and Pride, talks about the three degrees of truth. First, we must face the truth about ourselves. We are fundamentally broken and unable to fix ourselves. We are utterly dependant on God. Second, we understand the truth about others. They are in the same boat as we are. Our self-examination, which results in our utter helplessness, leads us not to despair, but to compassion for others. This is so important. Our journey inside leads us back outside. We are not stuck in ourselves, waiting eternally for an answer which just won’t come. Instead we look outside and see others as ourselves, all part of a bigger family, a bigger community, all struggling with the same things. I saw a movie once, called “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” a German movie (by Werner Herzog, if you happen to know him). In it a young man is found who had been kept all his life in a cellar, without any contact with other human beings. The movie shows his gradual awakening to the wonder and pain of human interaction. He dies at the end – spoiler alert – too late – but on his death bed relates a vision he had. He said that he was on a mountain toiling up a mountain, and around him were all kinds of other people, young, old, men, women, rich, poor, some alone, some in groups, all struggling to climb the mountain. And at the top of the mountain, he said, was death. That sounds a little depressing, but in essence what he had learned, in learning about himself, was compassion for others. We are in the same boat, or on the same mountain.
To get back to our point about Christ dwelling inside us, we see and treat each other as Christ not in the off-chance that the other person may be Christ or an angel in disguise, but because in the other person Christ is actually standing before us. And if Christ is in her, and Christ is in me, then we have a connection beyond our physical interaction. The Christ in her and the Christ in me are the same Christ, so we are both part of something larger. The Catholic church calls this the mystical body of Christ. It is well attested in the New Testament. Paul says several times that we are members of Christ’s body, “we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom 12:5) and tells us not to be discouraged if we are an ordinary hand rather than a glamourous eye. The hand is no less useful to the body than the eye (1 Cor 12:13ff). We each have a place in Christ’s body. Again, we are unique and loved as individuals, but we are also part of something larger, and our gifts, our talents and even our weaknesses are not ours alone, but something to be shared.
I want to say something specifically about our weaknesses, as a side note. Our weaknesses are usually something we wish we didn’t have. We wish we could overcome them, and have probably tried to do so. In some few cases, we may even have been successful. But for the most part, our weaknesses remain. However, they are not to be dismissed as so undesirable. First, our weaknesses are what force us to recognize our dependence on God. Bernard’s first degree of truth depends on our weaknesses. Second our weaknesses and others’ are an opportunity for us to practise compassion. Some of you probably knew Fr. Matthew. He was my confessor. When I was a novice, I had an issue with another novice. I just didn’t like the guy. He irritated me beyond all bounds, and I tended to avoid him. When I brought this to Fr. Matthew he perked right up. “He’s your prince!” he said. “He’s going to teach you how to love.” We need people in our lives whom we would not have voluntarily chosen to be with, precisely in order to practise true charity. Someone once said that if we do not have any problem monks in the community, we’d have to go out and hire some. But that is the beauty of true community – the people we have to live with or associate with are not of our own choosing. And so we have the opportunity to try to see Christ in them as well. We don’t get to heaven as individuals, on our own, but as part of community, with the help of others.
Here’s a Cistercian story. A fellow was taking a tour of heaven. St. Peter was showing him all the sites, the mansions, the great choir of angels, and so on. But the guy noticed a big group of men and women camped outside the pearly gates. They seemed to be having a good time. Every so often, Mary would step outside the gates to have a chat and a glass of wine with them, before heading back in. The guy said, “Hey, who are those people outside the gates?” St. Peter said, “Oh, those are the Cistercians.” The guy said, “What are they doing outside the gates? Why don’t they come in?” St. Peter said, “Oh, they’re waiting until they’re all there.” We enter heaven, not as individuals, but as a community. I’d love to think that the brothers and sisters of the Cistercian family who have gone before me, particularly those I’ve known and loved here at Gethsemani, are waiting for me, the slowpoke, to make my way through however many levels of Purgatory to get up there with them.
So this is where Benedict’s teaching on hospitality has led us. We welcome guests not as if they were Christ, but because they are Christ. And because they are Christ, they are related to us, we who are also Christ. Our world is enlarged, we are no longer alone, there is no need to feel lonely, because our brothers and sisters are always around us, forming a larger body, the body of Christ, our great human family.
To find Christ, you do not need to meditate for hours, or study scripture for years, or go to some remote place for a retreat. All of these are good, of course, they help us to focus, they refresh us, and they inform us. But to find Christ, all we have to do is look at the person sitting next to us.