One of the characteristics that a bishop (episkopos) is meant to have, according to St Paul’s letter to Titus (1:8), is to be a lover of hospitality. Although all monasteries, Benedictine ones included, are a kind of retreat from the world, they are nevertheless places of hospitality. We read in chapter 53:
All guests who arrive should be received as if they were Christ. (trans. White, p. 83; Mt 25:35)
This should be enough for us to want to be hospitable. In the Lives of Eastern Saints by Benedict’s younger Syriac contemporary, John of Ephesus, this ideal drives the many encounters the monks and hermits of Mesopotamia have with others. In chapter 5, the monk Simeon the Recluse receives his guests thus:
he himself would run and prepare a footpan and bring water, and would prepare a towel and put it round his loins, in the manner which our Lord also taught; and thus he would wash them whether they were one or many, not allowing them to speak nor to refuse. (Patrologia Orientalis 17.86-87, trans. E. W. Brooks)
At another monastery, John of Ephesus tells us that the poor were received as if they were Christ.
When a guest arrives at a Benedictine monastery, first they pray together. Then they share the kiss of peace. Then they are welcomed as they were Christ. Fourth, there is more prayer and reading of Scripture; ‘after this all kindness should be shown him.’ (trans. White, p. 84) Like Simeon, they wash their feet.
The Desert Fathers often talk about how you can break certain rules for the sake of love and hospitality. For example, if a monk had a personal rule of not eating until, say, the ninth hour, but guests came and wanted lunch, he would serve and eat lunch with them. Or if he has a rule of eating no meat but is offered meat, he is to eat it. Love is the rule above all rules.
A very important aspect of hospitality is discussed by Benedict — care for the poor:
Special care and attention should be shown in the reception of the poor and of pilgrims because in such people Christ is more truly welcomed. When it comes to rich people, we are more likely to show them respect because we are in awe of them. (p. 84, trans. White)
Caring for the poor is an ongoing concern for Benedictines. In Lanfranc’s Constitutions (reviewed here), a lot of time is spent detailing how the alms are to be distributed to the poor and how the abbot and other monks are to wash the feet of the poor, all of this because Christ is in the poor. How do we welcome Christ in the face of the poor in our lives?
In chapter 56, we read that the abbot’s table is a place of hospitality for visitors who are thus not required to eat in silence with the brothers, since they are not bound by the rule. Visiting monks, who are bound by a rule, should live as the monks do. They can opt to join the monastery, in fact. However, if they are annoying and endlessly critical of how the monastery runs itself, they are to be kicked out and sent back to their own monastery.
Hospitality should mark the Christian community, whether that is a congregation, a private home, or a community such as a monastery. How can we open up our tables to others? Whom could we invite for dinner? Who are the lonely and isolated in our communities? How can we show hospitality to them?