Blogging Benedict: Hospitality

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?

The Seventh Day: New Year’s Eve, Queen Elizabeth, the BCP, and hospitality

As 2012 turns into 2013, let us remember to memorable anniversaries of this year: HM Queeen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In the spirit of this Christmastide, I would like to turn your attention to the Queen’s Christmas Message of this year.

Every year, HM Elizabeth gives a lovely Christmas message, which goes through the major news for the monarchy and the Commonwealth, and then concludes with a reflection upon Christmas itself, tying the theme into a popular Christmas carol. Last year, Her Majesty focussed upon the importance of forgiveness, which is at the centre of the Christmas story, for God sent us a Saviour, not a statesman or a philosopher. This year, she turned our attention to community and bringing people together to celebrate this feast, just as the angels called the shepherds to join Mary and Joseph at the manger.

Queen Elizabeth called us to bring into our homes those who are alone this Christmastide. For the first time, my wife and I actually took heed of this very Christian vision of hospitality at what has become yet another festival of the modern pagan Cult of the Family. I can actually say that I practise what I preach, here! We had a Canadian friend who studies in Glasgow come over from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day, and for the dinner on Christmas itself we invited over an Italian girl we’d met at church on the 16th. She was working on Christmas until 5:00 and had no plans that day. And so we opened up our home and invited in two friends, one from our days in undergrad, one of just over a week.

This sort of hospitality is common to many cultures and should imbue the fabric of Christian community. At Christmas, as Christina Rossetti says ‘love come down.’ As John 1 puts, God the Word ‘became flesh and pitched His tent among us.’ We were not left alone in the darkness and sorrow of our sin, but brought into relationship with the living God. Therefore, in light of the Incarnation, we should open up our hearts and homes and lives to those around us, even when it makes us uncomfortable. What is the point of a sacrifice for which you do not suffer?

Furthermore, the revelation of Jesus Christ led to a long meditation upon Scripture that resulted in a vision of God as three-person’d. If we pray with John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, Three-person’d God’, we should realise that communion, koinonia, lies at the heart of the Godhead, of the unmoved mover, of the one who made everything — including ourselves. And with God as our true Father, all fellow-Christians — if not, indeed, all the human race — are siblings. Therefore, these festivals in the Cult of the Family call us to open up our doors and kitchens and dining tables to the much wider family that is bound by more than blood, in remembrance of the Trinity who reorders our hearts and loyalties beyond the merely human.

All of this I have thought for a while, and I actually, finally acted upon it! And there was HM Queen Elizabeth II exhorting us all to do likewise in light of the Incarnation of God as an infant.

Therefore, in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the 1662 BCP, let’s say a prayer for the Queen, a woman not young with a busy and important job:

Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting, and power infinite; Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen Servant Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor, that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory: and that we, and all her subjects (duly considering whose authority she hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee, and for thee, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.