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?

Blogging Benedict: Sleep with your clothes on

In chapter 22 of the Rule of St Benedict, the monks are commanded to sleep with their clothes on. Why? This way they have no excuse for being late for their middle-of-the-night and early morning prayers. They can jump up from bed and go straight to the oratory. In fact, many Benedictine monasteries have a staircase descending straight down from the dormitory into the chapel.

Benedictines pray a lot. The round of prayers is the focus of many chapters of the Rule, as discussed already, and the adaptation of the office for eleventh-century purposes takes up one half of Lanfranc’s constitutions (my review here). They pray Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and Matins/Vigils/Nocturns. Two of these occur immediately upon rising. So they have no time for dilly-dallying in bed.

Off the top of my head, here’s a (post)modern takeaway:

Do we lounge around ‘in bed’, as it were, instead of sinking to our knees in prayer?

By ‘in bed’, besides actually lounging in bed, I mean sitting in front of the TV or computer or whatever other entertainment we have, and dulling our senses to the spiritual realities all around us, realities to which God is calling us, realities accessible to us through prayer?

Maybe we should be quick to pray, always ready at any moment to enter into communion with God.

Let’s sleep with our clothes on.

Review of Lanfranc’s Monastic Constitutions

The Monastic Constitutions of LanfrancThe Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc by Lanfranc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an edition and translation by David Knowles of the monastic constitutions prepared by Lanfranc of Canterbury for the monastic community under his care at Christ Church, Canterbury. Lanfranc was Archbishop of Canterbury 1070-1089, having previously been at Bec in Normandy. Lanfranc was part of the large movement of reform in eleventh-century Europe, and one of the aspects of reform was the reform of monastic houses. Christ Church, Canterbury, like Durham and a few others, is a unique English phenomenon — a priory connected to a cathedral where the bishop takes the place of the abbot.

The purpose of monastic constitutions such as these was to lay out the nitty-gritty of how the Rule of St Benedict was to be applied, or how various aspects of life untouched by Benedict are to play out in monastic life. Lanfranc ackowledges herein that there is a diversity of times and places, and not every monastery will live the Rule in the same fashion — this is acceptable, so long as they strive for the same lofty goals that inhabit the Rule of St Benedict. Lanfranc made use of continental constitutions in putting this document together, especially those of Cluny.

If you come to this text seeking the richness of medieval ‘spirituality’ or monastic wisdom to apply to your own life, you will leave disappointed. The entire first half of the book is taken up with a description of the daily round of liturgy in its manifestation throughout the different feasts of the Christian year. The second half deals with various aspects of the rest of monastic life, beginning with office-bearers from the abbot to the infirmarian, and then discussing different topics, concluding with treatment of the sick and then the dead.

What the varied and extensive liturgical discussions revealed to me was the fact that there was very little time for much else in a community following these constitutions — whether reading, copying manuscripts, manual labour, mystical contemplation, etc. It is clear that these activities, especially the former two, occurred at Canterbury (we have too many Christ Church manuscripts to say otherwise), but this community was not living the relatively simple round of the hours found in Benedict. As Knowles notes in the introduction, it is precisely this liturgical complication and exuberance that is one of the targets of the reforms in the next century, particularly that of the Cistercians.

Finally, this volume closes with an edition of another text from Canterbury about the receiving and training of novices. This is also a most interesting text.

If you are interested in how the daily lives of monks played out in the later eleventh century, this book will be of some interest, but it will not stand alone, its main thrust being liturgy. Yet that, in and of itself, is worthy of note.

View all my reviews

Lanfranc: Keep what is essential in adapting for today

The heart of seeking wisdom in the Rule of St Benedict for today is encapsulated in Lanfranc of Canterbury’s (Arcbhp of C 1070-1089) own adaptation of the Rule for eleventh-century Canterbury. Whether it is Benedict or any other of the old ascetics, this strikes the right tone:

What we have to consider with the greatest care is that what is necessary for the soul’s salvation should be safeguarded in every way: faith, that is, and contempt of the world, together with charity, chastity, humility, patience, obedience; penance for faults committed and a humble confession of them; frequent prayers; silence in fitting measure; and many other things of this kind. Where these are preserved it may truly be said that the Rule of St Benedict and the monastic life are kept, whatever variety there be in matters which have been differently ordered in different monasteries. –The Monastic Constitutions, pp. 1-2, trans. D. Knowles