As the holidays approach, there are numerous discussions about hospitality and all that is needed to be a gracious host, hostess, and guest. As a Benedictine oblate, I was recently asked to speak about Benedictine hospitality. This exercise was a wonderful opportunity to reflect deeply about my experience as an oblate and my relationships with Benedictine priests, monks, and religious sisters, and the hospitality they have extended to me over the past 32 years.
What Does a 6th Century Rule Have to Say about 21st Century Hospitality?
Living at the time of the fall of the western Roman empire, St. Benedict established 12 monasteries. It was in his monastery at Monte Cassino where St. Benedict wrote his Rule, probably around the year 530 AD.
Known as the Father of Western Monasticism, St. Benedict and his Rule (and the monks, priests, and religious sisters who came after him), not only transformed Western monasticism, but they also transformed Western civilization—and their influence continues today.
There are many themes in the Rule of St. Benedict. Understanding these themes leads to a better understanding of the foundation of Benedictine hospitality.
First among the themes is the expression commonly attributed to the Benedictines, “Ora et labora” (prayer and work). Without question, prayer was (and continues to be) the foundation of life for Benedictines. In the Rule, communal prayer occurs seven times each day. This communal prayer is considered the Opus Dei, the work of God, and St. Benedict states in the Rule that “nothing is to be preferred to the Opus Dei” (RB 43).
St. Benedict also believed in the value of work, which he considered to be a form of prayer. Thus, through his Rule, St. Benedict orders the day around prayer, work, and holy reading/study. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the community members should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading” (RB 48).
Another theme within the Rule of St. Benedict is obedience. Interestingly, obedience to God, the Abbot, and one’s superior is expected to be both external (doing what is asked of you) and internal (fulfilling the request without grumbling, complaining, gossiping, or murmuring). As St. Benedict states, “even though [the monk] carries out the order, the action will not be accepted with favor by God, who sees that he is grumbling in his heart. He will have no reward for service of this kind” (RB 5).
Indeed, beginning in the fourth chapter, St. Benedict warns against grumbling, complaining, and murmuring, and he continues this warning in an additional eight chapters of the Rule. So damaging is the practice of grumbling and complaining, that St. Benedict considers it a poison to community life, and he emphatically urges that it be rooted out.
This emphasis on external and internal obedience, which reflects an obedience of the heart, serves as a foundation for humility—another theme in the Rule. St. Benedict devotes an entire chapter to outlining the twelve steps for growth in humility. This growth in humility, along with growth in external and internal obedience, is not done for its own sake. The ultimate reason for the practice is to grow in holiness while living in community.
In fact, St. Benedict believed that holiness is not only achieved by the desert hermits. Holiness, he believed, can be achieved while living in community. However, for cenobites to achieve this level of holiness, they are required to take a vow of stability, to strive for external and internal obedience, to grow in humility, and to root out grumbling, complaining, and murmuring. These sincere efforts, coupled with prayer, patience, flexibility, forgiveness, love, and God’s grace, can lead a monk (and others) toward the path of holiness.
Prayer, obedience, humility, and…hospitality
From the foundation of their first monasteries, the Benedictines have been known for their hospitality. This is an important theme in the Rule, and it is an important theme for us today.
First and foremost, St. Benedict calls his monks to greet the stranger as Christ.
Moreover, St. Benedict outlines how guests are to be received in the monastery, welcoming all, with special attention given to the poor (RB 53). In addition, St. Benedict discusses the role of prayer in welcoming the guest, the charisms of the monk who may serve as porter, the need for guest rooms and numerous beds to accommodate many guests, and the words and gestures that ought to be used to welcome others.
When I reflect upon Benedictine hospitality, as I have experienced it in more than three decades, and in reflecting upon the themes of the Rule, I have come to realize that, for Benedictines, hospitality is more than a proper place setting, a great recipe and bottle of wine, or a well-ordered home with popular decorations for the season. For Benedictines, hospitality demands prayer, it requires work that is completed without grumbling, it involves internal and external obedience and humility, it strives for the good of the community, and it must include love. Above all, for Benedictines, hospitality is a disposition of the heart.
I was reminded of this disposition of the heart recently upon hearing the gospel story from Luke 19 proclaimed at Mass. This gospel reading highlights the story of Jesus coming to Jericho and interacting with Zacchaeus. In this gospel reading, Jesus models for us what Benedictine hospitality, at its heart, is intended to be.
Luke chapter 19 begins by saying that Jesus came to Jericho where he intended to pass through the town. However, he looked up and saw Zacchaeus. Jesus then called Zacchaeus down, conversed with him, and spent time with Zacchaeus in his home. Zacchaeus, we learn, was filled with joy. Jesus’ actions demonstrate the Benedictine understanding of hospitality, and they serve as a model for us.
What did Jesus do?
- First, Jesus looked up and noticed Zacchaeus.
In our over-scheduled, tech-infused lives, this is an important step that is easily overlooked. We, too, are called to look up: from our phones, from our computer screens, from the task at hand—and notice the person that God has put in our path.
2. Second, with humility, obedience, and love, Jesus set His original agenda to the side.
Luke chapter 19 tells us that Jesus intended to pass through the town. Jesus had an agenda for the day: He had places to go, people to meet, things to do. However, upon noticing Zacchaeus, Jesus put His agenda to the side. Why?
3. So that he could be present to Zacchaeus.
Presence is the heart of our faith and of Benedictine hospitality. At its core, Benedictine hospitality calls us to look up, to notice those whom God has placed in our path, and (with prayer, obedience, humility, and love) be willing to be present to them.
What a beautiful plan for the upcoming holiday season. Amidst the shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and endless tasks, may we pause to extend Benedictine hospitality to those we encounter by:
- Looking up,
- Noticing the other,
- And with great love, being present to them.