HOSPITALITY: The Guest As Christ by Dennis Okholm

The Guest As Christ by Dennis Okholm

From Monk Habits for Everyday People

When Benedict gets around to discussing different ways in which the monastery and the world meet, one of the important topics with which he deals is the reception of guests.  He immediately states the overarching principle: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

This welcome goes beyond the simple handshake.  The monks are to meet the guest “with all the courtesy of love,” marked by prayer, the kiss of peace, and the humble adoration of a bow, so that “Christ is adored because he is indeed welcomed in them.”  Now, I have never been received quite so elaborately, but I have been made to feel at home in the monastery as soon as my presence is made known.

Not only is the guest received with joy, but once his “status” is determined, he is to be received “as is,” whether rich or poor.  Nowhere does Benedict direct his monks to exchange greetings on the basis of titles (with the exception of the monk addressing the abbot).  Titles are not important; in fact, presumably they are not to be mentioned.  How similar to the warnings against partiality in the book of James, and how embarrassingly dissimilar to the worldly infatuation we often demonstrate toward the celebrity or success story who shows up in our church sanctuary.  Again, working from Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 25, Benedict reminds us that Christ is “more particularly” received in the poor and the pilgrims than he is in the rich and the famous.

It would be interesting if the incarnation had taken place in twenty-first-century North America instead of first-century Palestine.  Jesus may have been as poorly received in and attractive to our megachurches as he was in the “megasynagogues” and temple of his own people.  After all, we’d have to extend the right hand of fellowship to a homeless man who had a reputation for hobnobbing with the winebibbers and tax collectors.  At best, we might show him hospitality as one of our “see-how-we-minister-to-the-poor” trophies.

If we could genuinely practice Benedict’s brand of hospitality, welcoming each guest to our churches as the visitation of Christ, it might transform our guests as well as us.  Instead of making the other into my image, I am invited to see the other as one who is made in God’s image and for whom Jesus Christ died.

I will never forget the most humble and courageous act of hospitality extended to my six students and me after we had been at Blue Cloud Abbey for one week of our ten-day “field trip.”  Each Thursday the Blue Cloud monks would gather as a community in private before vespers and Mass to participate in a ritual of communal reconciliation, confessing, and forgiving those attitudes and actions that had negatively affected community life in recent days.  After Mass they concluded this communal celebration by processing to the basement dining hall for hors d’oeuvres and a buffet dinner.  It was a highlight of the week, even for guests.

This particular Thursday, after breakfast, the abbot called us into his office and told us how much he had appreciated our presence and participation in the monastery’s daily life.  He then asked if any of us would like to offer our reflections on the scripture to be read at Mass that evening.  Two of my students – one male and one female – jumped at the chance.  Only later did I explain to them what an act of hospitality this had been: for the presiding abbot to have asked two Protestant college students (and one a female) was a risk that many Protestants would not reciprocate.

But Benedictine hospitality did not end there.  After the two students had delivered brief but poignant reflections on the texts, the abbot responded in a manner that truly astounded me.  After we had invaded their house for a week, living in guest quarters that rivaled a Hampton Inn, eating three hearty meals each day, and munching on all the treats the monks had stashed for us in our guest kitchen, the abbot said, “We need to thank these students for coming to us.   By their presence in our midst they have challenged us to examine ourselves to see whether or not we live the life we profess.”  Then he invited any other community members to share their thoughts on the students’ visit, and several monks expressed similar sentiments.  The dinner celebration that night after the Mass was the crowning point of what had truly been an agape meal.

I have often wondered what our churches would be like if we extended the same humble hospitality to the visitors who show up week after week.  What a contrast to my visit to the evangelical church my daughter often attended during her college days.  Needing to head for the airport immediately after church to return home, I toted my pilot’s bag and canvas briefcase to the room where the college class would be meeting and to which we would be returning after the first worship service.  Since the high-schoolers used the same Sunday school classroom during the first hour, I suggested that my daughter inform one of the adult leaders so that he would be aware that this was my luggage perched by the coat rack and keep an eye on it for me.  As he approached me, his first words were (with a smile on his face, of course; we evangelicals are always “nice,” if nothing else!), “Could you open the bags so that I can see what’s inside?”

Dressed in my Sunday finest, I explained my situation – that I had been a theology professor at a local college for the past decade and a half and that my daughter was a participating member of this church.  “You can understand,” he said (with a smile).  “We can’t be too careful.”

As I accommodated his fears of a hidden bomb and unzipped the bags to expose my dirty laundry, books, and papers, I retorted (without a smile and, no doubt, in an irritated tone that revealed I was in danger of losing a month’s worth of progress in sanctification), “I don’t understand, and if you came to my church we would not ask a Christian brother to do this.”

Indeed, we can’t be too careful to show humble hospitality with “all the courtesy of love.”  Call them naïve, but more than once I have heard of the Blue Cloud monks’ being “taken” by a guest; they would rather err on the side of welcoming each guest as Christ, perhaps implanting a seed of grace that might one day grow into a life-changing organism, than to put themselves first.

I suppose, though, that the high-school overseer could have appealed to Benedict’s caution in his exhortations to receive guests: the monk must beware of the “delusions of the devil” (who probably does wear khaki slacks and a classic, two-button navy sports jacket) and not allow the routine of the monastery to be unduly compromised.  The abbot, who would have washed the guest’s hands when he entered, can break a fast for the sake of a guest.  But beyond that, provision should be made for a separate guest kitchen (along with two attending brothers) so guests do not “disturb the brothers when they present themselves at unpredictable hours.”  And one is to speak to a guest only when bidden; if a brother meets or sees a guest in the monastery, “he asks for a blessing and continues on his way, explaining that he is not allowed to speak with a guest.”

As in many other areas, so here – Benedictines don’t practice the letter of Benedict’s rule, but they do observe its spirit.  The point is this: the monks can best attend to the needs of a guest if the house is functioning as it should.  Part of this has to do with the subtle influence the fallen world can have on the Christian community.  This is a concern that resonates with Protestants, who have always been concerned, particularly in their fundamentalist incarnations, to “keep the boat in the water without letting the water get into the boat.”

Benedict wanted to make sure that newcomers to the monastic life were serious, so he cautioned his monks not to grant them easy entry but to “test the spirits to see if they are from God.”  The postulant is to keep knocking at the door for four or five days to demonstrate his sincerity (just as a church, which should readily welcome its guests, should test and catechize the one who seeks to join the church in its fellowship and mission).  In this way the intentional Christian community is preserved so that it can do best the job that God has assigned it.  The postulant must adjust to the community; the community must not let the postulant – or “world” – set the agenda.

Figuratively speaking, maybe we need to recover some sense of making the world wait four or five days outside the gates of our Christian communities.  What a contrast to the World War II invasion of Monte Cassino – the rebuilt monastery of Benedict’s original that was demolished in the contest between Axis and Allied powers as the latter made the arduous and hard-fought trek to Rome.  When my family and I visited the monastery, we learned from the monk who greeted us under the gate labeled PAX that the world refused to wait outside the gate, destroying the monastery with worldly means of bombing raids that were fueled by suspicions of the enemy’s intentions.  Perhaps if the “world” had had more respect for a Christian community that not all agreed was a threat to the Allies, a treasure would not have been destroyed and the lives of many monks would not have been so disrupted.

Perhaps this metaphorical comparison and the paradoxical dance between showing hospitality to the stranger and keeping the fallen world at bay is best captured in a publisher’s blurb for a book entitled The Two Cities of God: The Church’s Responsibility for the Earthly City:

The authors assert that the popular slogan of the sixties, “Let the world set the agenda!” must be turned around.  The church must set its own agenda in dealing with the world, and that agenda must feature most prominently the church’s life in the communion of the Triune God.  In each case the authors agree that the church’s greatest witness and service to the world is in the church’s day-by-day service to God, both as an institution and in the lives of individual Christians – “a sign and agent of the Heavenly city within and for the Earthly city.”

This is precisely Benedict’s point.

But what I find most irritating about practicing Benedictine hospitality when it comes to receiving the guest is the timing of the guest’s appearance.  In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, I used to make a simple request each morning: “Lord, send someone today whom I can serve.”  But inevitably this someone would show up five minutes before I had to deliver a lecture (the preparation for which really required at least another hour) or before I was dashing off to lunch with a growling stomach.  It got to the point that I could not pray this prayer with sincerity – unless I was in greater control of my encounters with guests.  And that is precisely the point: the stranger at our “gate” is as unpredictable in his appearance as is Christ.  To top it off, this stranger is often the kid who irritates me the most, yet the one whom I must envision as Christ.  That often takes not only patience but a lot of envisioning!

This came home to me during a conference given to Blue Cloud oblates by our oblate director.  (A “conference” is the term Benedictines use for what Protestants would call a “talk” at a retreat.)  Brother Benet recited a poem by John L’Heureux entitled “The Trouble with Epiphanies.”

Christ came into my room
and stood there
and I was bored to death.
I had work to do.
I wouldn’t have minded
if he’d been crippled
or something—I do well
with cripples—but he
just stood there, all face,
and with that d—ned guitar.
I didn’t ask him to sit down:
he’d have stayed all day.
(Let’s be honest. You
can be crucified just so often;
then you’ve had it. I mean
you’re useless; no good
to God, let alone
to anybody else.) So I said
to him after a while—
well, what’s up? What do you want?
And he laughed, stupid,
said he was just passing by
and thought he’d say hello.
Great, I said, hello.
So he left.
And I was so d—ned mad
I couldn’t even listen
to the radio. I went
and got some coffee.
The trouble with Christ is
he always comes at the wrong time.

Like a meal when you’re homeless, you just never know where your next guest is coming from; all we know is that we are to welcome her as Christ.  That is not always easy.

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