April 4, August 4, December 4
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt.25:35). Proper honour must be shown “to all, especially to those who share our faith” (Gal. 6:10) and to pilgrims.
Once guests have been announced, the superior and the monks are to meet them with all the courtesy of love. First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, but prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil.
All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray; then the superior or an appointed monk will sit with them. The divine law is read to the guest for their instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to them. The superior may break their fast for the sake of a guest, unless it is a day of special fast which cannot be broken. The monks, however, observe the usual fast. The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet. After washing they will recite this verse: “God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple.” (Ps. 47:10).
Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.
Guests remind us that we are not a life unto ourselves. There is a kind of implosion that can happen, whether subtle or not, in a life together when this life does not have enough outside influence. The gift of guests can refocus community members away from themselves. This can be refreshing and humbling. A commitment to the needs and practicality of guests can short circuit egoic focus.
Guests remind us that, ultimately, community is not self-serving. Community serves the needs of the society and culture it is a part of. Benedict reminds us here that Jesus has identified himself with the guest as a stranger in their human need. Christ abides in the uniqueness of each person, and in their circumstance. To turn them away, to ignore their needs, is to close ourselves off from the union-in-being that each person is with the divine life. In not receiving a guest, community does itself real damage: we can forget who we are.
This routine for the community’s receiving of guests is not just for the guest. This way of welcoming is included in the communal life so that the essentials of communal life are not themselves compromised. Yes, there is alteration and adjustment, however there is no compromise. A community of the rule does not stop praying or eating together, fasting, or observing silence because of guests. This is a teaching for us today. How many of us have missed meditation and prayers because of visiting friends, family, or others? How many of us have, in our own homes, let silence be disturbed as we allow for visitors? To ask, for example, for a time of quiet while we meditate, even inviting our guests to meditate with us – might this be a blessing for them?
What might it mean that Christ is ‘more particularly’ received in poor and in pilgrims, more so than in the rich? This is not a value judgement, more an observation. The Christ in and with all is seen more readily in those who have nothing to lose and in those willing to lose what they have. Those who hold to what they have, especially if they have a lot, while they may enjoy a more secular awe, can have what they have acting as an impediment to the seeing and receiving of Christ. It is thus important that the feet of all be washed, so that the Christ in (and as) all be honoured regardless of circumstance. Here, feet washing is all about service, humility, and the honouring of guests. If we are not to wash the feet of our guests today, how might serve them, expressing a humility that honours them as the sacred humanity they are? It could be as simple as a bow of the head at the front door, given as an attentive act of love for the other.
Why would Benedict ask guests and community to pray together first before the intimacy of a kiss of peace? There is a realization here that we can be deceived; we can misperceive intentions and action, seeing and feeling according to desire rather than the life of love. A kiss or a hug from someone new could set this in motion.
Attraction is sometimes fleeting tinsel. Love is not tinsel; love is more akin to gold. Community can be a place to experience the difference between tinsel and gold. Gold, of course, manifests in community, however its showing requires time, discernment, and patience. Often the loving thing to do is to not act on attraction, waiting instead to see what the everyday life of community together will do with this attraction. Here there is an opportunity to experience the variations of love and desire.
This waiting can be a challenge. Waiting here is all about respecting the life of communal relating, as well as learning the gentle art of getting to know someone in a kind and loving way. All will be well because once gold is discovered, it lasts and has its place in the communal life – it is a blessing for everyone. Sometimes attraction becoming gold is the stranger community is asked to receive.
“When did we see you a stranger welcome you, need clothes and we clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to you?” And the King will answer, “Amen, I say to you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me.”’ (Matthew 25:38-40, RNJB)