April 4, August 4, December 4
Chapter 53: On the Reception of Guests
Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say,
“I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).
And to all let due honor be shown,
especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.
As soon as a guest is announced, therefore,
let the Superior or the brethren meet him
with all charitable service.
And first of all let them pray together,
and then exchange the kiss of peace.
For the kiss of peace should not be offered
until after the prayers have been said,
on account of the devil’s deceptions.
In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing,
let all humility be shown.
Let the head be bowed
or the whole body prostrated on the ground
in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
After the guests have been received and taken to prayer,
let the Superior or someone appointed by him sit with them.
Let the divine law be read before the guest for his edification,
and then let all kindness be shown him.
The Superior shall break his fast for the sake of a guest,
unless it happens to be a principal fast day
which may not be violated.
The brethren, however, shall observe the customary fasts.
Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands;
and let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests.
After the washing of the feet let them say this verse:
“We have received Your mercy, O God,
in the midst of Your temple” (Ps. 47:10).
In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims
the greatest care and solicitude should be shown,
because it is especially in them that Christ is received;
for as far as the rich are concerned,
the very fear which they inspire
wins respect for them.
Oh, isn’t this a beautiful portion of the Rule? This is a very long passage, which merits several days of meditation, there is so much in it and I must choose just a few extracts to comment on. In fact, there are many lines here that leap straight from the page into my heart!
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’ (Matt. 25:35).”
Another Scripture text is, ‘for some have entertained angels thereby’! This reminds me, too, of St Patrick’s Breastplate prayer, ‘Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.’ And even of the Jewish Passover meal when a spare chair and table-setting are left for Elijah. For us, it’s Jesus who is the unseen, or unrecognised, guest.
“In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.”
It’s interesting that the keynotes here are humility and respect. Probably my response to a guest is more likely to reflect generosity and friendliness. Monks would have been used to receiving strangers in the monastery, passing travellers for example. Most of us aren’t used to receiving strangers in our homes. Our guests are generally people we know and have invited.
“Let the Abbot give the guests water for their hands; and let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests.”
Washing feet! Apart from the Maundy Thursday foot-washing rite, when have we ever had our feet washed? Back in St. Benedict’s day, though, many people went barefoot or had only sandals and washing of the feet would be a necessity. To do for another is an act both of hospitality and humility. It’s showing deference to the guest.
“In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received;”
This would fit very well into the ideas of Liberation Theologians. That God has a special care for the poor and downtrodden and all who are exploited and abused because of their position in the ‘pecking order’. Jesus himself encourages his followers to send out into the highways and byways for guests at a dinner party when the ‘rich and famous’ reject the invitation. I know this is symbolic of our invitation to the heavenly banquet; nevertheless, it’s a principle to remember.
In today’s society, rapt in adoration of celebrities and stars, who get the red carpet treatment wherever they go, isn’t it a relief to picture the Benedictine hospitality in welcoming the poor and the pilgrims with humility, foot-washing and respect? Isn’t this where we choose between the ‘idol’ and the ‘Man of Sorrows’?
If you could host a fabulous feast tomorrow, who might you invite? Is there anyone in your neighbourhood who looks downtrodden? Anyone who’s quarrelled with everybody else and now has nowhere to go? Anyone struggling with addiction of some kind? Anyone who’s rough and ready and punctuates every sentence with six swear-words? Anyone who, for whatever reason, we’d rather avoid having a conversation with?
The Carpenter starts with rough wood and his work on it brings it to smoothness…
May we all be willing to wash one another’s feet – and have our own feet washed by others’ hands!
How important is the guest to Benedict? How is the guest to be welcomed? As far back as Abraham it has been the Judaeo-Christian teaching, even if not always practiced, that the guest is sacred.
Is the guest sacred today? Do we even stop to think this way about our guests? Do we even have guests in our homes any more? If we were to view the guest as sacred, how would our hospitality change?
Many books have been written about hospitality in the RB. For me, though, the importance of this chapter and everywhere else where Father Benedict speaks of the treatment of the guest, is summed up by something I read in _Reaching Out_ by Henri Nouwen. The ultimate hospitality is the entertainment of God in our bodies, minds, souls and spirits. Evelyn Underhill wrote of it differently: We can know we truly love God because the love we have for God is so great it comes out of our very pores and is extended to others.
It’s Advent, possibly the most hospitable season of the year, when we are more likely than ever to have guests in our home. More than that, though, we prepare for the arrival of the most important guest of all. A good time maybe to reflect on the true meaning of hospitality.