April 5, August 5, December 5
Chapter 53: On the Reception of Guests
Let there be a separate kitchen for the Abbot and guests,
that the brethren may not be disturbed when guests,
who are never lacking in a monastery,
arrive at irregular hours.
Let two brethren capable of filling the office well
be appointed for a year to have charge of this kitchen.
Let them be given such help as they need,
that they may serve without murmuring.
And on the other hand,
when they have less to occupy them,
let them go out to whatever work is assigned them.
And not only in their case
but in all the offices of the monastery
let this arrangement be observed,
that when help is needed it be supplied,
and again when the workers are unoccupied
they do whatever they are bidden.
The guest house also shall be assigned to a brother
whose soul is possessed by the fear of God.
Let there be a sufficient number of beds made up in it;
and let the house of God be managed by prudent men
and in a prudent manner.
On no account shall anyone who is not so ordered
associate or converse with guests.
But if he should meet them or see them,
let him greet them humbly, as we have said,
ask their blessing and pass on,
saying that he is not allowed to converse with a guest.
The RB directs that there should be a separate kitchen for the Abbot and his guests (who are never in short supply), lest any guests arriving late disturb the brothers. And this kitchen is to be in the charge of two appointed brothers, who have the necessary talent and character to carry out the tasks, for *one year*. Isn’t that great? If the task turns out to be onerous, there’s only a year to be completed. If the task turns out to offer any privileges, someone else will get their turn at the end of a year… This equity and fairness is a prevailing feature in the RB, isn’t it?
Guests are very well provided for, are they not? Even a separate kitchen so that they may be sure of a meal no matter what time they arrive. It is in these chapters on receiving guests that we find the origin of the hotel industry. Somewhere someone decided to cash in on what Benedictine monasteries had offered for free. But I digress.
And I’m very drawn to the way the RB lays down that if the kitchen brothers are very busy, others are to help them, and contrariwise if they have little to do, they are to go and help the rest of the monks. All this must cement the sense of fellowship and what today we would call ‘team spirit’ or ‘esprit de corps’, and which nowadays can be so hard to acquire that organisations hold special (and expensive) ‘team- building days’ to achieve it!
This helping one another principle is to be extended beyond the kitchen into all the activities of the monastery. Where a helping hand is needed, it is to be offered. ‘Share one another’s burdens’ worked out in everyday monastic life till it becomes a natural response to need – a sort of ‘reflex action’ that requires no conscious decision-making. Would it were like this in workplaces and families and – dare I say it? – the church!
I assume that in a Benedictine monastery no kudos would attach to any brother or sister who did more than their fair share, because although this seems a very ‘good’ thing to do, it actually breaks the Rule just as surely as someone trying to escape the duty of helping someone else in their task.
As one who is very inclined to take on more than is reasonable or sensible just because ‘it has to be done and someone’s got to do it’, I think I’d better take a strict note of this!
In a way, people who are willing to shoulder a lion’s share of burdens can actually enable or tempt others to be idle – being, in fact, a stumbling-block! Eek, that’s a very conscience-pricking revelation to have!
In yesterday’s reading, the emphasis was upon the guest. In today’s reading the emphasis is on the monks and the monastery. The silence of the monastery is protected. Monks, while greeting any guests they meet courteously, also graciously excuse themselves from conversation in order to continue in silence.
There are 2 things Benedict stresses: one is that the guest master be one whose sights are fixed on the Lord and that this person also be prudent. At a guess, I’d say the former requirement defines one who understands boundaries and will not get sucked up into the lives of the guests or distracted by their requests (or demands!) but who will remained focused on God. As for prudence… well, that person isbeing entrusted with the use of the monastery’s stuff and so needs to know how to use it appropriately.
Seems to me I can well use constant reminders of the appropriate use of my time and goods. All too easy to be sucked into something good only to find out later that as good a good as it might be, it is not a good where the Lord would have me participate. have you had this experience?
The other thing that is stressed here is the necessity of asking for help. Benedict mentions it twice. We are not supposed to wait for someone to notice we need help or to wait so long that we have harsh feelings in our hearts that no one has volunteered. We are to ask right up front at the beginning. Benedict wants us to know, recognize and **honor** our limits. There is no shame in this because we are a Body, a community and we are all here for the health of the Body and to serve the Lord.
I must admit, I fall into the heresy of self-sufficiency frequently. Self-sufficiency of the individual Christian was outed as a wrong over 1600 years ago when Pelagius postulated it. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius )
Have you also been sucked into the notion that you must do it all yourself, that it won’t get done if you don’t do it? Do you continue to say “yes” when you are exhausted? Do you have trouble asking for help?
My last comment for today is on the line, ‘Let there be a sufficient number of beds made up’. I love that. Let there always be a place ready to receive a guest, expected or unexpected. It reminds me of the foolish virgins whose lamps had run out of oil before the Bridegroom arrived. *Their* beds weren’t made up and ready for the supreme Guest’s arrival.
Seeing it’s Advent, perhaps we might look at whether we have the spiritual equivalent of ‘a sufficient number of beds made up’ should this Advent be the herald of the Second Coming as well as a remembrance of the First.