Although he is writing for monastics, what St. Benedict says applies to many of us, in all walks of life, because hospitality, for Benedict, isn't just about being pleasant and polite to people: it's a sacred duty, which must be integrated into our our gospel calling -- all of us receive that call.
For example, the community, led by the abbot, is asked to wash the feet of each guest, symbolizing Christ's washing of the disciples' feet at the Last Supper and reinforcing the idea that we find Christ in every guest. Similarly, Benedict reminds us of Christ's statement that "the last shall be first" by saying that: "Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims ... ."
Yet, wise monk that he is, Benedict sees a need to exercise moderation and prudence when receiving guests. He recognizes that if we are busy with people all the time and don't balance our hospitality to others by allowing ourselves time to pursue our calling to seek God, then our hospitality, however abundant it might seem, will be lacking. And so, he builds in guidelines that mean monastics aren't out there all the time, leaving no time or space for prayer, meditation or building a relationship with God. Thus, the guest quarters "are to be entrusted to a God-fearing brother" meaning that one person has responsibility for that ministry in an ordered way. Monks are also told that they are "not to speak or associate with guests" without being given the go-ahead to do so. "If a brother meets or sees a guest, he is to greet him humbly ... . He asks for a blessing and continues on his way, explaining that he is not allowed to speak with a guest."
Benedict's wisdom in preaching moderation is profound. He knows that in order for guests to benefit fully from their stay at the monastery, the monks have to be able to offer not only a warm welcome, a comfortable bed and good food, but something deeper -- a connection to the holy. This can't be done without paying attention to the foundation, which involves seeking God through prayer, an undertaking which, in its turn, demands time and some silence and solitude.
St. Benedict allows adaptation of the Rule to suit local circumstances and we, in the 21st century, have done that. Nevertheless, we keep the essence and can see that what he says about not always busily interacting, but also tending to the foundations of our hospitality, is still relevant today. Taking some time to be alone with God is necessary to each and every one of us today as we strive to follow Benedict's wise counsel by moderating our hospitality in order to make it truly a hospitality of holiness and the heart.
Karen Rose, OSB
Photo by Jennifer Morrissette-Hesse: Symbols of hospitality laid at the altar