Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hospitality: Making Friends from Strangers

I am a Benedictine oblate.  When I was a Quaker kid growing up in rural Indiana, I would not have known what either of those words means.  I am sure I never heard about “Benedictine.”  I would not have known they were monks.  If someone had told me that Benedictines were monks, I am not sure I would have really known what a monk was…or did!

After too many years of school and a great deal of experience in the ecumenical and interfaith worlds, I know much about Benedictines and about monasteries.  Benedictines are monks (men and women) who follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict was an Italian Christian who lived in the late 5th and early 6th century.  It was a time of turmoil in the so-called “barbaric” period of the early middle ages.  The Roman Empire had fallen a century earlier.  All of Europe was politically, economically, and socially a mess.  Benedict wanted to find a way to practice his faith in a serious fashion.  He found many local churches wanting.  In many cases they were merely Christian institutions with little of God’s Spirit blowing in their midst.

So in effect, he withdrew from the crazy world.  He followed the lead of earlier monks in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Those monks had despaired of the climate and culture of the late Roman Empire.  They withdrew to the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to look for God and to be found by God.  They were not interested in fame and fortune; they wanted only to be found in the presence of the living God.

So Benedict formed a community of people who wanted to live this kind of “desert spirituality.”  It was an idea, which struck a cord with countless people and still does in our own time.  Benedict wrote a Rule to give guidance to his community.  Benedictine monks still follow the Rule of St. Benedict.  In simple terms an oblate is a “lay” monk.  He or she “offers” his or her life to a similar quest for God’s presence.  Obviously, one does not have to be Roman Catholic to be an oblate.  And I don’t have to join the monastery and move in.  But I do “join” in a comparable quest---to the best of my ability.

One of the key tenets of the Benedictine way of life is hospitality.  Early in Benedict’s Rule, he tells the monks that they should be hospitable---hospitable to anyone who comes their way.  The rationale for this hospitality was not to be nice.  It was to receive every person---friend or stranger---as if they were Christ Himself.  If you do that, you will not recognize Christ when He comes into our midst!

I found myself very attracted to that perspective and attitude.  Could I learn to live so openly?  Could I grow into such a state of hospitable receptivity?  I want to do it and as an oblate I at least am committed to practicing it.  I may not be very good at it yet.  And I will never be a professional like my Benedictine brothers and sisters.  But I want to do the best I can.  I always look for help.

And then help came.  Recently in a book I am reading, I found a nice chapter on hospitality.  The author, Jana Riess, has been significantly influenced by St. Benedict and the Benedictines. In that chapter I encountered a good definition of hospitality and what it does.  This was the kind of help I am happy to be given.  Riess says that “Hospitality is about more than seeing to visitors’ nourishment and comfort, although that’s a hugely important start.  It’s about welcoming the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange.  He or she becomes known as a person.  When that happens, lives can be changed, friendships formed---even wars averted.”

I find that thoughtful and quite helpful.  I like how Riess extends the definition of hospitality beyond seeing to a guest’s comfort.  That probably is the minimal.  But Comfort Inn does as much.  But they charge for their hospitality!  And they provide no community nor nourishment.  If I offer hospitality, I offer it free of charge---or minimal charge.  I try to offer comfort, to be sure, and nourishment, if I can.  Often this is a meal or a cup of coffee.

But hospitality is more than this.  I love her line that hospitality is designed to welcome the stranger so the stranger is no longer strange!  That is a profound understanding of hospitality.  And it has potentially mighty effects.  The stranger becomes a person.  In that transition and transformation, the person can become a friend.  And this is no small feat.  In fact, if this happens on a global level, we can avert war.

That makes me want to break out that old 1960s song, “Ain’t Gonna Go to War No More…”  Let all of us commit to being hospitable.  Let us begin to practice this friend-making and peace-making approach to the stranger and the enemy.  If we do that, surely we will be found in the presence of God.

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