"We are all vulnerable on our journey and need the hospitality and understanding of others," writes Thomas Moore in his latest book, "Original Self." As a monk for 12 years before his career as lecturer and author, Moore has seen firsthand how hospitality can restore and renew us, body and soul.
The monastic practice of hospitality dates back to a time when travel was arduous. In the fourth century, the Desert Fathers instructed monks to interrupt prayers and breakfasts when guests arrived. Two centuries later, St. Benedict wrote, "Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the community are to meet the guest with all the courtesy of love" (Rule of Benedict 53:3). Even today, with improved roads and modern vehicles, monks continue the tradition by providing hospitality to those traveling the uncertain pathways of the inner journey. They often make their monasteries available for organized and individual retreats, and regularly offer counseling and spiritual direction.
|Hospitality is a sustained commitment to the belief that the way we treat one another matters deeply.|
Beyond monastic walls, however, hospitality has not fared so well. "Whatever Happened to Friendship," a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, reports that working parents in their 30s and 40s are so involved with career and family, they have little time to extend themselves to others; as a result, they have no deep, lasting friendships. "[T]he importance of spending time with friends is played down as an optional indulgence that steals scarce hours out of an already jam-packed schedule. People are saying, 'It's the one thing I can give up,'" says Jan Yager, a sociologist and author. "They're diminishing the value of friendship." They are not alone. Retired people, single men and women, teenagers, even children express an increasing sense of isolation.
How, then, can we realistically restore the practice of hospitality in our lives? Beatrice Bruteau, founder of the Fellowship of the Holy Trinity, a lay organization influenced by the Rule of Benedict but not affiliated with any church, offers a teaching story:
"At a Christian monastery in Scotland, the monks had lost their fervor. The abbot goes to see a nearby rabbi with whom he occasionally plays chess. The abbot says, 'You know, things are not too good at my place, and you're a wise man, what advice can you give me? The rabbi thinks deeply and tries to put himself in the position of a Christian abbot. Then it comes to him. 'Tell your brothers that Christ has come again and is one of the brothers in the monastery,' he says. The abbot does this, and the whole house is completely transformed."
We too can treat one another as though Christ is in our midst. We do that every time we say thank you for honest effort (both at home and work), when we return phone calls, learn the names of support staff, extend and acknowledge courtesies in traffic, and respect sales clerks.
"Go with me from airline counter to airline counter, and you will see that airline clerks are brutalized if there is a winter storm, as if they had any control over the weather," says Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and author of many books on the subject, including "Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today." "That is not hospitality, because it is not treating the other with respect."
But, Chittister adds, hospitality is not about being a doormat. She recently wrote a letter to an airline about a problem during such a situation, beginning her letter by gently explaining that she was offering this information in order to keep the company informed. "They need to know what is going on," she adds. "but they don't deserve to be kicked."
Hospitality is not a flurry of sentimental acts or occasional gestures. It is a sustained commitment to the belief that the way we treat one another day by day matters deeply.
"Too often when somebody's having a hard day, we just run away from them rather than inviting them in," says Paul Wilkes, author of "Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life." "Anyone that you know in pain--invite them into the comfort of your arms and say, 'Hey, what's going on? You look as though things are tough today.' That's not unlike putting a cloak on somebody's back as you go or giving them food or water."
From these small yet significant extensions of our selves, we can progress to more elaborate offerings. Dorothy Remy, a college professor in Washington, D.C., and her husband, Lynn Cunningham, a lawyer and faculty member at George Washington University, opened their home for five years to family members of AIDS patients living at a nearby hospice. Remy, who recently completed her juniorate studies with the Fellowship of the Holy Trinity, says, "There was a need, the center had the program, and we had the room."
When we practice hospitality--from the simple to the sublime--we live the meaning of Christ's words, "I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
"Once you understand all of that you understand without being told why the monastery bakes fresh bread daily and why the Eucharistic host is done in our own kitchen and why we opened a soup kitchen and a food bank and a food pantry and why we have a community giveaway once a year," Chittister writes. "Hospitality is one of those things that has to be constantly practiced or it won't be there for the rare occasions. It is not a series of grand gestures at controlled times. It is not a finishing-school activity. It is an act of the recklessly generous heart."