The monastic way of hospitality holds the key to the future of monastic life, at least here in the United States. Monasteries and monastics need to realize this and then realize that hospitality may require changes of attitude, and even lifestyles, so that a monastery can be a vital place ministering to others in the late twentieth century.
While guests are spoken about in various places in the Rule, RB 53 on the reception of guests and RB 66 on the porter are the primary chapters, for they are the chapters that show how the monastery and the world intersect.
Benedict seems too have ambivalent feelings about guests. While guests "are to be welcomed as Christ," Benedict places ritual and practical restrictions on the reception of guests, such as prayer to avoid the devil, a special kitchen, and a prohibition about conversing with guests. But the positive and the negative prescriptions of the Rule are trying to lay down some principles to maintain the balanced, rhythmed life of the monastery.
For Benedict, the monastery is in the world, but not of the world. World for Benedict did not mean creation because, as we know, all creation was sacred for Benedict (see RB 31.10). Rather, the world meant that which did not center on God. Benedict, like St. Paul, believed in evil and its power, and Benedict, like St. Paul, saw the values and ways of society as often contrary to the Christian way of life. Thus Benedict wanted the monastery to be a place in creation where God's creative love continually was felt and was transforming all who came there.
In this context, then, Benedict saw every person as a unique, created gift of God. The greatest gift was the person of Jesus, now the Christ of the world, and each person, like Jesus, was a gift who resembled the greatest gift. Jesus was received as gift in each person because Jesus himself said: "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35 and RB 53.1).
Every person in the monastery is a guest, even the monks themselves, since each has somehow come into this house of God, this dwelling place of God. The rituals of the monastery reflect this concept of all as guests, as Christ to whom love and respect are to be shown (e.g. washing of feet of the brothers, of guests, respect in greeting one another, care of the sick). When a monastic loses this overall sense of guest, of Christ in self and in all other persons, the monastic's view of the monastery becomes distorted. The monastery is no longer a dwelling place of God, but my place. Rules and schedules no longer exist "to amend faults and to safeguard love" (RB Prol 47) but to protect my personal comfortable way of life. The monastic becomes the master rather than remaining the disciple (see RB 6.6).
RB 53 and 66 can still provide some principles to help guide the monastic way of receiving guests today.
First, guests should be received at and into the monastery rather than holding them at a distance because of a canonical cloister. Guests should be invited to come within the monastic confines to eat, live and pray. If there is a separation, it should be based on the need to preserve the rhythmed life of the monks and guests. The requirements of a separate kitchen and separate sleeping quarters in the Rule were practical. Since guests could arrive at any hour, constant provision had to be made for food and lodging. There were no fast-food restaurants or motels on the sixth-century roads. Not to have separate facilities for guests would subject the guests to either delay in eating and sleeping or disrupt the rhythmed life of the monks.
Second, all guests are to be welcomed and received as Christ. Distinctions based on wealth, creed, race and gender, for instance, are not to be made among guests. The values of the monastery are based on creative love of God in each person rather than on worldly status of the person. Care for the guests cannot be based on status or attraction, nor can lack of care be a result of hate or envy.
Third, guests come to a monastery for a variety of reasons: as relatives and friends of a monastic, as travelers, as persons in search of the basics of life, as pilgrims. Each must be respected for who she/he is and for the reason the person has come. They have not come for the use and pleasure of the monastics, but to experience the monastics and the monastery as special, since in this place God conspicuously dwells in creation.
Fourth, guests are to be respected with Christian love. This is done not only in service but in prayer since for Benedict the first action in receiving guests is prayer. Prayer must be part of the experience of the guest at the monastery. This can be done by inviting them to be part of the community prayer, not merely to observe it.
Fifth, guests should be allowed to experience the rhythmed life of the monastery, not only in prayer and eating, but in conversation, work, and silence. The monastic way of experiencing God is not done so much in verbal teaching as it is in living the life. The major part, the heart, can only be learned by living and experiencing the monastic way.
Finally, the method of receiving guests must be adapted to each place and time so that the balanced life of the monastery can ebb and flow for the monks and the guests. Each monastery, with its own life, offers something unique to guests, so its style of receiving them must be such that the uniqueness of the monastery is able to be experienced by the guests.
In light of the above, a monastic community should ask itself a few questions about its ministry to guests.
The first question is: Why do guests come to the monastery? While guests come for a variety of reasons, many come to experience the monastery as a dwelling place of God, a place where God can be felt and experienced in creation. Some come for half an hour of prayer or Eucharist. Others come for a day or two. Some come and stay for life. They come to participate somehow in the life of listening to the Word and of finding peace in the place. Most guests come to the monastery expecting the place to be different, to be an oasis of peace from the hassles of daily life. If this is true, providing a separate kitchen for travelers on a journey is not as important today as it was in the sixth century. Providing people with the ability to experience the life and listen to the Word is important. The monastery must make it conducive to listening by providing silence and the experience of monastic prayer, which is primarily listening to the Word. Accessible and uncomplicated books, seating with the monastics, and a hospitality person all contribute to the experience of listening to the Word with the monastics. If guests come to hear the Word and break the bread and share the cup of the Lord, they come to share the common eucharistic table, not merely to be spectators at a monastic eucharistic table.
Benedict's separate kitchen and sleeping quarters were respectful of the needs of the guests of his day. Today, a monastery must be respectful of the needs of modern guests. The daily monastic schedule and the language of prayer are ways of respecting the sensibilities of today's guests. The schedule needs to have a regular and balanced rhythm rather than a constantly changing time schedule so that guests can know and remember when to share the common life of the monastics. Language in the Word and prayer must be neither archaic nor sexist, since language can help or hinder a guest from truly listening.
Abba Rufus in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers observed that there are four orders in heaven. The order which observed hospitality on earth is the lowest because too often the hospitality was done according to the person's own will. The Rule tried to combat this self-will in receiving guests by teaching that guests are Christ and therefore the will of the guests must be respected. The Rule tried to have ritual and balance in order that the monastics would respond out of Christian love, not merely out of personal needs and attractions. But often in history, monastics have confirmed the view of Abba Rufus over the teachings of Benedict.
Another question is: What should the guest ministry of the contemporary monastery be? This, of course, depends on the particular monastery. Yet each monastic community should realize that the monastery is more than a work force, or a place to live, or a place to which one is attached. It is a definite place where people live a balanced life and invite others to join them not only permanently, but even for a few years or for a day or an hour. No matter how long a person stays at the monastery, each is a guest in the house of God seeking to find again the creative gift of life. Monastics first need to believe this of themselves and live it before they can share this with others.
Perhaps a contemporary monastery needs to look to the needs not of yesteryear but of today. Monasticism cannot merely be the living of the past; it also must be a living into the future. A monastery lives in a tradition which the past flowing into the future, always the same but always changing, like the river of which Herman Hesse wrote in Siddhartha. Perhaps a contemporary monastery, which used to serve immigrants, Native Americans, and Catholics needing education, needs to serve the poor by hosting a meal for the homeless on Thanksgiving, or needs to be a place for refugees, or a hospice for persons with AIDS.
A third question might be: Does the concept of ministry to guests require monastics to go out of the monastery itself to serve? At times it may, but what monastics today may need to realize is that the monastery, the dwelling place of God, has within its very place the power to transform people and thus transform the world.
Contemporary monasticism in North America and elsewhere is coming to understand that the greatest gift monastics can offer the contemporary world is a place where people live a balanced life, a place where peace is the quest and aim (RB Prol 17), a place not so interested in going out to save the world but in letting the world experience the salvation already won in Christ Jesus, a place where all are guests, even the monastics, in the house of God, respecting and cherishing one another, a place where hearts overflow "with the inexpressible delight of love" (RB Prol 49).