In June 2002, a gunman entered Conception Abbey in Missouri and killed two monks before killing himself. The man had no known connection to the abbey or any of its monks. No motive has yet been discovered.
St. Benedict instructed his monks to receive all guests as Christ, “for he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’” (Rule of Benedict, 53:1; Matthew 25:35). This application of Jesus’ words has had a notable impact in inspiring Benedictine hospitality since then. Benedict did not originate this practice of monastic spirituality, which has always been a part of the monastic vocation, but his emphasis on the guest as Christ gave a powerful focus to the practice.
Benedict’s own era was not a good time for open hospitality. He was born four years after the traditional date of the fall of the Roman Empire (A.D. 476). Institutions had broken down and the roads were not safe. Though many of the visitors to monasteries were pilgrims, you never knew who might show up at the door. Given the suspicious attitude toward guests in the Rule of the Master, written anonymously several decades before Benedict’s and the main source for his own rule, we would not expect Benedict to adopt such a generous welcoming policy. Chapter 53 does build in some screening through prayer and conversation, but only after the guest is inside. It is a dangerous way to live, as the tragedy at Conception Abbey has illustrated dramatically.
It is, however, the gospel way. Until we have further information that might modify our judgment, the guest is to be received as good. We trust God to be present and to make things work out. The basic stance is open, trusting, and defenseless. Welcome—then ask questions. The stranger is immediately transformed into a guest. Accepting without judgment: this is surely a reason that Benedictine monasteries are favorite locations for ecumenical encounters and retreats. The way of the world is the opposite: judge first, then decide whether or not to allow entrance. Our unredeemed tendency is to be suspicious and to see the stranger as a threat, to give people entry only when they’ve earned it. We live mentally in a gated community.
Benedictine hospitality goes further than welcoming the stranger at the door. It is an attitude of welcome to everyone we meet, whether the first or second or thousandth time. Even within the community or family, time after time we are strangers to one another asking for entrance. In faith we must always make the stranger a guest. Our ongoing interactions are informed by our knowledge of one another and by judgments based on experience, but still we must be open to a new revelation of the person every time.
This is part of what it means to be a little child. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). A child is dependent and defenseless and therefore trusts others to take care of security. A child wakes up to a new world everyday and can give everyone a new opportunity. But he will soon learn, as he begins to grow toward adulthood, how to hold grudges and prejudices.
In chapter 72 on “The Good Zeal of Monks,” which is considered a synthesis of the rule’s teaching, Benedict applies the doctrine of hospitality to life within the monastery by quoting St. Paul to the Romans: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other” (Rule of Benedict, 72:4; Romans12:10). The English word “respect” comes from the Latin and means literally to “look back,” “look again.” Often our first look is dimmed by prejudice and we cannot see the other person clearly. We need to take another look. The stranger looks like an interruption, a bother, a problem, maybe even a criminal. Look again: the stranger is Christ.
The Jewish Hasidim tell of the rabbi who asked his students, “How can you tell that night has ended and the day is coming?” A student answered, “When you can see clearly that an animal in the distance is a lion and not a leopard.” “No,” said the rabbi. “It is when you can recognize the stranger as your sister or brother. Until you are able to do so, it is still night.”
Excerpted from the book Life Lessons from the Monastery by Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB (The Word Among Us Press, 2010). Available at Amazon and other bookstores.