A brother sent on an errand who expects to return to the monastery the same day is not to dine outside the monastery.
I have to admit, I’ve struggled with this chapter of the Rule. I’ve studied different commentaries and feel deeply unsatisfied with the general acceptance of a strict use of excommunication for accepting hospitality of others. In this instance I must humbly accept the wisdom of experience from Benedictine’s who live under the Rule and their view.
Over the last year I have deeply valued the reflections of Philip Lawrence OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert. He writes, on this particular chapter,
For monks from our monastery, it is necessary to eat outside and yet at times we spend too much on eating and look forward to our town trips simply as escapes from the discipline of monastic life. It should be the other way around–although we must admit that even for Saint Benedict’s monks it seems that they must have liked eating outside, since Saint Benedict has to tell them not to do it!! (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 51: Brothers on a Short Journey”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, January 27 2015, http://christdesert.org/Detailed/922.html)
Lawrence points out earlier in his reflection the emphasis to remain part of a community particularly during this time of ‘incredible individualism’. It is the discipline of community that he speaks of that again strikes me. It is easy to speak of community, it is something altogether different to live out.
I am part of a small group that tries to live out small aspects of ‘community’ in our lives. We do not go far in this exploration but their is an intention at least. I have found myself, over the last few weeks, failing to live out anything of the virtues of community with particular members of the group. I have confessed to them my faults and have sought forgiveness. The particular failing was around the issue of shared meals. One member has struggled privately recently and, although I have prayed with them and tried to make myself available to them and offer them an open invite to come and share any meal with my wife and I, they have not come and I have not chased. I have allowed, slowly over time, for them to be left off my priorities until we meet in person again.
Community must happen even when it is not convenient. It must be a daily activity which we do both deliberately and naturally; deliberately when it is tough and naturally over time.
It is on this issue of eating together that a shared daily rhythm of life is important.
My wife and I currently have a guest living with us. I have yet to sit down and share a meal with her and my wife. Our diaries haven’t naturally synced and I doubt they will without us forcing them. It is easy, without deliberately trying to counter it, to become two ships that pass in the night. Sharing space but not lives. Community takes intentional strategic systems in place to ensure its flourishing. For Benedict, as we have seen over the last year, the key moments are in prayer and around the table. St. Benedict sees these two parts of life as of central importance.
I hope that most parishes aspire to some ideal of community even if they don’t achieve it nor strive too hard to attain any semblance of it. Which parish church would not wish for people to feel like they belonged to a church? Some will encourage people to be part of small groups that meet during the week for discipleship and add to that a Sunday service and one planning meeting or two and… that’ll do. These are all potentially good things and chances for people to meet are great but how is it fostering the discipline of community?
The discipline of community challenges our self-autonomous desires to be in control. We want to make choices that work for us but here’s the rub: community doesn’t always work for us.
With my group I have discovered that it’s great when it fits into my pattern of living but when there is expectations that I should be inconvenienced by another, well, no one is forcing me to! Seeing the situation from another’s point of view was deeply upsetting. God, during a particular prayer time, showed me what my lack of discipline in community said to the person in need of fellowship. They needed someone to share the burden of the pain day in, day out, and I had neglected to truly know that, to see it in their face and the silence. It had worked for me not to work out an evening to share a meal with them. If they had turned up I would have welcomed them in but it had to be on their terms when, community is about sharing the terms of relationship.
Loving Father, you bring us into community, not because it’s easy and feels good but because it is where we are formed into people who love others as you love us. Lead us by your example out of our incredible individualism into radical community of grace and mercy.
Come, Lord Jesus.