All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ…
Where is this all leading to?
After 59 weeks of praying and working through the Rule of St. Benedict, we come to the reception of guests. We have spoken about hospitality before but it has been practice for the main event; receiving strangers into our home.
It is said that hospitality is a Benedictine practice (having been on the receiving end of it I can confirm they do it like no other!) The opening maxim of the chapter to see all guests/strangers as Christ and to welcome him thus is a strongly Biblical idea. In Genesis we have the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the strangers at Mamre and discovering that they are either angels or the God Himself (depending on your reading of the text.) Jesus tells of the analogy of the sheep and goats with the central idea being,
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40b)
We also have the story of the disciples walking to Emmaus and offering hospitality to the stranger who joins them on the road only to discover it was the risen Christ all along.
Sarah and I have a quote from the letter to the Hebrews on our dining room wall which is located at the front of our house,
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
Our guests often comment on it. Once a guest laughed and turned to us saying,
That’s a bit dangerous, isn’t it? What if complete strangers in the street see it and take you up on it?
That’s kind of the point!
I have yet to welcome in a complete stranger and fed them, clothed them, washed them, etc. It’s hard to know whether I’d be totally obedient to that radical hospitality or not. I suspect I would fail and back out of the opportunity. I suspect I’d justify my decision by saying how dangerous it is and our home is not set up for housing strangers. I have, however, shown hospitality to strangers and welcomed them in for an hour or two, listened to them and given them refreshments (in the form of a beverage!) This form of hospitality, though, is limited and I have always sent them on their way and never invited them to stay for a meal.
Maybe that’s enough sometimes. I have been struck by Esther de Waal’s comment on this chapter,
He has prepared me to welcome all, regardless of rank, and yet to treat each according to need, so that there is no uniformity but consideration for weakness or infirmity. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.155)
It was this quote from de Waal that has given me pause for thought.
…each according to need…
Hospitality has the same root as hospital. The latin word, ‘hospes’ means ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’ and hospital means ‘guest house’. There is the well known socialist phrase which many use when talking about the NHS,
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need
It seems to me, however, that this socialist phrase has been used to bring about uniformity. If we are to live out the socialist maxim of ‘to each according to his need’ then we are required to look at the individual and serve the person in front of us. It causes us to not ‘process’ the patient but to meet the person. The principle requires we connect with the stranger.
One of the issues with the NHS and the welfare system is that it has been treated, for a number of years, as an organisation and not as a service. The sheer size of the operation (excuse the pun) cries out to be treated as a machine which needs to be increasingly efficient and ‘successful’. Successive governments, in my limited opinion, have fallen for this temptation and have brought in increasing measures to streamline and improve.
There was a fantastic article on the NHS recently which articulated the point well. At times the NHS is clumsy and waiting times in Accident and Emergency are at breaking point but the solution, for me, is not to set targets and put pressure on the workers, it’s to do the complete opposite. The opposite, to encourage the medical professionals with fair wages and dedicated support would cost money but would also increase the uptake of people choosing the profession, then giving medical staff sustainable working hours and saving money on the administration of stress related issues, etc.
I’m no expert in the inner workings of the NHS nor of other welfare services but I know enough to say the main complaint from us users is that the welfare system is becoming more and more faceless and we feel ‘processed’ not known.
I volunteer at a local foodbank and I meet with all sorts of people in crisis. Many are recipients of benefits and only a few do I seriously question the legitimacy of their claim (I’d say one or two in the last two years!) I am surprised by that experience purely because, if all the experiences of the system by the users are true then I’d have thought the figure of abuses should be more. Those receiving benefits generally feel abused by an uncaring system who process them on numbers and finance and not on personal stories. This is not due to the lack of desire on behalf of those working for DWP but by their lack of ability to engage with those in need due to pressures put on them by management.
It is time we challenge the way we all use the welfare system and that includes how we see it being managed. The reason the church is stepping in on this issue and why the two Archbishops have spoken out about it, is because we have over a thousand years of experience in how to show care for the needy and hospitality to the stranger. We, as Christians, have a intrinsic maxim to how to do ‘hospitals’, ‘according to need’. This cuts out abusers of the system who would seek to take that which is needed elsewhere for themselves.
A quick personal story to finish:
Sarah is a major beneficiary of the NHS and so is her brother. Without this service in place, they’d both be dead! As a family they have a lot to be thankful for the NHS but they are proud supporters of the service because they see on a regular basis the work of those serving within it.
We sat down this week to discuss a major operation for Sarah with all the staff on their specialist CF ward. Each of the six professionals around the table knew Sarah, not her numbers and statistics but her personality, they cared for her. They know her life, her passions, her weaknesses and they know what would be good for her. In short they know her abilities and her needs and care for her accordingly. For those six people and for the hundred workers in that ward and for the thousands of workers throughout the NHS, from me, “THANK YOU!”
Hospitality to the stranger should be at the top of all parish churches mission statement; it is that simple!
Welcome in the practical way outlined by St. Benedict protects us against those cringey, heavy-handed welcomes that make you feel slightly stalked through worship and the opposite danger of feeling overlooked and unworthy of attention. It is not just about welcome on a Sunday, though. Hospitality should be extended to all according to their needs. This will mean we serve those in greater need first and more often than those without but at all time we look to meet the person not process the number.
Hospitalable God, you welcomed us into your family and called us your children. Teach us to welcome others into our lives and serve them with the same love and grace that Christ showed to his people.
Come, Lord Jesus