Welcoming the Stranger: Five Rules According to the Benedictines

1. The Vision Thing. The community lives by the common vision of welcoming the stranger as an act of faith and discipleship. A sign in front of the church that says, “All are welcome” is no guarantee that all are really welcome. The people of the church – from the staff to the lay leaders to the members, the youngest to the oldest – have to see hospitality as a value and a priority.

The Benedictines live by the Rule of St. Benedict that “All who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.'” Their actions are grounded in a theological vision of Christ’s church and the Kingdom of God. Our efforts at hospitality are likewise not for the purpose of growing the church or expanding the giving base, but because it is our calling in the world. The Risen Christ is loose in the world, and his presence is in all we meet, including – especially – the stranger. So to truly welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ.

In addition to the monastery, I was able to worship on Sunday at Riverside Church. It was a rainy day, and without an umbrella I was soaked by the time I walked from the Subway station to the church. I was about five minutes late, and entered the sanctuary dripping onto the tile, shuffling to find a pew. The congregation was singing the opening hymn, and as soon as I got to my pew, a woman on the other end walked down to me and handed me her hymnal, opened to the hymn She pointed to the stanza we were singing and then went back to her side of the pew. As the final hymn began, it became clear to me that the wrong hymn number was printed in the bulletin, and the minute I realized it, I heard a murmuring throughout the sanctuary, everyone calling out quietly to those around them the correct number.

This kind of attention to the needs of the other, of the stranger, is not something that can be programmed; it emerges from a community that sees hospitality as it’s calling in the world.

2. The Bulletin as Hospitality. The worship bulletin (or screen for those congregations that use them in place of a bulletin) is a vital means of welcome. For churches that continue to worship out of deep wells of tradition, like the Benedictines and some Presbyterians, these traditions must be made accessible to all, especially to those who may be experiencing them for the first time. Every moment of worship should be printed (or projected), even those we think “everyone” knows. Doing so communicates that this is not a closed tradition or a mystery reserved for insiders, but is open and available to all.

At Holy Cross, every moment of worship is explained, which was helpful for me since I do not worship in the Anglican tradition. The explanations were not only about logistics (sit here, stand here), but were theological (why we sit here or stand there). Multiple times, verbally and in writing, all guests are encouraged to participate in the liturgy. However, we were not forced to participate. To sit in silence for the duration of the service was acceptable, and the monks made sure we knew that silent participation was a valid means of worship as well. Worship lies at the center of the life of the community, and regardless of how we worship, the richness of our liturgy should be readily available to all.

3. Handrails, Elevators, and Gluten-Free Bread. These are not rules so much as they are the outgrowth of Rule #1 above, but I include it separately because in our current age it seems especially important to recognize that hospitality extends to those with physical challenges.

The monastery was a very old building, but the community spent a significant amount of time and money making it accessible to all. And this accessibility was not something that became important for them in recent times with the advent of laws to insure it. The monks joked during orientation that everyone would need to treat the old elevator with care. It was built in the middle of the last century. Before it was ever politically correct or required by law, the Benedict rules of hospitality, grounded in a theological vision, compelled the community to make the entire building accessible to all.

All churches that embrace hospitality will conduct regular inventories to ascertain that all people, regardless of physical or mental challenges, are able to worship and participate fully in the life of the community.

4. Table Fellowship is not Just About the Food. Don’t get me wrong, just like at First Presbyterian the food at Holy Cross was amazing. But the presence of food alone is no guarantee that fellowship is happening. Every communi establishes unwritten table rules, and these rules are where welcome or exclusion are most deeply felt. Regardless of what a community writes on its website or in its bulletin, at table the true values of the community become clear for all to see. We are called as congregations to be care-full in the ways we eat together, and willing to examine how our table habits either welcome or exclude the stranger.

5. Be Who You Are. Being all things to all people is not genuine hospitality. As a guest at Holy Cross, I would have been offended if the monks had changed who they were or their way of worshipping in order to make a Presbyterian feel more at home. I was a guest there because I wanted to experience their way of worship and their common life. I think too many churches in all of the traditions have spent the better part of the last thirty to forty years diluting and dumbing down their traditions and calling it hospitality. It is not working, I think, because it doesn’t ring true to the guests who come into our houses of worship.

  The Benedictines are far from perfect. But they have at the core of their way of life a simple rule – all strangers are to be received as Christ. It is a rule that I think holds the key to the revitalization of the Christian church. I am grateful for all the ways the church I serve seeks to welcome the stranger, and I look forward to exploring with the, how we might embody this simple Benedictine, this simply Christian, way of being the church in the world.


Hospitality: Lessons from the Benedictines

The first sign of hospitality may be unintentional, but the affect on me is real – incense. The smell of incense is not overpowering, but subtle, as if the years of daily worship in this community have left small traces of themselves soaked in the old wood. Every nook of the place gives off the smell of worship.

The use of incense in worship in the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Traditions date to the fourth century CE. It finds it’s origins in ancient Jewish worship, hints of which we can detect in the Psalms – “Let my prayers rise to you as incense.” It is the smell of prayer, a sign in the here and now of what we hope for in the time to come, when we will be surrounded by prayer continually, when all our words, all our breath, will be prayer. To walk into the Benedictine monastery is to be confronted – wordlessly – with the mystery of communion with God.

As soon as I am in the door, Brother Alfonso smiles and extends his hand, directing me to the main office to register. What seems a chance encounter reveals itself on closer inspection to be an intentional act of welcome. No sooner am I finished registering than Brother Alfonso appears again and asks if I would like a tour of the facility before I take my bags to my room. He walks me through every room, sharing a bit of history and letting me know exactly where everything I need is located. Along the way, he shares some of his own story. He began his vocation in this same monastery forty six years ago. He was part of a number of other communities over his life, and now was assigned back where he began, at Holy Cross. “They have probably brought me back here to die,” he says with a laugh. “But I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather breathe my last.” As he spoke, we breathed in the incense, and the words he spoke mixed with the smells, testifying to the promises of God.

After the tour, he lets me know there will be an orientation later that night where our group will be able to ask questions. “We will tell you what we do here, and what we don’t do.” It was clear that I am part of the “we.” I will be part of this community, bound by the covenants and rules that bound these brothers.

At orientation we learned about The Great Silence. Beginning after the last worship of the day, we will be silent for twelve hours – no conversation, no “noise-making” of any kind, and strong discouragement of any electronics. In fact, the monks did not allow speaking on cell phones anywhere within the buildings at any time. All phones are to be used outside only. All meals are to be taken together, anwether monks ask us to be present before the meals so we can pray as a group for our food. Breakfast occurs during The Great Silence, so there is no conversation. Lunch begins in silence so we can listen to a reading. The monks read through a variety of books this way through the year. There is no saving of seats. I saw someone try to save a seat one time. One of the brothers spoke to her quietly, and I didn’t see that happen again. The monks sit among the guests during meals, and this is one of the best times to converse with them. Supper is the liveliest meal, with lots of laughter echoing in the dining hall.

I will blog a little later about the worship life of this community. For now, though, I wonder about the lessons the Benedictines can teach an old Presbyterian like me about hospitality outside of the sanctuary. A few things come to mind based on my brief sojourn, and I will share them tomorrow – The Top Five Benedictine Rules for Welcoming the Stranger.

I give thanks for the generous, authentic hospitality given to me by my brothers at Holy Cross. Every time I smell incense, I will remember them. And when I remember them, I will experience again the grace of God poured out through their community, and my prayers of praise will rise like incense before God.

The Big Apple Benedictines

I met St.Benedict on the 33 Q bus from LaGuardia Airport to Jackson Heights. He was hard of hearing. It wasn’t until he leaned over and asked me to repeat myself twice that I saw the large hearing aids protruding from his head.

“Is the last stop on this route going to get me to the #7 train?” I asked, trying hard to avoid sounding as desperate as I felt. I was beginning to realize how poor my map reading skills were, and all the stops looked the same to me.

“I’m not sure…Hold on.” He got out his phone and started thumbing through information. Then he turned to another guy behind him – “Does the 7 train leave from Jackson Heights and 24th?” Getting confirmation, he turned back to me. “You want to get off two stops up.”

The next stop, he got off the bus and started walking down the street. As the driver was closing the doors, Benedict turned around quickly, ran back to the door of the bus, came inside, and yelled, “Sorry man, this is your stop. Come on.” I got off the bus, and followed his out-stretched arm as he pointed across the street. “Just take those stairs to the Number 7 train.”

I saw Benedict again as I was preparing to slide my Metro Card and go through the turnstiles. She yelled, “You want to go on the other side. That’s the wrong way.” I guess she saw my confused look – how did she know where I wanted to go? “Weren’t you going to Grand Central?” She was also on the bus, but I hadn’t noticed her. She had overheard the conversation.

Finally seated on the train, I felt more comfortable. I knew the trains had a map with each stop indicated, and it would be easy to spot Grand Central. When the train began stopping at what I assumed was Grand Central terminal, I started to get up, and, in a sudden flash of insecurity, asked the man sitting next to the door, “This is Grand Central, right?”

“No, ” he replied, then added, in broken English, “I tell you. You watch me. I tell you. ”

For the next three stops, as the train would slow down, I would look up and see St.Benedict there, shaking his head. Finally, on the third stop, he nodded and smiled, and I made my way through the door.

After a long, sunny train trip along the Hudson River and a short cab ride from the train station, I walked through the doors of Holy Cross Monastery. Posted there is a portion of the Rule of Saint Benedict – “All guests are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'” But by the time I got within the safe confines of the monastery, nestled in among the trees of rural New York, I had already been welcomed in the middle of the city, stranger that I am, in the Benedictine Way, which is to say the Way of Christ.

I sought retreat in order to discover more the path of hospitality. I thought it might help show the way I and the church I serve could strengthen our faithful witness in these rapidly changing times. But the people on the public buses and trains of New York City showed it to me ahead of time, in a place where it was not expected and could not be reciprocated. It was an act of sheer grace.

Christ is present wherever grace abounds, whether he is acknowledged or not. I give thanks for his presence shining through the hospitality of the city.

Putting the "Dis" in Disestablishment

My sabbatical begins officially April 15, but I think it may have actually started more unofficially last night in the check out line of the grocery store. I was standing there with my daughter, we had just finished unloading the buggy when I noticed the Newsweek magazine cover pictured here.

I remembered linking to this article by Andrew Sullivan on my Facebook page a few days ago, but seeing this striking image on slick paper in the check out line seemed like a sabbatical moment. After all, part of what I am examining is how the church in the south should respond to its looming disestablishment. How much more looming can it get than standing in a Publix in Franklin, Tennessee reading “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.” I picked up the magazine and put it on the conveyor belt alongside the broccoli.

Chandler saw it.

“What’s this?”

I replied, “An article I’m interested in reading for my sabbatical about the church.”

She picked it up and thumbed to the cover story. Meanwhile, the store clerk began scanning our items.

She read a moment, and then said, “This guy’s saying we should ignore you.”

“Well,” I said, a little concerned that the clerk had just heard her comment, “Not me personally.

“Maybe not you personally, but your people, you know, your kind.”

I think I saw the clerk smile at that one, so I ended the conversation. After we got outside, I told Chandler that she had just given me an idea for my first sabbatical blog. “Do you mind me writing about what just happened in there?”

“No, I don’t mind…But, Dad, how many people really read your blog?”

When I set out to write about what Douglas John Hall calls the “disestablishment” of the church, I didn’t realize I would have my first sabbatical encounter with it in the person of my own daughter. Don’t get me (or her) wrong. She loves the church. It is all she has ever known. It has nurtured her faith, showered her with grace, and opened her eyes to the wonders of God. I believe that she sees herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ and wants her life to mirror the love, peace, and joy of his risen life.

But she’s also a part of a culture that no longer views the church as all that special. She is able to access volumes of information more quickly than I could have dreamed at her age. Christianity and the church are merely one option among many, and I have no doubt she sees and hears regularly a variety of competing worldviews that challenge her faith. In some ways, she senses that her choice to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is just that – a choice – and one that will soon place her in the minority of her peers, if it hasn’t already.

In the article he wrote in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan argues that the church, if it is to make it in a world where it is not in a position of power, will have to give up its infatuation with politics of both the right and the left and embrace once again the teachings of Jesus. As he puts it, “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, and embrace him.” It seems a fairly simple argument. It is certainly not new. I don’t agree with everything he writes; in fact, I think he has engaged in some sensationalism and over-simplification himself.

But the era in which we live does seem to call for a fresh look at what it might mean to be a faithful church in a time when major newsmagazines can boast a cover during Holy Week that says, “Forget the Church.”

I’m excited to be given the gift of time to explore these questions. Chandler’s gift to me was one she offers with some regularity – honesty. I pray I will discover words to say and ideas to share with her and with the church in the days to come that will honor that honesty.

In the meantime I can still send her to her room…