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.


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