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.

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