“I was a stranger, and you welcomed Me.” (Matt. 25:35)
“Let all guests . . . be received like Christ.” (Rule 53 of St. Benedict)
When St. Benedict wrote about hospitality 1500 years ago, it was an especially timely virtue, filling a need unique to that era. As a place inhabited by men or women living a life dedicated to the Gospel, the monastery was viewed as a safe haven for travelers. Nowadays, we have an array of motels on brightly lit highways, plus maps, mobile phones and our trusty GPS. In our day, admitting a total stranger into our home obviously defies prudence!
So how can this rule, first voiced by Christ himself, be applied to the Benedictine Oblate and other laity in the 21st century?
There are two tiers to this virtue: the natural (Good) and the grace-filled or supernatural (Best). We practice natural hospitality with our friends and neighbors all the time: inviting them in for a chat, offering them something to drink, and so on. This is a good thing to do.
It’s easy to be warm and mushy with our friends. We love them; they love us. We know them. We’ve probably known them for years. We know what to expect from them: their taste in movies, football teams, politics. Disagreements are handled in a joshing, loving way. Mostly, we agree with them and love them because they’re like us, and by golly, we’re just right about everything!
To understand Christian hospitality as a grace-filled virtue, we have to focus on the key words Jesus uses: stranger and welcome.
This level of Christian hospitality must be interpreted as wholeheartedly accepting those who are not a member of our social circle and who might even be at odds with most of my oh-so-correct thinking. This is the Stranger whom Christ tells me to welcome. He tells me to make myself lovingly present to such Strangers, sharing myself with them out of a desire to be Christ for them, especially when they are ignored or cut off from others, or even if they adhere to a different set of values. We’re not told that we must agree with them, but merely to be open to them!
Jesus was open, as we see in this Gospel passage where John, newly returned from his first mission, complains to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” (That is, he’s not one of us!) Jesus answers, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)
Jesus cautions us about hosting social events when our motivation is personal gain. (Luke 13:14). A few examples: I give a party because I want to have the favor returned; I want other people to see and admire my home and possessions; I want to cater to those who can help me get ahead. These are self-centered actions, posing as hospitality.
There are numerous everyday situations where simple welcoming actions go a long way in letting others feel loved. The phone rings. I spot the name of an individual whose typical conversation can be quite dull, needy, or long-winded. I try to remember to connect, listen and respond. The Stranger might be the person new to a social gathering, standing alone with no one to talk to. The space around that person is waiting to be filled — by me and Christ. The most difficult stranger to welcome is the one who (I think) doesn’t love or admire me.
Christianity, after all, is not rocket science. It’s a way of life, a way of being Christ to others; a way to let others see Him in us, which is the only way Christ can be visible in this world.