Stranger at the Door

“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). outdoor-partyWe 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.

welcome-home-12976716Christianity, 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.

Lectio Divina: Holy Reading

What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?

One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.

My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.

Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.

For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.

(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.

How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!

My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.

As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Blessed are those who dwell in your house! 
They never cease to praise you.

Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.

(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words:  My soul yearns and pines.

Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!

As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold,  precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.

(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.

(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.

We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.

Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.

wild-rose
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

Odyssey of an Oblate

It didn’t take much to persuade me.

A couple of years ago I made a short retreat at Transfiguration Monastery. One of my purposes was to learn more about monasticism. Not that I was thinking of entering the monastery, but rather, drawn to the spirituality of monasticism, I wanted to learn about the “monastery of the heart.”

The very concept of monasticism – the totality of its dedication to the interior life, to a growing intimacy with God – had appealed to me long ago, even in my teens. But life takes us on different paths and here I was, close to where I had wanted to be so long ago.

After a short but substantive conversation with Sister Mary Donald, she gave me copies of some of her articles, along with the Esther de Waal book, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. That sounded like just the thing, as indeed it was!

 I resumed going to Mount Saviour Monastery which is less than a ten-minute ride from my home and had some conversations with then-prior Father Joseph Gabriel. He told me I needed to write him a letter requesting acceptance as an Oblate of Mt. Saviour. I composed and sent the letter that very day. He later described the simple process: I would attend a brief rite to publicly express my desire and choose a name. This part was easy too, and just seemed to pop out of my mouth. My patroness? Mary Magdalene whose feast just “happened” to be within the next 10 days!

 Father Joseph steered me to the writings of Michael Casey, OCSO, who explores in depth every word of the Rule. I was formally received last year, shortly before Father Joseph left.

 While the whole process of my becoming an Oblate seems very short and maybe even inordinately swift, I must emphasize that this had been in my mind and heart for many years. The decision was relatively quick only because it had been gestating in my spirit for literally decades, even if at times it had been submerged beneath other activities.

Mary MagdaleneHow did I decide so spontaneously on Mary Magdalene? Certainly, Thérèse of Lisieux has long been a favorite of mine since girlhood. But Mary Magdalene seemed closer to the adult me. She was one of the few to endure watching the lengthy dying of Jesus crucified. How much love and strength did that require! She was then the first to see and speak to the risen Christ. In her great love and joy, she threw herself at his feet, clinging to him, not wanting to be separated from him. Christ commissioned her to give the good news to the brother apostles. He had total trust that she would do this, even though this was a very bold action for a woman.

 There is much we do not know about Mary’s apostolate after that. Pope Francis has just “upgraded” her feast day, July 22, to the same level of celebration that is accorded to the other apostles. After so many centuries when she was associated with practically every fallen woman in the Gospels, it is a true grace to have her honored in this way.

 Yes, she had needed serious help from our Lord. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had expelled seven demons from her. Like any other Christian, she undoubtedly was flawed. And with us, all of us flawed, she received forgiveness with great joy and gratitude. We’re in good company.

St. Benedict

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God.

Mt Saviour Sculpture
Wood sculpture at Mt. Saviour Monastery, Pine City, NY

I enjoyed hearing about St. Benedict in the homily given on his feast day, July 11.

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God. That he would be known as the Father of western monasticism – which he’s noted for – did not come to him in a single great flash of insight or experience.

No. First, he was an “ordinary” Christian like us, going to Mass, reading and pondering Scripture. Because he lived in a somewhat degenerate Rome, he soon realized that living as a hermit would allow him to make a greater space within, a quiet space for the Spirit to fill. He therefore withdrew to a cave near the town of Subiaco, mentored by a monk by the name of Romanus.

He must have lived an exemplary life, for soon a group of monks appealed to him to be their spiritual leader, according to the biography written by St. Gregory the Great. But life lived by the Gospel and as taught by Benedict turned out not to be to their liking, and they planned to get rid of him by poisoning his wine. As Benedict blessed the carafe, it suddenly shattered, saving Benedict’s life, and saving the irritable brothers from grave sin.

For more reading on Benedict, his Rule, and the proliferation of priests, religious and laity dedicated to his teachings, see the following:

  • The Order of St. Benedict
  • Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, by Esther de Waal
  • Strangers to the City, by Michael Casey, OCSO