The Welcome We Give

Re-reading St Benedict’s chapter on the doorkeepers of the monastery this morning made me think again about the way in which we welcome others (see RB 66). We have had some spectacular failures in the past when people have turned up without warning late at night or been aggressive or rowdy. If we were a bigger community, or if we had more confidence in our ability to restrain someone who is out of control, I daresay we wouldn’t be troubled by the remembrance. Partly, I know, it is because of the expectations others have of us and our awareness that we can never meet them fully. Our less thoughtful visitors do not expect us to be tired or ill or have anything happening in our lives that would lessen our availability or our readiness to give them a meal or a bed for the night. Part of me wishes that we could be, as it were, reckless in our charity; but prudence is a virtue, and to act imprudently is folly — one of those sins that choke the life of the believer. So, we go on as well as we can, being welcoming at the door and welcoming online, but with some limits.

The welcome we give online is something we all need to think about if we are internet users, not just nuns. We all know the importance of being kind and truthful, but there are two phrases of St Benedict I think are worth pondering carefully. He says whenever anyone knocks at the door, the doorkeeper should respond immediately with ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘God bless you’.(RB 6.3)  Now, I know many of my readers pray before they go online, but I wonder how many utter those words or their equivalent when they receive an email/message or surf a web site which seeks to engage them personally — especially if the engagement is critical of them or their views. To go online with a spirit of gratitude and blessing is very different from what most of us do most of the time: we go online to inform ourselves or others, and it is a short step from apparent neutrality to picking fault, to being fundamentally unwelcoming.

A second phrase caught my eye, too, the sentence about not wandering around outside the monastery because that is not good for our souls: instead, we should find everything necessary inside the enclosure. (RB 66.6) I myself rarely surf the net as such. I haven’t time, but I know it can be a temptation, especially if one is feeling bored or vaguely fractious: an hour or two of aimless pottering about online would be a good distraction, wouldn’t it? What I had never really considered was how such lack of focus can affect the way in which we welcome others. If our minds and heart are all over the place, so to say, how can we be truly present to another? How can we find the space in which to welcome God? The monastic practice of enclosure, which in our community includes some strict rules about use of the internet, is intended to guard against any such dissipation of energy. I suppose a secular equivalent would be to say, ‘switch off the ‘phone, live wholly in the present for a while, not the virtual reality we find so attractive.’

Simple thoughts, but gratitude and blessing are so much more welcoming than confrontation and condemnation or endless self-indulgence. I intend to try harder and hope you will also.


20 thoughts on “The Welcome We Give”

  1. I would not think of dropping in on your small community late, uninvited or unannounced, bearing in mind that you barely have the resources to keep your limited number adequately and in light of your health.
    I take advantage of your hospitality by being an active online follower of your instructive guidance. I believe that you were placed on Earth to do His will through the ether. Your messages regularly show His grace and love for all us miserable sinners. This is so invaluable.

    • We are not rich by this world’s standards, but we are not poverty-stricken, either, and as St Paul says, the generous will always have something left over. We do see our online outreach as a very important side of our Benedictine vocation. Thank you for your encouragmenet.

  2. Being welcoming and hospitable is very important in my opinion, but it is also incumbent on our visitors to be thoughtful and considerate too. We shouldn’t necessarily be doormats. A lady we know used to call on us and she could never come in ‘busy, busy – I haven’t time now’. She went into a depression and five years ago she lost her husband. Anne invited her in, and since then she comes round for tea and a natter and plays scrabble and cards. She is company for Anne, but I don’t think that she’s considerate at all. Last weekend she was away, and we thought that she’d be back possibly on Monday or may be Tuesday. We made sure that we were back on both days, but we could have chosen to be out for the day on Tuesday. Yesterday she returned, and as she was leaving I quietly asked her if she had had a good weekend. ‘Yes, lovely’, she said. I said if she knew that she would be back later than planned, that a call to tell us would have been appreciated so that we could have gone out ourselves. ‘Sorry about that’, she said. But somehow I don’t think that she had given us a moment’s thought or consideration. With some people I think it is all take and no give, and it makes me sad. Fortunately, I was able to keep calm and not show my anger especially as she would never think of bringing milk or some biscuits as a token of thanks for over five years of hospitality.

  3. Thank you for this pointer to prudence. A word I seldom encounter, but a virtue I need. Working with refugees where the need is so very great, it is all too easy to throw the arms of welcome too wide. A note to self to be prudent is so much more encouraging than to advise caution. Caution seems negative; prudence infused with wisdom, positive. Is it correct to say that the wisdom that informs prudence is the Wisdom (Sapientia?) of the OT and of the Holy Spirit? So prudence invites God into our decision making and into the welcome we extend strangers?

    • Spot on! That’s why St Benedict describes prudence as ‘the mother of virtues’. It is a much warmer word than ‘caution’, as you rightly observe.The first of the Advent ‘O’ antiphons, O Sapientia, prays for us to be shown the way of prudence.

  4. Wandering around online is seductive. I can start off with good intentions and a real purpose but easily wander off the path – key words/images are used effectively to attract attention. Sometimes happy accidents occur but often the time is unproductive and ultimately wasted/harmful. It can also encourage the “anonymity” that often excuses/allows unpleasantness online. I am only browsing so I do not care who you are or how I treat you…

    Much better to rejoin the real world an hope/pray for more perspective.

  5. Thank you . A really good discipline to switch off phone .social media . And just to be in His presence . Striving for this . Thanks for the insightful thoughts on welcome and I have regretfully not prayed before going on line except to ask God to help me not to respond to a post., so will also seek to pray beforehand also.

  6. “Part of me wishes that we could be, as it were, reckless in our charity; but prudence is a virtue, …”
    This reality should remembered with respect to the treatment of those seeking asylum (not all are truly refugees) According to news reports, people have been murdered (most recently in Barcelona) because prudence and public safety were ignored. This is not being “Christian” or even generous – it is being reckless.

    • Not all refugees are asylum seekers, either. I think the question of the refugee/migrant/asylum seeker influx into Europe is horribly complex and will be made even more so by what is happening in Syria now and the West’s disastrous legacy in Libya. You don’t say what you think should be done, and that is the eaxctly the problem facing us all. There may be unease and concern, but what should actually be done, and by whom?

  7. Thank you for this excellent teaching. Especially appreciating the mindfulness about the distractions of the Internet. Yes, we start out with the intent of work related research, but it is so easy to go astray. I will try to pray the words of St. Benedict as you suggest.
    Thank you for the hospitality that you and the Community provide on-line. Know that it is deeply appreciated and it does provide respite and guidance on our life journeys.

  8. A little away from your topic today, however-

    I try really hard to welcome people who pop into my office at work for a chat. Sometimes, I’m happy to be distracted from a boring task. Often though, I resent the intrusion. I tell myself that they don’t know they are the 5th person to pester me that afternoon. I try to take a deep breath, and minimise all the work I had open on my screen, and give them my full attention, to listen.

    However, I am pretty introverted, I only have so much energy to give out in a day. I also, have a job to do. The sort of work that once my concentration is shattered, might take me 30 minutes to get back into.

    Your post has reminded me of this dilemma, and offers some interesting ways to think about it. However, how does one balance the desire to welcome, with prudence? What are the limits I could set?

    • We have a very similar problem at the monastery and I have never yet found the right answer. Sometimes one knows one HAS to listen, however personally inconvenient it may be. Sometimes one CAN’T listen, eg me after having chemo. The rest of the time I think one may have to be apparently brutal and say, after listening for a while (eg two/three minutes), ‘Can we come back to this, I have to finish x and I’m having one or two unexpected problems with it’ or whatever would suit your line of work. Sometimes people don’t read the cues and one has to try to work out very quickly whether they have a genuine problem or are simply hoovering up attention. How one copes with the break in one’s own attention is more difficult. I find I sometimes have to stare blankly at the keyboard for a minute or two or take a quick walk along the corridor . . .

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really do need to find a way to express ‘I’m really emotionally and intellectually all done in for today, and my head hurts. Please go away!” It really isn’t something you can easy say in the workplace… I imagine it is even harder in the monestary, where there are so many external preconceptions!

        I guess we all just do what we can.

  9. A very thought provoking blog – especially as I have just spent 20 minutes pottering online when I could be doing something more productive! In future I will aim to pray before reading emails or looking at Facebook – or when welcoming people on the phone or at the door.

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