Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

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A Reality Check on Being Welcoming

I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.

St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality

The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.

The Effect of COVID

We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?

I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.

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O Sapientia | 17 December 2020

Tonight, as the skies change from dark blue to inky black, the community will gather in the chapel for Vespers, but with a heightened sense of excitement, for tonight until 23 December, we sing the special series of Magnificat antiphons known as the ‘O’ antiphons. They are a sign that Christmas is close and our joy at the nearness of salvation intensifies.

No one is quite sure when they were first used. Boethius (fifth century) mentions them, and by the eighth century the abbey of St Benoît sur Loire had elaborated a solemn ritual most Benedictines still use today. 

The antiphons are intoned by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and ‘care’ is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.

A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of the church bells. In former times there were pittances (extra snacks or small treats) in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.

At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or ‘Tomorrow I shall be (with you)’.

Sapientia (Wisdom)
Adonai (Holy Lord)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
Emmanuel (God-with-us)

In the Middle Ages not only were different melodies sometimes used (the Worcester Antiphoner, for example, has some very elaborate settings for the antiphons) but even the number of antiphons varied. According to the Sarum Use, eight antiphons were sung so the whole sequence began a day earlier and ended on 23 December with O Virgo virginum. That made the initials read Vero cras. ‘Truly tomorrow (I shall be with you).’

The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern. 

O Sapientia: music and text

17 December
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of prudence.

I suggest having a look at Isaiah 11.2-3; Isaiah 28.29 and thinking about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. There are times when we are tempted to despair. Folly seems to be prevalent in the world but the idea of prudence as an antidote is not particularly attractive, is it? It is virtue in its stiffest Victorian dress. But we must remember Benedict saw prudence as the mother of all the virtues, so in itself prudence must have more to commend it. Perhaps if we were to see prudence as compassionate and generous, a caring virtue, we would see why it is identified with divine Wisdom — and be encouraged to practise it. As you listen to the recording of the antiphon (sung by men, not us), try to make the prayer your own.

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Prudence or Truth: O Sapientia Reconsidered

Today’s O antiphon is

O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

I have translated this, rather ploddingly, as

O Wisdom, who come forth from the mouth of the Most High,  filling the universe from end to end and holding all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.

Why ‘truth’, not the more literal ‘prudence’? Partly, I think, because I’m a slightly crazed word-fiend. Prudence is connected with foreseeing, taking care for the future; and once Christ has come, the future is already here — our hope is fulfilled. Partly, I confess, because ‘prudence’ had rather a bad reputation under Gordon Brown. It is now associated with failed economic policies and a rather dour, mid-Victorian kind of dutifulness that has little to do with God. On the other hand, I recall that in my first class in moral theology the instructor became almost lyrical in her description of prudence, ‘the mother of all the virtues’ as St Benedict would say. Yet I still hesitate to use the word here because I think the English ‘prudence’ does not convey the force of the Latin ‘prudentia’.

If we look at some of the scriptural passages behind this antiphon, e.g. Isaiah 11.2–3 and Isaiah 28.29, I hope my choice of ‘truth’ becomes more understandable. The Saviour for whom we long is Truth himself, the one in whom we hope, who will free us from all the shabby lies and half-truths that have divided mankind from the beginning. He is the pure and unsullied Wisdom that comes from above. He will teach us to be what those who follow the Lamb must be, ‘in whose mouths no lie is found’. He holds all things in unity; and in that unity there can be no shadow of falsity or untruth.

Eccentric? Perverse? Possibly. But we pray the antiphons here in Latin, which means we can avoid  disputes over translation. If you would like to hear the antiphon being sung, go here (scroll to the bottom of the page, Flash required). For reflections on this antiphon in previous years, I suggest you use the search box in the sidebar. There are also entries in our discontinued blog, Colophon.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail