Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

Photo by Hombre on Unsplash

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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Danger Zone?

smartphone in use

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplassh

Today’s first Mass reading, from Isaiah 29.17–24, and the chapter of the Rule of St Benedict we begin reading, RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, are both a little severe on how we interact with others and the potential dangers of doing so. For Isaiah there is the necessary caution to avoid gossip and incriminating others; for Benedict, the need to pray lest we be deceived by the devil. Jesus in the gospel, Matthew 9.27-31, cuts through all that by granting the blind clear sight, and that surely is what we need most — clarity of vision. Without it we are in the danger zone of muddled thinking, rash speech and stupid actions.

My choice of illustration for this post was not random. Not only is it a beautifully composed image, it is also eloquent. The smartphone has become for many of us an important way of connecting with others. It is immensely seductive. That tiny silvery glow, even in the dark of night, invites us to express thoughts and ideas we might hesitate to put into words face to face with someone; and, rather like reading an unputdownable book, we can easily find we have used up a lot of time intended for other purposes. In the monastery, that isn’t likely to happen because of the demands of the monastic timetable, but for those trying to make a good Advent, it can be more difficult. So, my suggestion for today is, try switching your ‘phone off for an hour if you can; listen to the silence (and silence is not broken by the sound of life going on around us); and you may find that you are listening to God.

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Dodgy Data and Popular Pitfalls

From time to time I return to the question of what we’re doing online and why. Most recently, I mentioned the carbon footprint of our everyday online activity and suggested that we needed to make sure we were not reckless or profligate. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. For a Benedictine, thinking in this way is natural. In his chapter on the cellarer (RB 34), St Benedict urges the business manager of the monastery to look on everything entrusted to his care as sacred, and to avoid both extravagance and parsimony. Reverence is another key theme of the Rule, a reverence that extends beyond the human and spiritual to the physical and material. The goods and property of the monastery are not to be treated casually or in a sloppy manner. As a result, I have often thought Benedict was an ecologist avant la lettre, one who has marvelled at the beauty of creation and desires to fulfil his duty of tending and sustaining it. In the same way, our community found its inspiration for its online activity in Benedict’s teaching on hospitality in chapter 53. That is why our first tweet of the day and our first Facebook post are always prayer (cf RB 53.4). It is why this blog exists, and why we are keen to revamp our other web sites, including that for online retreats. In the last few days, however, I have been thinking about a problem we all encounter online at some time or other: dodgy data and popular pitfalls.

As apps and web sites multiply, the internet becomes bigger and more hazardous for even the most knowlegeable and intrepid. False stories abound, and I’m not referring to the more or less harmless ‘joke’ variety. Many have died from measles as a direct consequence of the rumours spread about vaccination. Others have taken for truth erroneous claims about both individuals and organizations. Worse still, these lies have been spread by many who would be aghast to realise the part they had played in ruining another’s reputation or subjecting to unnecessary stress and anguish someone innocent of the charges being made against them. Sometimes, it is all down to ignorance and reacting too quickly rather than pausing to reflect for a moment or two.

Faced with an interesting story or piece of information, how many of us actually take the time to check facts with snopes.com before we press the send button? Even the minimum time needed for reflection tends to be curtailed because ‘everything is instant online’. So, instead of checking when something was written and by whom, we propagate a lie and make it even more difficult to correct. That is especially true of photos and videos. Everyone knows how easy it is to fake them, but how often do we do even the most elementary checks? For example, uploading a suspicious photo to the Google image search-box will reveal if/where it has appeared online and when. Notoriously, a video widely circulated with the title ‘Muslims celebrating after Paris terror attacks 2015’ turned out to be footage of Pakistanis cheering after a cricket match held in 2009. Yet, if you look, you will still find that video being trotted out as ‘evidence’ of Muslim malice. The contrary is true.

I believe that Christians have a role to play in trying to make the internet a safe and useful place to be because we are, or ought to be, people of integrity to whom truth matters. If we find that we ourselves have made a mistake, own up to it, post a correction and draw people’s attention to it. Support attempts to keep children and young people safe online. Welcome the UK Government’s Age Appropriate Design Code (due to become operational in Autumn 2021 — see yesterday’s announcement here: https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/01/ico-publishes-code-of-practice-to-protect-children-s-privacy-online/). Remember that we still have people using the internet who are not well-informed about its darker side and just assume everyone is telling the truth. Above all, take time to think. Yesterday I did something foolish online. I uploaded a short post about the feast of St Agnes and the exploitation of children. I’d hoped people would read it and think about the ways in which we can, unintentionally, let young people down. I followed it up with a light-hearted tweet about the image I’d used to illustrate my post (especially the first paragraph). Twice the number of people who read the post tweeted, emailed or messaged me their views on religious art. Bro Duncan PBGV used to urge people to be more dog. All I can say is, where the internet is concerned, don’t be a silly-billy like me. Think first!

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Guests in the Monastery

Yesterday and today we have been re-reading what St Benedict has to say about welcoming guests to the monastery (RB 53). I have always thought it significant that the chapter on guests comes between the one about the oratory of the monastery and the one about (not) receiving letters/small gifts. The connection between all three is the idea of ‘gift’. In the oratory God pours gifts upon us in the form of grace, his very self; in the person of the guest he also gives to us, though the gift is one that can make great demands on the community; and chapter 54 is about the wrong kind of gift, the gifts we are not to receive.

Guests as gifts: it sounds wonderful, and many a Benedictine will wax lyrical about the sacred duty of hospitality. I must admit, however, that the lyricism is somewhat muted when the guest arrives at an awkward moment or proves exacting or is somehow incapable of respecting the community’s private life as a community. To be woken up in the early hours to answer a request for prayer or to find one’s inbox flooded with trivial questions can tax the generosity of spirit we would all like to show. But that is the point. If guests give to us, we must also give to them; and a gift given from abundance, which makes no demands, which effectively costs us nothing, is perhaps not much of a gift. Benedict says in his very first sentence, ‘All guests who come are to be welcomed like Christ’. Anyone who has ever welcomed Christ into his or her life, however imperfectly, knows that the gift he brings is beyond comparison, but it comes at a cost. Should welcoming guests to the monastery be any different?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail