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.

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