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?