Hospitality

Here in the monastery we keep the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a feast of hospitality and friendship — exactly what one would expect given the emphasis St Benedict places on hospitality in the Rule. Western society, however, is becoming less and less enthusiastic about welcoming the stranger or honouring the guest while friendship is often devalued to mean little more than social media ‘likes’. Our ‘hospitality suites’ are commercial enterprises, where every canapé or cup of coffee is minutely costed; our governments are more interested in immigration quotas and building barriers of one kind or another than in sharing what we have with the less fortunate.

In the British Isles we have a long history of welcoming others. We have been called a mongrel race because of all the different nationalities and ethnicities that go into our make-up. But I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that among many the idea of welcoming others is under renewed strain. Where jobs and housing are at stake, a narrower view sometimes prevails: keep the others out! Those who oppose such a view are dismissed as namby-pamby liberals whose comfortable existences are untouched by the hardships and uncertainties of the rest. The rise of the EDL and other far-right groups adds fuel to the fire, for they depend on exaggerating differences, on creating a sense of tension and hostility, of grievance.

I’d like to suggest that it is time we all thought again about the hospitality shown by the family of Bethany. There was Martha, determined to give as good a dinner to everyone as she could — which meant hard work to supply an obvious material need. There was Mary, listening to Jesus and learning from him — paying attention to what the guest considered important, not seeking to impose her own ideas. There, too, was Lazarus, who was Jesus’ friend — so dear a friend that when he died, Jesus wept. All three elements are important in the welcome we give others but the most important is surely friendship. Unless and until we have learned to be friends with one another, we have not begun to be truly hospitable. Learning to be friends takes effort and sacrifice as well as delight in the discovery of what each brings to the friendship. It does not often happen all at once or without an openness that risks being abused. Something to ponder there, perhaps.

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The Jewishness of Jesus

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus

This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?

I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.

Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St David and the Women’s World Day of Prayer

The last words attributed to St David were ‘Be joyful. Keep the Faith. Do the little things.’ They are singularly appropriate for the theme of this year’s Women’s World Day of Prayer, when we are asked to think about welcoming the stranger. We Benedictines are in the middle of reading the so-called penal code of St Benedict and today’s chapter, RB 24, brings home the desolation of excommunication, of being excluded from the group.

What makes us strangers? It can be almost anything from the colour of our skin to an inability to speak the local language. We may stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, or our difference may be hidden, something only we know, but our separation from others is real enough and is like ice at the heart. To be welcomed, to become not a stranger but a friend, is a magical moment in anyone’s life. It is to experience joy and warmth quite independent of our circumstances, and so often the welcoming consists in someone’s doing ‘the little things’ of which St David spoke.

I have mentioned before how my sister and I were affected by our parents’ habit of welcoming immigrant workers to their house every Sunday for a family day. We were resentful and difficult as only children can be (‘nasty little blighters’ was, I think, the phrase our father used of us) but something rubbed off on us eventually. Today, as we unite in prayer with women the world over, I can think of nothing better than to try to extend a welcome to others. It may be just a smile we give, but it may be the only smile that person receives today; and if the person in question is one of those who are not-quite-clean-and-respectable or in some other way a person we are tempted to avoid, so much the better. We may discover that in welcoming others we are ourselves made welcome in a way we did not expect.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail