As a young man, Benedict left his hometown of Nursia, journeying to Rome to continue his education. His time in Rome left him deeply troubled, the city apparently overcome by paganism and depravity. Eventually, Benedict simply tired of people. Seeking solitude and quite, he moved to a cave near Subiaco (about 30 miles east of Rome).
In a humorous twist (for us, anyway), significant buzz developed over this man living alone in a cave. Many people went to visit him, finding Benedict a genuinely wise and godly man. His unintended, and likely undesired, fame as a holy man spread so widely that a group of monks came to Benedict and asked him to be their abbot.
He reluctantly agreed, warning them that he wasn’t sure he would be a good abbot at all. They insisted, and apparently regretted it because, after living under Benedict’s headship for some time, those same monks tried to kill him!
They poisoned his wine, but before he drank it, he blessed and signed the cup. The cup shattered. Taking this as a sign that God was protecting Benedict, the frightened monks confessed their plot to Benedict. He forgave them, but disbanded the community, insisting that the monks find another abbot – no doubt without a letter of reference from Benedict.
It is hard to know if the ordeal rose from Benedict being overly strict, or the monks being overly strong-willed, but Benedict seems to have learned great moderation from it. Later, when he wrote his Rule, it was a model of balance for monastic life. Benedict insisted he wanted to establish a rule that was “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome,” particularly for those who entered the monastery spiritually and/or physically weak. The Rule requires discipline and work, but is applied with great grace and understanding.
One example of this is found in chapter 66 of the Rule, where Benedict details the work of the monastery’s porter or gatekeeper:
“At the door of the monastery, place a sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose age keeps him from roaming about. This porter will need a room near the entrance so that visitors will always find him there to answer them.”
Benedict makes concession for age, noting that a “sensible old man” is best for the post, which demands taking messages, staying put, and little heavy lifting or physical exertion. The gatekeeper’s room was near the gate, allowing him quick access to his work and allowing visitors ready access to him.
Yet, Benedict’s wisdom in this chapter goes well beyond his attention to detail in the work assignment and his graciousness towards those with physical limitations (which he demonstrates throughout the Rule). He continues:
“As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he replies, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please’; then, with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God, he provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love.”
By assigning the exact words of greeting the doorkeeper is to use, Benedict reiterates his theology of hospitality to the doorkeeper, any monks within earshot, and every guest that comes to the monastery. Note that guests, who usually arrive in need, are asked for their “blessing.” Similar instruction is given to all the monks (including the abbot) in chapter 53, a chapter which begins, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ…”
Benedict taught that every guest was to be treated as Christ in their midst; to treat every encounter as a blessing, even before knowing what challenges they might bring, or what service they may require of you. The monks were to be attentive to what God does through the people around them.
Is that how we approach our work and those around us, particularly those who ask the most of us? Our children? Our students? Do we encounter them saying, “Thanks be to God! Your blessing, please”? Most of the time, I do not.
On a recent and particularly busy day, I was convinced that every role in my life was conspiring against me at once – husband, father, pastor, CiRCE director, teacher. I sat at my desk, glaring at stacks of books and papers – a sermon to write, conference talks to finish, a syllabus to complete, a book deadline to meet, and, looking out the window, grass that needed to be cut.
At that moment of frustration, my 3-year-old daughter Ellie came in, pointing to the wall by my desk, where pictures of St. Patrick, St. George, St. Augustine, and St. Basil the Great hang. Little Ellie has them memorized and, as usual, she wanted me to quiz her. “Daddy, ask me.” I did not want to go through the pictures with her. The 15 seconds she was asking for were too much to spare.
But, we went through the pictures and, after finishing her recitation and walking out proudly, it dawned on me that God was allowing me to glimpse what He does through guests, even when they feel like intrusions to us. The intrusion was the work. What would I rather be doing? What better work could I ask for? My theology of hospitality was all wrong.
Next time, I pray for grace to greet her properly: “Hello, Ellie. Thanks be to God! Your blessing, please?”