Since beginning my formation for priesthood as a seminarian, I have been on many retreats. The best retreat experience I ever had was at a monastery called Monte Oliveto Maggiore, which is the home of a community of Benedictine monks in the Italian region of Tuscany. For a week, I lived, ate, and prayed with the monks, spending most of the day in silence and going for long solitary hikes each afternoon in the surrounding countryside.
As seminarians studying in Rome, it was common to go to Benedictine monasteries for retreat, since they were often in very beautiful places and offered cheap lodging. They were also welcoming places, as hospitality is part of the Benedictine rule of life. In his sixth-century Rule, St. Benedict (whose feast day we celebrate this Monday, 7/11) writes: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The saint continues: “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.” Music to the ears of the impecunious seminarian! The accommodations were invariably simple, but the graciousness of the monks made one feel special and most welcome.
Outside of monasteries, hospitality is often treated as a commodity that is part of a larger service industry. People who have a knack for anticipating the needs of others and have skills in conflict resolution can make a good living working in hotels and resorts. But hospitality is more than just a job opportunity. It is a way of life. Moreover, it is not something that one offers only to strangers. It is a form of charity that we owe even to those closest to us. Writing in Church Life Journal, theologian Timothy O’Malley writes about his experience witnessing the hospitality of Benedictine monks towards each other. Younger monks quietly watched over the elderly monks, always making sure their small acts of accommodation were unseen so as to protect the dignity of their older confreres. The members of the community were mindful to arrive to prayer on time and took care not to distract the other monks by praying or singing overly loud, but in unison. At meals, no one would leave until the last person had finished eating. Writes O’Malley: “they learn, through an embodied spiritual formation, that not all space is theirs. Not all time is theirs. Everything is a gift from God.”
O’Malley wonders how the Benedictine example of hospitality could be lived out in a parish. It is not enough, he argues, to simply repeat slogans like “All Are Welcome.” It is instead the cultivation of a way of life as a community in which we make space for each other. “It is to learn to pray together in a way in which my voice does not overpower my neighbor. It is to create a form of life in which I cease thinking about myself as an individual monad, an individual family. And instead take up a series of practices in which my entire life is about making space for the other. In which every part of my life becomes an offering of praise to the God who is the source of all gift.”
Professor O’Malley’s insight is helpful when we remember that life in the monastery is centered on the sacred liturgy – both the Mass and the communal chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a reminder that when we enter into the Sacred Mysteries as a parish community, we never pray in isolation. We are not individuals sharing space in the church building. We are the assembly of the faithful, the Mystical Body of Christ, bound together in grace and united to Christ as He offers loving praise and thanksgiving to His Heavenly Father. And we are attentive to the needs of our brothers and sisters around us, making space for them in our hearts as we offer our prayer to the Lord, acknowledging that we are gifts from God to each other. The liturgy thus expands our charity toward our neighbor, increasing our desire to attend to his needs, opening our eyes to see Christ more clearly in him.