A Benedictine Welcome
(2Kgs.4:8-11, 14-16; Rom.6:3-4, 8-11; Mt.10:37-42)
In the 5th Century, the Roman Empire was attacked by the Goths, Huns and Vandals, and eventually collapsed into chaos.
It was at this turbulent time that St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) founded his monasteries in Italy, the first in Subiaco. They were havens of peace and stability, and people from many different backgrounds wanted to join, including peasants, pagans, monks and even royalty. Despite the risks, Benedict always welcomed them.
In his biography of St Benedict, Pope Gregory the Great tells the story of one monk when Benedict was the abbot. This monk had been a Goth, perhaps a soldier or a servant, but it seems he was used to punishment. One day while clearing some thornbushes, he panicked. The blade of his scythe had flown off into the lake and disappeared. He thought he’d be punished.
Hearing about this, Benedict went to see the monk, but he wasn’t angry. He fixed the tool and returned it to him. ‘Here you are,’ he said, ‘now, go back to work. There’s no need to worry.’ [i]
Benedict’s hospitality has long been famous. But what inspired it? It was Holy Scripture.
‘You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,’ the Old Testament says (Deut.10:19). The Bible is full of examples of generous hospitality. In Genesis, God welcomes Adam into the Garden of Eden. Abraham welcomes three visitors at the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18:1-10). Elijah is welcomed by the widow of Zarepath (1Kgs.17-18).
And in today’s first reading, a woman warmly welcomes the prophet Elisha to the town of Shunem. In ancient times, strangers were often seen as messengers of God’s blessing (Heb.13:2). This woman knows Elisha is a holy man, and she invites him to stay whenever he’s in town.
Elisha is grateful and wants to repay her kindness. When he learns she has no son, he prophesies that God will reward her with one, and his prophecy is fulfilled.
In the New Testament, too, during his public ministry, Jesus often relies on the hospitality of strangers for his food and stay. He also teaches at mealtimes, and often uses the language of hospitality to describe God and his kingdom.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and you invited me in, naked and you clothed me… Truly, whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters you did for me’ (Mt.25:35-40).
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me… And even a cup of cold water will not go unrewarded.’
Hospitality, then, is central to the Christian life. St Benedict knew this, and that’s why he always insisted that his monks welcome all strangers and guests as if they are Christ himself. [ii]
In the Greek New Testament, the word for ‘hospitality’ is philoxenia, love for the stranger. Its opposite is xenophobia, hatred of the stranger.[iii] We know from history that xenophobia can lead to serious trouble and conflict, which we certainly don’t need. Philoxenia, however, can turn strangers into friends. That, we do need.
Let’s close with a story from Oscar Wilde. He was quite a celebrity when he was sent to gaol, and he found the experience humiliating.
As he was led by two policemen from prison to court, a noisy, hostile crowd had gathered outside. But then a friend of his appeared and made a simple gesture of friendship and respect that silenced the crowd. As Wilde passed by, handcuffed and with bowed head, this man raised his hat to him. It was a very small thing, but it meant a great deal to Wilde at the time.
Reflecting on that simple gesture, Wilde wrote in his letter de Profundis, ‘Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. I don’t know if my friend is even aware that I saw his action. It’s not something I can give formal thanks for, but I store it in the treasure house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I can never possibly repay.
‘…the memory of that lowly silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the deserts blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken and great heart of the world.’ [iv]
That simple act of raising a hat made a huge difference to one miserable man.
Even the smallest of kind gestures can change someone’s life.
[i] Pope Gregory 1, The Life of Our Most Holy Father St Benedict, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, p.13. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/g/gregory/life_rule/cache/life_rule.pdf