Chapter 53: The Reception of Guests

1 All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). 2 Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims. 3 Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. 4 First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, 5 but prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil. 6 All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. 7 By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. 8 After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray; then the superior or an appointed brother will sit with them. 9 The divine law is read to the guest for his instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to him. 10 The superior may break his fast for the sake of a guest, unless it is a day of special fast which cannot be broken. 11 The brothers, however, observe the usual fast. 12 The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, 13 and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet. 14 After the washing they will recite this verse: God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps 47[48]:10). 15 Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

Now we begin to hear about the guests of the monastery. The first sentence is clear: Guest are like Christ for us monks. There is a special place (perhaps honor) for those guests who share our faith. Nevertheless, all guests are received and in them Christ is received. Pilgrims are also special guests because they are traveling with a religious purpose.

The first thing is to pray with the guest so that any evil can be held in check with prayer.
We always need to think of being humble with our guests. There is nothing worse than for a guest to come and find a monastery that is really cold and unwelcoming and haughty. Even Saint Benedict recognizes that perhaps not a full body prostration is needed! Sometimes a bow of the head will accomplish the same purpose of acknowledging the presence of Christ in the guest.

We see that the monks first pray with a guest and then read the Holy Scripture to them afterwards, sitting with them. One wonders what passage might have been read! It is clear that this Scripture is read to make sure that first things are kept first: a monastery is a monastery and seeking God is primary at all times.

The abbot can eat with them, even breaking his fast. The monks are to keep fasting. And then the abbot washes their hands (a custom that is still observed in some monasteries today) and then the abbot and the monks wash their feet (not many monasteries keep this custom!).

And finally, some practical wisdom: rich people and powerful people generally are received with special care just because of their wealth and power. That same great care and concern need to be shown to the poor and to the pilgrims.

The challenge to our spirituality is always to remember that all of our actions are done because we come here to seek the Lord. May we live this way each day!

Chapter 53. The Reception of Guests 16 – 24

16 The kitchen for the abbot and guests ought to be separate, so that guests–and monasteries are never without them–need not disturb the brothers when they present themselves at unpredictable hours. 17 Each year, two brothers who can do the work competently are to be assigned to this kitchen. 18 Additional help should be available when needed, so that they can perform this service without grumbling. On the other hand, when the work slackens, they are to go wherever other duties are assigned them. 19 This consideration is not for them alone, but applies to all duties in the monastery; 20 the brothers are to be given help when it is needed, and whenever they are free, they work wherever they are assigned. 21 The guest quarters are to be entrusted to a God-fearing brother. 22 Adequate bedding should be available there. The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely. 23 No one is to speak or associate with guests unless he is bidden; 24 however, if a brother meets or sees a guest, he is to greet him humbly, as we have said. He asks for a blessing and continues on his way, explaining that he is not allowed to speak with a guest.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert

We have the second half of this Chapter tonight. Always it is good to speak bluntly about verse 16 and say that this has never worked. The Abbot never should absent himself regularly from the refectory with the other monks. The Rule presupposes that the abbot will eat always with the guests and if there are no guests, he will invite some monks to eat with him. But it just does not work.

We still need to try to understand how important it is that the Abbot actually have some relationship with the guests. That is much more difficult in our time, especially when the Abbot is responsible for much of the administration of the monastery as well as trying to be present for the brothers.

The Guestmaster and those who work with him need to be ready to offer food to a guest when he or she arrives.

Note that the care and maintenance of the guesthouse is entrusted to a different brother than the Guestmaster. Even Saint Benedict realizes that one person cannot do everything.
But, such wise advice: The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely!

Finally we all need to keep in our awareness that monks do not relate with the guests. Instead, the monastic community is represented by the Guestmaster. The other monks are to keep their distance and to stay away. They can pass by and ask the guest for a blessing. We should not see brothers developing friendships with guests! This is a clear teaching of the Rule and one that is difficult if not impossible to enforce. It just happens! But we monks must work at keeping our distance and allowing guests to know us only in the silence of the monastic atmosphere.

Let us pray that we may always receives all of our guests as Christ and that we may relate to them even while we keep our distance.