“Let all guests that happen to come be received as Christ,
because He is going to say: “A Guest was I and you received Me.”
And let suitable honor be shown to them all,
especially to those who are of the household of the faith
and to strangers.”
(Chapter LIII, the Rule of Saint Benedict)
When our family goes on vacation, we make a point of not missing Sunday mornings at the local parish. We treasure these moments, when we can worship together as a family. We also enjoy getting to see how other congregations operate - how they do the liturgy, how they do the announcements, what kinds of opportunities there are for fellowship and catechesis, and last, but certainly not least, how they welcome visitors. We’ve seen the good, and, unfortunately, far more of the bad. More often than not, we’ve been ignored. And, to be honest, we’re okay with that. We do actually want to be left alone to pray. The last thing we want is to fend off invitations to find out more about the congregation, or meet with leaders. But I often leave thinking: if that’s how they treat visitors… yikes.
Perhaps you’ve had the same bad taste in your mouth. It’s not that you’re selfish or demand the attention. It’s that it speaks volumes about a congregation when no one bothers to find out what your name is, or how they might serve your needs. Worse yet, when no one bothers to find out how they might pray for you.
Saint Benedict knew the same struggles. The monasteries of his day were mostly closed off and insular. What does the welcoming of visitors have to do with living a devout and holy life? Benedict, however, is keen on the word of Jesus being followed. So, he exhorts the brothers to see acts of hospitality as acts of worship, to welcome the guest as Christ himself. First, the visitor is to be announced. Then, the brothers pray for the visitor before exchanging the kiss of peace. They are to do all of this with the utmost courtesy, lest they treat the wealthy with more honor than the poor or treat those with any need as less deserving of their care. In the monastery, the guests even have their own kitchen and dining room, so that they can eat when they desire and not according to the monks’ schedule. Furthermore, the abbot or superior is permitted to break his fast in order to show the very best hospitality.
Consider for a moment what is made possibly by these actions. First, it sends a very clear message that the monastery is not primarily for the monks. It’s for the world that surrounds them. The monk is to live in steadfastness and singularity of mind for the good of the whole world. Second, it sends a message to the visitor that they are welcome, that they can stay as long as they like. Who knows? It just might be that the Lord is calling that visitor to join the community! Last, and most important, it is a practical way to practice worship and adoration in concrete terms. We cannot see God. We can see the visitor. We can care for them. We can pray for them.
I have a prayer for Christ Church that every visitor would be welcomed as Christ Himself. I desire that this would be the case, not only for the visitor, but for your sake. I desire that we would never become insular, some kind of closed system that ultimately grows cold and sick. A good many of you are introverts. I know it’s a tough thing to do. See this, then, as an opportunity to meet Jesus! Take the advice of Saint Benedict. Greet the visitor with all courtesy. Ask him or her how you can help them. Then, ask if you can pray for them. Imagine if every visitor was welcomed in this way! There would be some who would think it was strange. But, think of the joy!
Lastly, on a personal note, there is wisdom in Benedict’s direction that the abbot or superior should eat with the visitors. I have said through these last few years that every visitor ought to have time to get to know me, and I them. Stevi and I make it a priority to get visitors on my schedule for a personal meeting. I can remember that first meeting with many of you. It’s always a great joy. Then, I will invite you to be part of catechesis. I want you to hear the teaching straight from me. This is immensely helpful. If you decide Christ Church isn’t for you, you can make that decision quickly. But, maybe it will be an opportunity for a deeper commitment. Visitors, welcomed as Christ, are worth the risk.
I want to encourage you. Invite that lonely looking student to be prayed for. Ask that family with children if you can help them in any way. When this pandemic clears, maybe invite a visitor to have lunch with you or meet up for a drink later on in the week. I’m always keenly interested in the data on this: most people, believers or not, really just want a Christian to take an interest in them. So, take the risk! Welcome the visitor as Christ Himself.