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Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work

Lynne Baab • Thursday March 3 2016

Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work

As John pointed out in his story about visiting a Benedictine monastery, work and prayer are linked in monastic life in a compelling way. Benedict, with his very practical view of life, saw clearly that most people find it very difficult to pray all day long. Work is the best way to fill the time when not praying. And yet work is more than something to fill time or make money; work is the fruit of prayer, a sacrifice to God, and a way to make Christ known in the world.

How greatly this view of work differs from the view that predominates in Western culture! Our culture encourages us to believe that our value and worth lie in our work. We are urged by our culture to a kind of franticness about work; more is always better and it takes a concerted effort to push towards ever-increasing productivity.

Writing about monastic living in her book Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris notes that “in our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it.”The peaceful attitude toward work described by so many when they visit monasteries flows out of the monastic sense of time: if God calls us to do something, there will be enough time to do it, because God is the Lord of time. This perspective feels like cool water in a desert land for those people at midlife who are overwhelmed, overworked, and just plain too busy.

Hospitality is one kind of work that most monasteries embrace. Benedict put a high value on hospitality, urging monks and sisters to view strangers as Christ himself coming to stay. Guests are to be received as they are and for who they are. There is no mandate to require guests to participate in any of the monastery’s activities. At the same time, there is no interruption of the monastery’s rhythm because of the presence of guests.

This style of exercising hospitality again demonstrates the kind of balance that Benedict taught: welcoming people just as they are, while continuing to exercise the personal and communal disciplines that God has set forth. I see a great challenge for my own life in this kind of hospitality. When I try to welcome people into my home or into my life, I often give up too much of myself and my own priorities in the process. I love the challenge of Benedictine hospitality that calls me to a kind of serenity as I open my life to others, all the while keeping hold of the disciplines and patterns God has called me to.

In recent years, many new books on hospitality have appeared, linking hospitality to Christian ministry. These books have helped many to realize how precious are our times with family and friends. In addition, as we realize that many of our blessings are not shared by others, we can grow in extending hospitality to those who cannot reciprocate. In the midst of frantic, overscheduled days, a commitment to hospitality can be difficult to embrace. Yet the simplicity of a conversation over a meal continues to be attractive and can help us connect with values that come from deep inside our hearts and souls.

This is the eighth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
The second vow, conversion of life
     The third vow, obedience    

Next week focuses on paradox and balance in Benedictine spirituality. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

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For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

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