Thursday, June 23, 2011

Column: Unhurried hospitality




This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 23 June 2011.

For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome. — Mt. 25:35a

It had been raining for the last 24 hours, and would rain for the next 48. It’s what you get when a typhoon arrives as the monsoon season begins. Soaked does not begin to describe the state of my shoes. We had been walking the paths that wind between the temples of Mount Kōya since early in the morning, and so the pilgrims’ shelter just outside the precincts of Okuno-in was a welcome site.

The young Buddhist priest who had been guiding us all afternoon took a tray from the shelf. He lifted the wooden lid off a large pot kept warm over a banked fire and ladled tea into four delicate cups. We found a table and let our bilingual conversation about the concept of self-abandonment in Buddhist and Catholic thought swirl around us like the steam from our drying shoes.

Everywhere we went in Japan — from the hut of a hermit living high on a mountainside to the elegant temple where the emperor visits on occasion — we were welcomed with tea, perhaps a small sweet, and unhurried conversation. Far from home, it was a ritual I appreciated deeply.

“A wise old monk should guard the gates of the monastery,” recommends St. Benedict in his Rule. Like our Japanese hosts, Benedict felt that guests should be welcomed graciously. Guests bless the house, and to care for them, is to care for Christ.

No wise old monk guards the doors to my office, but I suspect that Benedict would not thereby absolve me from the requirement to welcome guests — or students or colleagues — graciously. It’s not the tea or sweets I think he would fault me for failing to provide, but the unhurried conversation.

I can’t tell you how often a student knocks on my door with, “I know you’re really busy…” True. Infinity is a concept I grasp in part because it’s a good description of the length of my to-do list. Still, helping my students grapple with the intricacies of calculating pH is one thing on that list, and an important one at that.

Information moves fast these days, a message dispatched from Japan arrives in my Bryn Mawr inbox in a breath. Is this what drives the sense that I must respond quickly and efficiently to each task that presents itself, to always be in a hurry to get to the next thing? I long for the advice of one of St. Benedict’s wise Brother Porters to teach me “how to receive and answer a question.” The Rule notes that humility and charity are essential. Speed and efficiency, while commendable, take a back seat.

As one school year ends, and I begin to plan for the next, I’m meditating on unhurried conversations and the Benedictine tradition of hospitality. How can I make a gate in the wall that my to-do list seems to have erected around my office? Can I truly respond as St. Benedict advises, Deo gratias — thanks be to God — to the next knock on my door?

The fire that kept the tea warm for pilgrims at Okonu-in has been kept burning for a thousand years; communities that keep St. Benedict’s Rule have been beacons for travelers half again as long. No fire burns in my office, no wise old monk ushers you through the door, but I pray my students will know that they are welcome nonetheless.


Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
— T.S. Eliot, from The Rock

3 comments:

  1. This is wonderful... I love the Benedictine concept of hospitality. It is at the heart of my own charism and my work at the parish. When it is busy - and let me tell you, I've run a huge department in a big company... busy is the parish office, in ways I could never imagine. In any case, when I am that busy and I can't invite people to just be, it is hard.

    Unhurried hospitality... I will hold this in my heart Michelle. Thank you. I love the imagery you have shared from your trip; I feel like I was there!

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  2. Fran, do you know Jane Tomaine's lovely book, St. Benedict's Toolbox? She has a wonderful reflection on how this charism might play out in daily life outside the cloister; and some terrifically practical exercises for developing it!

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  3. Your hospitality is one of the things I greatly appreciate in/about you. (It goes well with tea!)

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