On weekdays, when I’m hanging around the church building, the place usually is quiet. The delivery person might bring a package. Someone could drop something off for a fellowship gathering. Maybe a group meeting in the building gathers, but otherwise the place is still. Every now and then, though, I see someone I don’t recognize coming up the walk to the front door. “What does he want?” I ask myself. Sometimes it’s someone selling something, office equipment or building supplies. Sometimes it’s someone promoting a program or event. Last week some folks stopped by inviting me to a program and offering prayers for the church. I knew the program wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did my best to be hospitable to their prayers. Many times it’s someone wanting me to give them money; he or she has a need for food or housing or help with a bill. I see that stranger coming toward the door, and the unknown this stranger brings with his or her presence is scary.
I leave the church door unlocked while I'm there, but it's tempting to lock it. I have a friend who was held-up and robbed in her church office, but stories like that are not common. I remind myself of Benedict’s instructions in Chapter 53 of the Rule, that every guest is to be received just as Christ would be, “for he will say I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
This has been on my mind after the tragedy at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina last week, when the community gathered there welcomed a stranger into their prayer and study, and the stranger pulled out a gun and killed nine of those gathered. I keep thinking they were doing what was right, showing hospitality to a stranger. From what I understand the shooter even hesitated on following through with his plan because everyone there was nice to him. I thought, after hearing about the tragedy, “They did what Jesus asked us to do. They welcomed the stranger.”
Hospitality is part of monastic life. Most think of monks as those going away from the rest of the world, sort of the ultimate escape from the fuss and bother of the outside world. But built into Benedict’s Rule is this instruction that the door should be open to guests, and guests should be received just as it was Jesus entering the door. I’ve never asked, but I’m sure each monastery has some outlandish stories of chaos a particular guest brought to the place. I can imagine their open door policy welcomes in people and things they wish would stay far away. The door stays open, though. Whenever I call wanting to visit a monastery, the monks never quiz me on if I’m their type of person. If there is room, they just say, “Yes, you can come.”
I’m not there yet. I’d rather lock the door when I see a stranger coming up the walk to the church. I’d rather turn off the lights and hide when I see folks going door-to-door in the neighborhood. It’s trite but true to say that Jesus never promised us loving the world would be easy; he would know loving and speaking the truth to the world is a good way to get yourself killed. Showing welcome to whomever and whatever is outside our walls doesn’t guarantee they’ll love us back. It’s still our job to be the one to give welcome, whatever the results might be. The people at Emanuel AME and monks living under Benedict’s Rule show me a better way, where the stranger is welcomed and loved, even when he or she is an inconvenience or can do great harm.
"In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome." - Rule of St. Benedict