Receiving Guests as Christ: Inspiration from Two Monasteries
"Their life's not natural!" a relative exclaimed when the subject of monks came up. Those few words made it clear that the monks' lifestyle had nothing to teach us.
Yet along the way, natural or not, I began visiting monasteries. After twenty years, I have seen many. They are wonderful places to experience hospitality, to go on retreat, and to find inspiration to pray. Gradually, 1 also grew to appreciate monastic worship.
In the summer of 2000, courtesy of a Louisville Institute Grant, I had the privilege of visiting two monasteries. The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is four decades old. It's in a New Mexican desert at the end of a thirteen-mile clay road that is impassable whenever it rains. St. John's Abbey, a century-and-a-half in age, is situated on a huge, lushly green campus in Minnesota.
Although their locations and ages are different, they have a lot in common. What especially struck me is how hospitable both are in worship. Both take worship seriously. (For many decades St. John's has been a leading international influence in liturgical renewal.) Service after service impresses a visitor with beauty, solemnity, reverence, and holy joy worthy of giving praise to our awesome God.
I came away from week-long visits in both places with a deep commitment to helping others find ways to adore and praise God that are appropriate to God's holiness and also give due respect to newcomers, visitors, and seekers.
Praying for Visitors
Perhaps the most important thing monks do at Christ in the Desert is to pray for visitors. At many monasteries, monks pray for guests while they are on retreat. But here they pray for them in the services. Upon visitors' arrival, the monks name them in prayer, thanking God for their presence and safe arrival, invoking God for their retreat, and asking God's help for whatever needs guests bring. Just before visitors leave, the monks pray for them again, asking God for traveling mercies.
Our church always says a special welcome to visitors at the beginning of the service. And we do a pretty good job of greeting people before and after worship. Some churches make sure to personally greet visitors in worship or ask them to register their presence. But why do we not pray for visitors? Isn't prayer an ultimate act of hospitality and blessing? In an age of spiritual seeking, the simple act of praying for someone is a great gift indeed.
Monastic services can be confusing. They might use several different books in any one service (prayer book, Psalter, hymnal). In fact, I have visited one particular monastery for twenty years and still sometimes get confused in worship!
Our church services can be mysterious and confusing too. In my last church, hymnals and Bibles were placed under the chairs in such a way that they were impossible to see when worshipers sat! So we tried to orient people to the service and where to find hymnals before our service. Sometimes we did better at this than other times. Others times well-meaning ushers were just too bashful to be helpful!
At St. John's, a monk is assigned at every service to ensure that visitors are shown precisely which books will be used in the service and where to find the prayers, Scriptures, and hymns. At Christ in the Desert, worship leaders clearly announce every page number.
At Christ in the Desert, I noticed that monks not only tolerate but welcome latecomers. Rules for the monks are strict; their lives are regulated by frequent worship services, as many as seven a day. When the bell rings for worship, they are supposed to drop whatever they are doing and go to church. Tardiness is a matter of serious discipline.
But when a guest came in late, a monk detached himself from the choir and approached the newcomer, helping him find where we were in the worship service.
In a previous congregation I served, we tried orienting people before worship—but if you came late, it was your problem. Sink or swim. What a powerful witness, in our time-obsessed culture, to welcome latecomers and help them settle in and be at home in worship!
One morning at Christ in the Desert, I witnessed an astounding example of this gracious treatment. A college group had spent the night. During morning prayers and communion, the most important and elaborate service of the day, students kept drifting in through the whole service. With their unwieldy backpacks and noisy nylon jackets, their presence was disruptive. Yet even thirty minutes into the service, the monks continued to help students as they arrived. During all of this, the solemn flow of worship continued uninterrupted.
Worship in a Catholic monastery includes many rituals. On certain occasions, the monks waft incense around the room, even over the worshipers. And every evening, before retiring to bed, the monks remember their baptism when the Abbot sprinkles them with water. During communion, worshipers pass the peace to each other.
In many monasteries, these rituals focus on monks. While incense is wafted over the whole monastic choir, one or two little formal swings of the censer are directed at guests. While every single monk is touched by drops of water, only a few drops of water are flung over all the guests, no matter how many. While monks heartily exchange the peace, guests might be dutifully greeted by one monk.
But not at Christ in the Desert. There the censer and the water are carried up and down the entire aisle. No visitor escapes the smell of incense or the spray of water drops. During my visit, a number of monks invaded the guests' space and offered warm handshakes and hugs, along with words of blessing and prayer, during the passing of the peace.
The lesson is obvious: worship practices can exclude or include. Both Christ in the Desert and St. John's are gracious in their use of language about people. Monasteries rely on ancient and traditional services. Given that history and the fact that monks are male, many prayers have lots of language referring to "brothers."
Female friends often tell me how hard it is to hear language that only refers to males. Inclusive language is a simple but significant and meaningful way to be hospitable, just, and caring. At these two monasteries, the word brother is always followed by and sister. The monks make every effort to use language that includes both genders.
Both monasteries made sure to arrange seating in a way that made guests feel welcomed. In most monasteries, guests sit apart from monks. At Christ in the Desert, the monks arrange movable chairs to look like an extension of the monks' chairs. Guests are not segregated onlookers. At St. John's the monks always set aside a section of "choir seats" (where monks sit) for guests. So visitors are actually temporary monks, sitting in exactly the same kinds of seats, surrounded by monks, and joining fully in the prayers and hymns.
In our congregations, visitors may not know where they are welcome to sit. Here too we have much to learn.
Attitude of Excellence
The attitude of the monks in both monasteries was inviting as well. It was clear that they take their services seriously, as highly formal occasions. But it was also clear that people enjoyed themselves. While earnest about God and worship, they were more lighthearted about themselves. At Christ in the Desert, things didn't always go exactly right: sometimes people sang out of tune or got mixed up during a recessional. But when that happened, the monks just gently smiled at each other and pressed on. Such a spirit encouraged me to enter more deeply into the spirit of their worship.
What Is Their Secret?
It does not surprise me that monks take worship seriously. They regard prayer as the most important-thing they do. They spend hours every day in prayer, attending more services in a day than most of us do in a month.
But it did surprise me to see how well they treated guests. What is their secret? How did they manage to learn that worship can be both consecrated to God's glory and welcoming to visitors, when so many other Christians fail to strike a meaningful balance here?
1 believe there are two key factors, First, monasteries have a well-established liturgical history. They are secure and certain enough about what they do and what is important that they can be flexible and available for others. Contrary to what some might say, tradition is not a hindrance but a help.
Second, monasteries have a key spiritual and theological insight about hospitality. In the sixth century, a monk named Benedict wrote a set of guidelines that many monasteries have followed ever since, the Rule of St. Benedict. According to Benedict, "All guests who arrive should be received as Christ." In other words, wc do not worship God only in the sanctuary but also in how we treat strangers. Benedictine hospitality suggests even more: in some way Christ is present in our guests, and how we receive them is also an act of worship for God.
Benedict derived his idea from Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches his disciples about hospitality: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." I pray that all our worship may more fully reflect worthy adoration of our heavenly God, who can be welcomed in the stranger who enters our worship space.