Lessons in Hospitality from St. Benedict

Summer always feels to me to be a season set apart. My children aren’t in school yet, and I’m not a teacher so my working hours don’t change dramatically, but even so, our routines and rhythms tend to shift from June to August each year. On top of the concrete schedule changes — we stay awake a little later, we eat meals outside more often, we’re all a bit more inclined to take a late afternoon nap — there is a distinct set of summer activities and indulgences that fill our treasure chests of memory and current delight: afternoons at the pool, meals full of garden produce, tall glasses of iced tea and lemonade, popsicles on the porch, windows open overnight, chalk drawings covering our sidewalks.

Yes, summer has a magical aura about it, crafted through simple yet special traditions, and it’s a time of the year that I’ll likely always anticipate with eagerness.

One aspect of summer that I most look forward to each year is seeing more of family and friends. This includes everything from vacations with extended family members to neighborhood cookouts to evenings at the park with local acquaintances to hosting out-of-town loved ones when they include our town and home in their summer travels. While many of these gatherings are informal and don’t necessarily involve much effort on my part (all it takes to enjoy a park evening with friends is wrangling my children into their car seats), it’s my belief that any sort of social gathering benefits from an eye towards hospitality.

Hospitality is nothing more or less than the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, whether they be beloved visitors or total strangers. While it’s most often thought of as being offered in one’s home, good hospitality has no defined borders, and so with the influx of social activities that summer entails, I have the virtue of hospitality on my mind. I have been thinking a lot about efforts that I can make to deepen the hospitality that I extend.

As Catholics, we have an excellent model of hospitality to look towards in the person of St. Benedict. While the Italian monk, writer, and theologian might be best known for founding a religious order (and indeed, Western monasticism as a whole), he also happens to be an expert in hospitality. In his The Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot, St. Benedict devotes an entire chapter to the topic of hospitality, or what he calls “The Reception of Guests.”

Here are some pointers for good hospitality that I am planning to adopt during this season, from St. Benedict himself (in the 53rd chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict):

“Proper honor must be shown to all”

First and foremost, St. Benedict makes clear that all guests — familiar or complete strangers — be shown the “courtesy of love.” I take this as an invitation to generosity of spirit and a sense of expansiveness when extending care and concern to the people who cross my social path. For instance, if I arrange a park gathering with a few families and bring a cut up watermelon or cookies to share, these treats shouldn’t simply be for the people I know. Just like my children will invite other (unknown) kids to play with them on the swings and slides, I can show honor to all who are present by passing around the cookie plate.

“Pray together”

My family prays together before each meal, but sometimes I feel awkward about whether or not to keep up the practice when we have house guests who aren’t from our faith background. St. Benedict encourages me to stick with it. Our guests may or may not be able to recite “Bless us O Lord” with the members of our family, but who am I to foreclose the possibility of them being blessed through our prayer?

“Sit with them”

St. Benedict explicitly states that the superior or an appointed brother should sit with a guest after they have prayed together, and I take this direction to mean that adequate time and attention should be given to the people who enter my home. As someone who often thinks of hospitality in terms of the tangible goods shared (a delicious meal, a tidy house, a comfy bed), my attention often feels torn between being with a guest and doing for a guest. St. Benedict (and Mary, from the Martha & Mary story in scripture, for that matter) make it clear that being with is the answer. This doesn’t mean that I should neglect offering a yummy dinner or a clean bathroom, but rather that I just need to do adequate preparation before the arrival of a guest so as to be able to sit with them once they arrive. In other words, preparation is an aspect of hospitality.

“Every kindness is shown”

This may be my favorite hospitality tip from St. Benedict. After the specific instructions of praying with guests and sitting with them, St. Benedict offers this “catch all” of sorts. To me, it’s saying, “Go out of your way, and above and beyond, to extend warmth, love and care for the people who grace your home.” This is all the details of hospitality: keeping a wide variety of beverages on hand and offering them to guests graciously; playing soothing or festive music in the background; lighting candles; pulling out toys for the children; asking thoughtful questions and really listening to the replies; and affirming your guests and helping them feel good about themselves.

“Pour water on the hands of the guests”

Okay, this one requires a bit of translation. In this day and age of running water, I am not suggesting that we accompany our guests to the kitchen sink and wash their hands for them upon their arrival. What I am suggesting is that we show our guests the service and humility that St. Benedict instructed his monks to show theirs. In the 6th century, this looked like washing the hands and feet of guests; today, it could look like anything from carrying their bags in from the car and up the stairs for them, to rearranging the deck furniture throughout an evening so that the sun is never in our backyard companions’ eyes. The point is to put the guests’ needs above our own and to offer humble service throughout the course of their stay with us.

St. Benedict understood that hospitality is a way to share the love of Christ with the guests who pass throughout our doors. May this summer provide us with opportunities to shower the people whom we encounter in our day-to-day lives with attention, care and service.

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