Tucked away in a short chapter of a very small book are a few wise words on receiving guests. Perhaps the author was unaware that his small book would shape centuries of Christian living, but his unflinching and pastoral look at the Christian life has captivated disciples of all ages. The author is St. Benedict of Nursia, and the book is his rule for a small monastery in the Italian Alps.
If you have read the Rule of St. Benedict before, you are familiar with its themes and the gentle admonishings offered by the author. Those who aren’t actively following his rule in monasteries glean patterns of life from his schedules of prayer and service. But there is one small chapter—not often mentioned—that catches my attention during every reading. And, surprisingly, it charmed my students as well.
Two years ago, I taught a small class entitled Ecclesiastical Literature. Simply put, we learned the history of the church through its greatest works. We began our journey with Paul in the New Testament, then explored the Early Church Fathers; we argued with Justin Martyr, we confessed with Augustine, and, of course, we discovered monasticism through St. Benedict. The rule was a much-welcomed relief for my students—especially after laboring through excerpts of City of God. But all of us soon realized that, though small, Benedict’s Rule pushed the boundaries of everything we assumed “living for Christ” meant.
Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” is no exception. Benedict begins simply: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Simple enough. Just think of everyone as Christ. Everyone?
He continues. In order to treat everyone like Christ, welcome these interruptions from strangers. Stop what you are doing and “meet him with all the courtesy of love.” Welcome interruptions?
Then, with no other background information on this said guest, address him or her with humility. Humility?
Of course, hospitality to Benedict is not a simple exchange of kind words at the door. Guests are to be taken in, prayed for, fed, and cared for. And not just anyone is suitable for this task: “The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely.” Wisdom?
Benedict describes hospitality in a way that goes a bit against my Southern roots. Hospitality in the south is sometimes considered a status symbol—are you the best host? Do you have sweet tea readily available for anyone who waltzes in? How is your dessert game? Did you think to buy some fresh flowers? Do your guests always feel oh-so-comfortable in your perfectly arranged living room?
And just like that, hospitality becomes connected with pride. There is nothing wrong with developing the skills of a good host, but the Southern host is often merely an entertainer. Benedict’s idea of a good host is encompassed in the virtue of humility. In fact, the abbot is commanded to wash the feet and hands of the guests, echoing that definitive act of Christ before the Last Supper.
But Monday morning rolls around, and teenagers stumble into our classrooms with excuses for late assignments and complaints about tomorrow’s project and gossip of today’s drama. Welcoming our students as if we were receiving Christ seems like a distant dream in moments such as these, and I no longer wonder about the vow of silence that monasteries often prescribe. But Lewis’s words come back to mind—and I remember that I am teaching no ordinary people, but immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
Assuming that St. Benedict’s words are edifying for teachers also assumes that students are, to a certain extent, pilgrims and strangers. And though teachers do spend large amounts of time with students, remembering that they are pilgrims is helpful. Students come into our lives for a short time, like pilgrims stopping at a monastery during a journey. And like travelers, they are seeking care and wisdom.
A similar scene is described in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean is finally free after nineteen years in prison, but he is rejected repeatedly because of his past crime. When he stumbles upon a bishop’s house, he is welcomed without question, fed, and clothed. What seems to affect him most is the lack of suspicion that the bishop has of him; instead, the bishop respects him and treats him as any other guest. The bishop’s attitude of humility, rather than suspicion, disrupts Jean Valjean’s assumptions and becomes a catalyst for change.
However, Jean Valjean ends up stealing silverware and leaving in the middle of the
night, desperate to provide for his future needs. When caught by police and taken back to the bishop’s house, the bishop claims he has given Jean Valjean the silverware, and tells him that he has forgotten the candlesticks as well. Valjean is amazed and confused at the bishop’s mercy, and vows to use this new wealth to live an honest life.
What is most pressing about this scene is not Valjean’s spiritual awakening or commitment to a new life—it is the fact that the bishop has something to offer Valjean that will benefit him for years to come. The bishop’s mercy cannot guarantee change in Valjean, but he offers what he has anyway. I think about this often in terms of the classroom; if our students are not remaining in the house of academia, do our lessons benefit them for life outside of collegiate endeavors? Are we modeling joy and confession and repentance? Do they see themselves in the texts we are reading? Do they see each other as made in God’s image? Are there things of worth in our classrooms that go beyond grades and transcripts?
The feast offered to my guests matters. I think through every possibility when hosting in my own home—why should it be any different in my classroom? If I can contemplate the pros and cons of tortilla soup or enchiladas with tomatillo sauce for an hour (you can tell I’m from San Antonio), considering what nutrition will be served in my classroom is well worth the effort. Am I providing something that nourishes my guests deeply for years to come, and not just for a number at the end of the semester? Do I have a vision that extends beyond the last day of school?
It seems that when we begin to view our students as guests, when we remember that they are on their own pilgrimages, when we let them join in the feast without suspicion, they return the favor. Just as a good guest returns the dinner invitation, some students begin adding to the hospitable classroom of their own accord: they serve the others, welcome others, are less suspicious of others.
May we humbly welcome pilgrims into our classrooms without suspicion, and may their interruptions give opportunity to provide feasts that nourish their souls.