Monastic Hospitality: A Way Forward After Covid

Over the last sixteen months, several of the saints have kept me company in my prayer. Some of these companions of mine will be familiar to you; others will be unknown. Each one of them has had something to teach me about monastic hospitality in this next phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In my prayer, I’ve been companioned by the Martyrs of Memphis – Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, and their co-workers The Reverends Charles Parsons and Louis Schuler – who lost their lives ministering to others during the Yellow Fever epidemic. 

Florence Nightingale and Mother Hannah Grier Coome (the Foundress of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine in Toronto) have also made their presence known to me these last months. What unites them is the nineteenth-century revolution in nursing, itself the direct result of war. Both women took nuns, not to the battlefield of their respective wars, but to military hospitals, where the experience of religious sisters had a profound impact on the wounded and dying, as well as on the officers and medical staff.

Another companion of mine these last months is perhaps a curious one: Julian of Norwich. Like us, Julian lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. The Black Death struck shortly after her birth, leaving up to half the population of her city of Norwich dead, and killing up to an estimated 200 million people in Europe, Eurasia, and North Africa. It would take centuries for the population of Europe to return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. This was the context for her incredible work, Revelations of Divine Love.

I’ve also been accompanied these many pandemic months by one from our great cloud of witnesses here at SSJE: Arthur Lee Ballard. Father Ballard came to SSJE from parish ministry in British Columbia and was clothed as a novice on Epiphany 1918. Almost immediately he was given permission to volunteer to work as a chaplain with the YMCA and was sent out to Mesopotamia. At the conclusion of the First World War, he returned to Cambridge, but by then he had already contracted chronic bronchitis. During the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1920 he came down with the flu and died on 8 February 1920. He was the first member of the Society to die in North America, one of an estimated 500 million people worldwide infected with the flu and one of the 20-50 million people who died from that epidemic.

My final companion is a deeply personal one: my grandmother Mavis [Addie] Koester. Grandma was born in Britain in 1897 and emigrated to Canada with her family in 1905. As a young woman of barely twenty, she began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on the Canadian prairie. Her generation of women knew both the tragedy of the killing fields of France during the First War, and the impact of the 1918-1920 Flu Epidemic. During the Flu Epidemic, Grandma exchanged her school bell for a nurse’s uniform, and the schoolhouse became a hospital for flu patients, whom she nursed. That experience lived with her for the rest of her life. Grandma was passionate about any number of things, among them was healthcare. She volunteered with the Victorian Order of Nurses, a visiting nurse association dedicated to homecare and social services. She was also, I would say, politically radicalized by that experience, and became a lifelong supporter and active member of Canada’s left wing social democratic party the CCF/NDP in Saskatchewan. It was the CCF who first introduced universal, single payer health care insurance to Saskatchewan in 1961, and which later in the 1960s was copied and introduced right across Canada.

Now you may think I am a long way from my topic of monastic hospitality after Covid, but I am not, because I believe that each of these companions of mine has something to say to us about the ministry of hospitality, and what people will be looking for in this world reshaped by Covid.

The first thing these companions of mine will tell us is that we have been here before, and unfortunately, we will be here again. Covid is just the latest pandemic, but in our lifetime alone we have already seen SARS, AIDS, Polio, Ebola, Swine Flu, and more. While we are all eager to begin embracing any return to “normalcy” that this next phase of the Covid pandemic allows, it is also important to remember that we have been here before, and we will be here again. All my companions tell us that – from Grandma to Father Ballard, to Mother Hannah and Florence Nightingale, to the Martyrs of Memphis, to Julian of Norwich. We have been here before, and we will be here again.

I believe that the most significant thing we will be facing in the years to come – yes, the years to come – is a crisis of grief. While I could not have named it as a ten year old, aware that my grandmother lived through both World War I and the Flu Epidemic, I believe that she lived with a degree of grief from those experiences for the rest of her life.

You may have seen Allison Gilbert’s opinion piece recently in The New York Times, “The Grief Crisis is Coming.” In it, Gilbert estimates that for every death from Covid, nine people are bereaved. We have passed the 668,000 mark here in the US and the 27,000 mark in Canada. It is estimated that over 226 million individuals worldwide have contracted the virus and more than 4.6 million have died. 

Based on Gilbert’s estimate – that for every death, there are nine people grieving – that amounts to an enormous amount of grief. Yet her estimate considers only immediate family members. If extended family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers are included in the calculation, the number becomes astronomical. The toll is made even starker when you realize that at least 40,000 children in the United States alone – and 2 million children worldwide – have lost at least one parent to Covid. The grief these children carry will impact not only their mental and emotional health, but also their education, and that will have a ripple effect on their jobs, housing, and income for the rest of their lives.

Even this dismal summary considers only the grief caused by death. Beyond bereavement, the emotional toll of the past fifteen months is incalculable. Think of the grandparents who have missed out on over a year of their grandchildren’s lives; of the children whose educations will be marked, and indeed marred, for the rest of their lives; of the countless people who live alone and who have not been hugged in over a year; of those who have recovered from the virus, but who now live with Post-Covid Syndrome; of the people who have lost their employment, health insurance, secure housing. Think also of the emotional strain we have all been under, even under the best of circumstances, both as individuals, households, and communities. As we inch back toward “normal,” we must acknowledge that the intense emotional and mental health impact of Covid will last for decades. 

I’ve been thinking and praying about all of this with my Brothers, as we ponder the next steps for our community. While we are not yet at the point where we can safely open our doors to guests as we did before the pandemic, we are preparing for what we will face when we do. We recognize that literally everyone who comes through our doors – indeed everyone with whom we come into contact in the next years – will be grieving, and we will need to make space for that. Moving ahead, the ministry of hospitality will be about making a safe and welcoming space for grief.

On hospitality, our Rule teaches: “[just] as we enrich our guests’ lives, so they enrich ours. We welcome men and women of every race and culture, rejoicing in the breadth and diversity of human experience that they bring to us. Their lives enlarge our vision of God’s world. The stories of their sufferings and achievements and their experience of God stir and challenge us. If we are attentive, each guest will be a word and gift of God to us” (Ch. 34). 

This last phrase is perhaps the most significant for a consideration of post-pandemic hospitality. In order to open a space for grief, and to welcome each guest as “a word and gift of God to us, whose stories of their sufferings…[will] stir and challenge us,” we will need first to make a space for our own grief. When we can do that, others will see in us an authenticity which allows them to be vulnerable in return. A willingness to be honest about our own grief will make it possible for others to share their grief with us. So, it may be that right now, wherever we are in the process of reopening, we are being invited to take time to pray, and even befriend, our own grief.

Part of praying our grief is being friends with death. Saint Benedict instructs us to “live in fear of judgement day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die … And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy.” As Christians, it is our relationship with death that allows us to sit with grief. Modeling this relationship with death is, perhaps, one of the great gifts that monastics have to offer the Church. Our Rule reminds us Brothers:

We are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial. Paradoxically, only those who remember that they are but dust, and to dust they shall return, are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment and receiving ever fresh the good news of hope. The anticipation of death is essential if we are to live each day to the full as a precious gift, and rise to the urgency of our vocation as stewards who will be called to give account at Christ’s coming. Remembering that death can come to us at any time will spur us to be prepared, by continual renewal of our repentance and acceptance of the forgiveness of God, to meet Christ without warning. We shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation.

Week by week we are to accept every experience that requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life. Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us (Ch. 48). 

The gift of being friends with death is only made possible because our lives are rooted in baptismal hope. In Baptism, we all have died with Christ and been raised with him. This is true for all Christian, not just for monastics, though monastics are perhaps called to embrace this aspect of our Christian vocation in a unique way. We can sit with death because our lives are rooted in hope. 

It was at a time like ours, filled with death and unrest, that Julian received her Revelations, and wrote with such confidence about the mercy, grace, and love of God. In the face of it all, Julian wrote those famous words, “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” That I believe, is another mark of monastic hospitality in a post-Covid world: confidence that indeed all shall be well. Such a confidence as Julian’s grasped both the reality of sin and the promise of God who will make all things new (Rev. 21:5). 

A life of hope accepts the paradoxical reality of the promise of resurrection life without denying the cruelty of death, for we believe that the One who is resurrection and life is the same as the one who wept at the tomb of his friend (John 11). Grief and hope are not in opposition. They are companions. This paradox will be a mark of sacred hospitality in the years to come. Our churches, parishes, retreat centers, and monasteries need to be places of hope and grief: firmly grounded by the reality of death, faithfully pointing to the hope of resurrection.

It is the power of hope – rooted not in wishful thinking, but in the reality of Christ crucified, dead, buried, and risen – that is the core of our faith. This hope will calm our fears, comfort our grief, and reveal to us the risen, yet still wounded Christ, who speaks to us the resurrection greeting: “Peace” (Luke 24: 36; John 20:19; John 20:21; John 20:26). 

This work will change us. Following their experience of war, and social and political upheaval, Florence Nightingale and Mother Hannah did not retire to nice quiet lives. They returned home with a passion to change things. Like my grandmother, they spent the rest of their lives addressing the burning issues of their day. So too for us. This work will change us, even radicalize us. We will not be able simply to return to doing things the way they have always been done. If we do, we will lose an opportunity to meet the Risen Christ who always travels ahead of us, and not behind us. 

Lastly, we must continue to be people of prayer and intercession. The Martyrs of Memphis were able to give their lives, not because they were heroic – although they were – but because they were faithful to their life of prayer. 

So, what might hospitality look like after Covid? It will be shaped by – and need to respond to – grief, loss, trauma, and dislocation. It will have the power to change, convert, and challenge us in ways we cannot now even begin to imagine. It will be rooted in hope and prayer. It will befriend death. And through it, we will continue to meet the Risen Christ, present in all who come to us, bringing us his promised “Peace.” 

An abbreviated version of this article was published on Earth & Altar on July 14, 2021. Br. James also delivered an early version of this as an address to an assembly of religious leaders gathered virtually for the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas/National Association of Episcopal Christian Communities via Zoom from April 19 – 23. 

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