Welcoming the Guest, the Stranger, and the Pilgrim

A Conversation on Hospitality in the Renovated Guesthouse with Jonathan Maury, SSJE

Q: With the recent renovation of the Monastery, what physical changes have been made to the buildings that will affect the way guests are welcomed?

The Chapel, Guesthouse, and public areas of the Monastery have been made fully accessible to those with special needs by the addition of improved hand-railings at all entrance stairs and a wheelchair lift at the Chapel entrance. Other lifts and ramps allow visitors to move about most areas without using stairs: to accessible restrooms; to the common room and conference rooms of the Guesthouse; to the conference space and offices in the undercroft; and to meals in the refectory through an inviting, all-year receiving room on the newly glassed-in cloister. Former “pass-through” areas are now within the mo­nastic enclosure as originally intended. These changes will allow the Brothers to welcome guests more comfortably, allevi­ating the awkwardness often experienced through unclear boundaries between public and private space.

Further changes have been made in the Guesthouse to increase accessibil­ity and enhance privacy for our resident guests. The first-floor guestrooms (in­cluding one designed for wheelchair use) are in close proximity to fully accessible bathrooms, allowing us to host at least two people with special needs at any given time. We’ve also made changes to the bathroom facilities on the upper floors: each bathroom entrance opens onto a small corridor leading to three fully-enclosed, individual units with toilet, lavatory sink, and shower. All these changes to physical spaces will aid both guests and Brothers in maintaining inner silence and their sense of presence before God.

Q: What is the theological significance of these physical changes?

We say in our SSJE Rule of Life, “The source of hospitality is the heart of God who yearns to unite every creature with­in one embrace.” The physical changes to the buildings serve as an outward sign of our call to live more deeply the truest kind of hospitality, to ourselves become a sacrament of God’s heart, to offer a welcome which shares in God’s inten­tion and desire for each and every man, woman, and child as images and like­nesses of God. The Rule further teaches that, “Our faith must recognize the one who comes to us in the person of the guest, the stranger and the pilgrim. It is the Lord, who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers.” The renovations challenge us to expand our understanding of this each—to wel­come all in Christ’s name and recognize Christ’s presence in each guest, regard­less of gender, age, race, class, sexual orientation, or physical limitation. By making these physical changes, we hope to better learn how to welcome each person equally, eliminating obstacles which might keep any from crossing our threshold and entering sacred space.

Q: How is hospitality characterized in the Gospel?

The Gospel message is a proclamation of God’s hospitality, of God’s inten­tion to gather all people into one, of the divine desire for humanity to live in harmony with the whole creation, that all people may know how infinitely loved they are as children of God. Jesus is encountered in the Gospel narra­tive as guest and as host, in both roles implicit in the practice of hospitality. At the homes and occasions to which he is invited, the Lord comes as a guest to embody the healing, forgiving, and reconciling message of the Gospel. With his disciples, with multitudes in the wilderness, or teaching in synagogue and street, Jesus is present as host at table. From the table of God’s word or of created bounty, Jesus provides what is truly needful and offers himself as the Bread of Life. To any who come to him seeking it, Jesus provides sustenance, both without question or the making of any distinctions. He bids his disciples, as guest or host, to act as he does, and turns the work over to them.

In our ministry of hospitality to others, we Brothers are invited to share in this Gospel work. Always mindful that we ourselves are the Lord’s guests, we are hosts to others who join us at table, either in worship at the altar or at meals in the refectory. A renovation change made to this aspect of our min­istry is the addition of a refectory and small kitchen on the lower level of the Guesthouse. With their own spaces in which to take breakfast in silence, both guests and Brothers can more readily feed on the fruits of morning worship and meditation.

Q: What is the connection between the Brothers’ enclosed and vowed life and the ministry of hospitality?

Monastic life has always been character­ized by the creative tension between solitude and engagement reflected in the life and teaching of Jesus. In order to nurture both of these gifts in our life together in God, we Brothers maintain private enclosure space and hold it as essential to the life of prayer from which all of our individual and corporate ministries flow. The practice of enclo­sure, through appropriate personal and community boundaries, in turn teaches us how to offer guests similar spaces of security and privacy in which to meet God. Enclosure actually helps to create a ministry of hospitality in which we are intentional about the ways we engage with guests, allowing them also to be fully present to the love of God in soli­tude. Our honoring of boundaries in the practice of enclosure becomes a mutual gift between host and guest, enriching our times of engagement in fellowship.

The living of our monastic vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience also flows directly into the hospitality we seek to share. Our vows are a time-tested way of living the vows of baptism shared by all Christians. While with us, guests have an opportunity to befriend their “inner monastic.” On retreat, guests learn of their spiritual poverty as they allow God to provide for their needs, material and spiritual. In making themselves totally available to God in prayer and worship, retreatants experi­ence the gift of celibacy, their “one-ness” before God. And as guests share with us in the rhythm of prayer and worship in silence, they learn to practice obedi­ence, which is, in essence, to listen with open hearts to God.

The Rule teaches us that, “The gift of silence we seek to cherish is chiefly the silence of adoring love for the mys­tery of God which words cannot express. In silence we pass through the bounds of language to lose ourselves in wonder. In this silence we learn to revere ourselves also; since Christ dwells in us we too are mysteries that cannot be fathomed, before which we must be silent until the day we come to know as we are known.” The practice of silence opens a spiritual window through which we may each contemplate the unique nature of our redemption in Christ. So we invite our guests to join us in the Greater Silence, the twelve night hours when we refrain from conversation, and the only words spoken are those of corporate worship. Through solitude and silence, we invite guests to move into that “new day” when they will fully know themselves as the beautiful mysteries which they are before God. Such silent solitude nur­tures in us greater mutual transparency and compassion, by connecting us to that primacy of the love of God which is the foundation of all life.
We hope that people who come to the Monastery will experience how God invites us all into regular patterns in our daily lives, including the rhythm of engagement and silence, community and solitude.

Q: Does any particular personal experience in your life shape the way you step again into the role of Guest Brother?

When I first visited the Monastery, I experienced the trepidation which I remembered from my childhood experi­ence of beginning school. All seemed so new and unknown. But my reception as a guest was so warm and welcoming that I was soon at ease, with a sense of being “at home.” As I again take up the ministry of Guest Brother, I feel blessed by the opportunity to offer others what was offered to me when I came here those thirty years ago—a welcome and inclusion which becomes an occasion for celebrating the new life we have in Christ. This doesn’t necessarily mean speaking of things “religious.” But it does mean being open to the initiation of a new and unique relationship which reflects the boundless hospitality of God.

Q: We’ve talked a lot about how the Brothers hope to offer hospitality. What do the Brothers receive by welcoming guests?

When we have guests on retreat in the house, I often experience the depth of intention and love in their practice of prayer as pure grace. The quality of the silence which we Brothers practice to­gether is, in many ways, deeper and more intense—and more relaxed—when we have guests who are seeking God along­side us. Even alone in our own cells and other places of prayer, we are strength­ened by solidarity with our guests. In this awareness, I experience anew the wondrous interplay of solitude and com­munity, of enclosure and welcome, which undergirds and renews our vocation. Our guests enrich our common life in ways which they will likely never know, simply by choosing to accept Christ’s invitation to be with us for a time.

Each of us Brothers was drawn to become a member of the Society in a particular way but for the same reason: We were called to experience the love of Christ here, in the life we share with one another in community and through the presence of our guests. Christ who dwells in our guests comes to meet Christ who dwells in us. There is a reciprocal grace in the welcome offered, for it is Christ who both speaks and receives it. Hospitality is true mutuality in the Spirit. As we usher our guests into silence and prayer through the ministry of hospitality, they become instrumental for our journey into and final welcome home by God.