Listen in on the full conversation, or read an excerpt below!
Jim: What has been happening in vocations since you took over the role of Vocations Brother in the spring?
Lucas: When I first took on this role, we were at the stage where we could begin to imagine having Inquirers visit in person again. The Brothers had just been fully vaccinated, so we could think about that again. We had roughly ten men who were inquiring into our life, and only one of them had come on an Inquirer’s visit already. The rest had been with us just through the pandemic and had never been here before. First, we hosted a virtual “Come & See” visit for them, all online, which went very well. And then we invited them on a series of in-person Inquirers’ visits over the summer. These visits were the first time we had people in the Guesthouse since the pandemic began!
A year before the pandemic, I was invited by the Episcopal bishop of Colombia, the Rt. Rev. Francisco Duque, to spend some time in his diocese, and to live alongside his clergy and people. It was a wonderful experience, above all because I was received with such hospitality. “Mi casa es su casa” is a phrase I heard everywhere I went: “My home is your home.”
As I have reflected on my time in Colombia, and prayed with these beautiful words of welcome, I have come to see how hospitality lies at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul proclaims that because of Christ, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but members of God’s household.” That word “household” really means God’s “family” or God’s “home.” It promises that we who were once strangers have now been welcomed to live in God’s home forever. For St. Paul, Christ’s dying on the Cross for us is the most wonderful expression of God’s love for us, and the most radical expression of God’s extraordinary hospitality.
When the pandemic first struck, we Brothers had been in the middle of a year of facilitated community discussions, an exploration of all aspects of our life that we had dubbed “Renewing Our Foundations.” Over the last year, as we’d explored our history, we had marveled at the missionary zeal of our founder, Richard Meux Benson, and our forebears in The Society, as they began to travel to the United States, India, and South Africa. Fr. Benson had a vision for ministry that blended catholic tradition to the evangelical impulse within the Anglican church renewal initiated in Oxford. 150 years later, we stood in the present, looking at our past, praying about our future: What is the mission field for us? And, what exactly is the mission? It was then that, as for the rest of the world, we felt the rug pulled out from under us by Covid-19, leaving us disoriented, confused, and seemingly lost.
If we had felt uncertain about our future “mission field” before, it was only more complicated now, under the new (and ever-shifting) pandemic rules. How long would this shutdown last? How would this change our worship? How would we be able to give retreats when we were unable to travel to parishes or host groups in our Guesthouse? How would our staff be able to continue the daily business that enables our ministry, while keeping them and their families safe? And finally, since we meet Christ in everyone who comes through our doors: how will we meet Christ when those doors must remain closed?
Empty seats. Fewer voices. We miss our guests gathered round the altar, the dining table, and staying alongside us in the Guesthouse. With the in-person absence, we’ve been stripped back to basics, including the essence of hospitality and who we are as guests to one another. I have found it a good reminder.
Hospitality is about offering our hearts. It is being present to another. It does not need a table, food, or any particular place. It is taking time and giving intention. Hospitality can be spontaneous and anywhere, on the street, in a store, and on Zoom. It’s not about fresh flowers, folded napkins, or swept floors. It’s not trying to entertain or impress you with my stuff. Hospitality is a generous attending of ear and eye, a healing beholding. With few options for giving the extra touches I had previously enjoyed, I have become more aware of different ways of both giving and receiving hospitality, especially on Zoom.
I am a better host than guest. It’s easier for me to give than receive. A lesson I keep learning is that we are all God’s guests, especially in what appears to be our home. We Brothers are here not only for what we can give but also in order to receive. Jesus touches everyone who comes under this roof whether for a night, a week, a year, or a lifetime. From receiving, we can give. We keep being invited to stop clinging, to let go and, despite our resistances, to receive love.
Relationships and community outside the Monastery sustain me especially because I can be a guest. With some friends, this includes staying in their homes and eating at their tables. Being listened to by friends and professionals – and participating in groups that I do not host or teach – prompts me to receive. That doesn’t mean I no longer actively listen, but the mutuality or focus is different. Those experiences energize and prompt me to further reach out to others.
“Put one hand on your heart and reach out the other hand to the screen,” Lisa said near the beginning of our online gathering. “We are connected to each other. Thank you for being present today in this group body.” As I reached out my hand, I was surprised to see other faces light up and my own smile widen as I felt my beating heart and gazed at relative strangers through Zoom.
For a year, I was part of an InterPlay small group Lisa facilitated. Playing and witnessing each other was refreshing each week. Experiencing meaningful connections like this on Zoom encouraged me to experiment in my own teaching. I have invited many folks to touch their hearts and reach out to others, a different passing the peace.
When I get to greet guests in person and as I continue to host on Zoom, I will also renew my prayerful understanding of being God’s guest and keep practicing receiving from others. The essence of hospitality has power to transform us all. I look forward to being with you, turning toward you, heart to heart.
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.
Jesus was vilified because of his seemingly-indiscriminate eating habits. One issue was what he was eating, and whether this compromised the Jewish dietary laws. More significant was with whom he was eating: with everyone. Though I don’t think Jesus was “a glutton and drunkard,” as he was branded by his detractors, he did not spurn a feast. Jesus shared many-a-meal, and used the occasions of feeding and feasting, of gardening and farming, as venues and symbols for much of his teaching.
If you read the scriptures with an eye for food, drink, and feasts, you will hardly miss a page. The scriptures begin in the garden of Eden, full of “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind” (Genesis 1:11). The Scriptures end with the promise of a banquet in heaven (Isaiah 25:6; Luke 14:15). In between the beginning and the end are countless stories about people hungering, panting after, thirsting, longing for both the food of this earth and what Jesus calls “the bread of heaven,” food that will last forever. We often have a taste of both from the same table.
Hospitality Over the Years at SSJE
I am one of the lucky ones who has experienced hospitality at the hands of the Society for nearly fifty years now. It was as a young Masters student at Harvard Divinity School in the Fall semester of 1973 (recently arrived from a first degree in Theology from Cambridge University), that I first stepped most tentatively over the threshold of the Chapel for a Tuesday evening student Mass (they were new then, and controversial), and entered for the first time the strangely evocative colors and transcendent atmosphere of the Ralph Adams Cram Chapel. My own mood that evening, I should say, was not promising: I had been more or less ‘shoo-ed’ in by a former teacher at Cambridge who had insisted that I visit the Monastery; and I had hoped to satisfy his insistence with a light-hearted post-card confirming that I had done what he had asked, and then sign off for good. I was then in a late-adolescent phase of (to say the least) almost obsessive rational deconstruction of the faith. But something caused me to come back, increasingly for the early morning weekday Masses where no conversation was required, but simply quiet and prayer. ‘Hospitality’ in those days at the Monastery, then, was for me nothing less than eucharistic hospitality, in all its multivalent, symbolic power: to quote Oliver Goldsmith, I “came to scoff, and remained to pray.” I had little converse with the brethren at that time (not least because, in those days, they all seemed quite terrified of women!). But perhaps it is important to note, out of this memory, that Christian hospitality can transcend social interaction of the worldly sort in all kinds of wordless ways, and do so in a way that plants the seeds of the gospel deeply in the soul.
Fast forward twenty years from that first encounter with SSJE, and I was back at Harvard as a professor of theology, encountering fresh personal difficulties as Harvard Divinity School struggled to decide whether or not it would be a genuinely Christian, ministerial institution, and if so, of what sort. New and important friendships were built with the community at that time; and I recall, with deep gratitude, the then-superior’s ‘hospitable’ insight in sizing up my rather desperate state of soul and offering me a place of refuge in the Guesthouse every Friday morning in term-time, just for three precious hours of quiet and prayer, reflection, and re-balancing. I came and went wordlessly, again, and without even ruffling a quilt in the room to which I had been assigned! Once more, it is hard to assess what this ‘hospitality’ connoted; but I do know it spoke to depths that were largely beyond words. The same was true when I visited the Monastery trans-atlantically a few years ago for Midday Office and lunch, whilst en route to an academic conference: one of the senior brethren came over, welcomed me, and gently reminded me of the right place in the office book; something about his loving demeanor touched a place in me that was in need, at the time, of healing, and it was profoundly affecting.
What, then, can we conclude theologically about what Christian hospitality connotes in these desperate days of pandemic, cultural and political anxiety, and deep fear of face-to-face encounter? Others in this issue of Cowley make many apposite and important and practical remarks, but here is what I’d like to add in closing, for what it’s worth.
Perhaps it is always good to remind ourselves that Jesus’s views on hospitality were almost completely inverse to what the world now (and also then) assumed: Christian hospitality is not about social control and stratification (see Luke 14:7-24), but about openness to surprise and even displacement: why else would angels come at one “unawares” (see Gen 18:2, Heb 13:2), and with such significant divine impact? True Christian hospitality, that is, is deeply inconvenient, humanly speaking, and therein lies its power beyond human words – it represents the space where God, with unique generosity, does something that only God can do. Learning how to lean into this divine generosity is a life-time’s endeavour for us all; but it has always been a particular charism of the SSJE, and these days they are learning once more how to do it afresh.
Sarah Coakley served as Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, 1995-2008, and Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, 2008-2019. She is now assisting priest and theologian in residence in the parish of St Monica and St James, Capitol Hill, DC.
September usually brings with it a return to routine, which for us normally means a reopening of both the Guesthouse and the Chapel after their closure in August. Not so this year. Like so many routines of the past, done almost as a matter of course in other times, these two markers of the fall are anything but routine this year. Our Guesthouse remains closed, and the Chapel, at least for now, is open only for the Sunday Eucharist. As it is for all of you, our routines continue to be anything but routine now, as we reinvent our life day by day.
One of the things which we have had to reinvent is our understanding of the monastic virtue of hospitality. Our Rule reminds us that people are yearning deeply for “the things of God.” Before the pandemic we knew exactly how to offer that to those who came under our roof, through silence, worship, safety, fellowship, security, prayer, beauty, courtesy, acceptance, intercession, guidance, teaching, and encouragement. These are all the things which our Rule tells us are markers of our ministry of hospitality. The difficulty is that the Rule assumes these are done in person, and face-to-face! Now that much of that ministry is online, how can those same markers of hospitality be made tangible virtually? As we have shifted our ministry of hospitality online, our hope is that some of the markers which we value, and you cherish, are just as tangible as they are when you are here in person.