Having made my first promises in 2002 (after three years of dallying), I will this upcoming September celebrate seventeen years as a fully professed Benedictine Oblate. I’m sure my Holy Father Saint Benedict is rolling his eyes, rather unimpressed. After all these years, I can’t say I’m an impressive Benedictine, and I am sure he asks from heaven, “Have you gotten that Rule down yet?”
Erm, well, no, Father. Not yet. Especially not that part about receiving all guests as Christ. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’” (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53).
I became a Benedictine, rather than a Secular Franciscan, because my instincts have always been to the quiet side of life. I have always preferred prayerful contemplation and reading to almost anything else, and my instinct has always run toward the decidedly monastic-to-hermitish over the social. Franciscans, like their Father Francis, are much too jolly and prone toward get-togethers and celebrations. As an Oblate—with my own monastery hundreds of miles away, and no other Oblates living nearby, to my knowledge—there is little chance of my being invited to a mixer.
It’s not that I don’t like people. Generally speaking, I do like people; I think they’re funny, interesting, and mostly well-intended. I just don’t like being around them very much, and increasingly I wish I could communicate with everyone via Skype or internet and leave all that physicality behind.
This has nothing to do with love. Whom I love, I love to near-distraction. And I dearly love the people I don’t want to be around. My husband’s family is more “mine” than my own biological siblings ever could be, my nieces and nephews amaze and delight me—and I just don’t understand why I have to get together with them all the time. When my son jokes that our doormat should say “go away,” he’s more right than he realizes.
Hospitality is a substantial part of being a Benedictine, and it is a confusing thing for me. Once I get the people into my house, I like to serve them good food and wine; I like to laugh with them and share memories, and surprise them with little gifts. Sometimes I’m even sad to see them leave. But until the moment they’ve crossed that threshold, I am negative about the whole endeavor.
And this, I suppose, is the deeper, more hidden reason I am a Benedictine: because the God who knows what we need to work on always supplies the therapeutic mechanism, in one way or another.
For this, I am grateful; by giving me the balanced Rule, which Benedict himself admits is “nothing harsh or burdensome,” God has not prescribed shock treatment for me; rather, he has allowed my continued evolution from neglected savage into something passably human to progress at a gently decelerated pace. The charges of my oblation—to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and attend to Mass and devotions as much as my station will allow; to visit the sick and help the downtrodden where I can; to adapt my life to the Holy Rule as much as possible—have wrought deep changes to my personality, manner, and understanding. And they’ve done it slowly—line by psalm-line, bead by bead, volunteer-minute by volunteer-minute.
But on this issue of hospitality, I have been as recalcitrant as an adolescent, stomping defiantly out of my comfort zone and into obedience with deep, hair-blowing sighs, dramatic grunts, and the really deplorable whining—“Why do I have to do this? I hate this!”—that would make me ground myself for a week, if only I wouldn’t love that idea so much!
You’d think after nearly two decades of remedial teaching, I would know better than to try to conquer myself with a dose of whimsy and will, but no, I am very thick-headed. Realizing how poorly I have embraced the Benedictine notion of hospitality, I once decided that for Lent I would do something valiant and noble—effect a personal change in my behavior through mere willingness. I was going to “receive everyone as Christ,” or die trying.
Two weeks into the effort, I was still avoiding picking up the phone if I could (caller ID is the devil’s own tool), still going to the less-populated Masses, still whining whenever I had to open my front door either to admit someone or out forth into the world.
I would like to say things have vastly improved, since then, but they have not. There has been, rather, a sluggish advancement, and mostly only my husband can see it. What growth I have experienced has had nothing at all to do with my own will, and everything to do with my willingness to surrender to the Rule, and to Christ. Which, as you see, is not as great as it could be.
Why is it so hard to learn the very fundamental lesson that of myself I can do nothing—that the only way anything positive comes from my own intention is through grace alone, or by my own willingness to do nothing more than become a conduit through which God may work? A conduit, as in an empty tube meant to do nothing more than permit access for something to flow from a source, to where it is needed? How hard should that be, really?
For me, it appears to be the challenge of a lifetime.
The lesson, whether it’s about hospitality or anything else, is always about surrender, and surrender, of course, is about nothing less than trust.
And trust—when we really have it, when we fully give it—is the key to absolute freedom; it is the heart of the learning curve that leads us to “all things work to the Glory of God,” an understanding that dispels fear, relinquishes control, puts away pain.
Sometimes it feels as though I am riding a möbius loop, constantly going round and round, now circling, now twisting, now slooping back to where I began. Why must I relearn this lesson, over and over again, moving forward in barely perceptible increments? Is it because the growth that lasts is the growth slowly cultivated?
If that’s the case, my glacial, imperceptible growth may portend a spectacular garden someday—one to rival Eden.
And maybe that’s been the plan all along.