This chapter on the reception of guests seems to me to one of key points of Benedictine life. At the time of Benedict such hospitality could have been the difference between life and death. I think it often could be the same for us today. We are in a time of great interest in spirituality. Our own communities can be the home of literally more religions than we can count. The sad part is that Christianity is too often not counted among the spiritual choices in pre-Christians' search. Face it, we have a bad reputation. All too often we have brought it on ourselves. So when a stranger arrives in our midst there is an excellent possibility that they are desperately seeking for something to hold on to in time of crises. And our bad reputation means that we may be their very last place where they will go for help. If they are desperate, and do not receive a welcome we may not only lose the chance to share our faith. We may also send someone off on the path to suicide.
Our lack of welcome can take many forms. I have seen congregations where no one will talk to a visitor. I have seen others who great each person who comes through the door with a stack of offering envelopes and a request to serve on a committee. Sigh.
What happens when a stranger comes to our church? Do we grumble if they sit in our pew? What if they take our parking spot? Or perhaps we try to provide for their comfort in advance by posting signs to areas of the church, hint, the number one complaint is the lack of signs pointing out the restrooms. When someone seems unfamiliar with the service perhaps we could quietly pass them a service book turned to the right page. Maybe we could send someone to their home after worship to drop off a loaf of fresh baked bread, and not do it as an opportunity to get in the door, but simply to say "hello, you are welcome among us."
Several years ago I heard a stunning example of the type of hospitality Benedict described. A couple came to a strange city so one of them could undergo surgery. The day before the operation the dropped in to worship at a church they picked at random. At the church they were warmly welcomed. In the course of a conversation with one member, they mentioned the upcoming surgery. That evening, a member of the church called, told them they were praying for them, and offered to pray with them on the phone. They welcomed the offer. The next morning they arrived at the hospital to find a group from the church waiting for them both to pray again and to offer them any other assistance they might provide. The couple asked how they had known what hospital they would be at. There were many hospitals in the city and they had not mentioned in which hospital the surbery The answer, members of the congregation were waiting at each hospital in the city.
"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." If we can welcome like the congregation in this true story welcomed, we will be greeting our guests as if they were Jesus.