22 Dec Love bade me welcome
A good friend of mine died a year and a half ago. I recently gathered with his family to plant an oak tree on his grave. He had been terminally ill and thought carefully about his funeral and burial arrangements. He hoped that we would gather at some point, a year or two after his death, to plant a tree, and he had especially requested an oak. It is the perfect tree for my late friend: wise, deep-rooted, and steadily, politely, pointing to the unchanging truths of the earth. We none of us will live long enough to see the sapling we planted look anything much like the oak trees of our minds-eyes, but we trust that it will continue growing far into the future. To plant a tree is an act of faith, and hope, and love.
In paying tribute to my friend’s memory, I recalled his gift of hospitality, as that oak will be hospitable for generations, stretching its roots and branches out wide, creating shade, variation, and beauty. My friend and his wife gave me a home to live in for a year while I was a student at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. When I arrived, twenty-three years ago, I was a complete stranger to them. But they took me in, put me at my ease, and trusted me. We fell into friendship with each other, and I have long been regarded as part of the family. In Chapter 53 of his Rule, St Benedict writes that ‘all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.’ Whenever I think or try to speak about my friend nothing can express the gratitude I continue to feel for his and his wife’s kindness. ‘Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today’, writes Joan Chittister in her commentary on this chapter of the Rule.
For the Benedictine, hospitality is worship. It is a humbling experience to arrive at the door of Mucknell Abbey, to ring the bell, and to know that whoever answers it will regard you as Christ. The Rule even instructs the Community to wash the feet of the newly arrived guest, thereby making the relationship between host and guest Christ-like in both directions. The guest is welcomed as Christ; the Community takes on the role of Christ in the washing of the feet. This is real symbolism of the most powerful kind. St Benedict instructs us to let other people into our lives as Christ, but in doing so also seeks for the guest to be open to the humility of Christ, to allow the host to wash their feet, to get between their toes. This kind of hospitality in its intimacy, particularity, and brave simplicity expresses something of the love of God for all of us, like Love in George Herbert’s famous poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’. As a guest or a host we let go; we ‘sit and eat’; we find something of ourselves in the other, something of Christ in ourselves.
As Advent reaches the brink of Christmas, and the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, I am pondering again the mystery of the incarnation, of our God who is with us and loves us: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (John 1:5). Hospitality is one way through which we can find that life and light of Christ inside us, as both a host and a guest. It is never about control or about impressing anyone; it is about openness and the willingness to accept the stranger and the strange. At the heart of Christmas is a baby lying in a manger. There is no room at the inn, so I need to become the host for Jesus, and take him into my home, my heart, my loving relationships with others, how I go about my daily life.
Hospitality of the kind Benedict seeks for us is no less than an expression of the incarnation: ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me’ (Matthew 25:35).
Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2011 and is a long-standing friend of SSMV.