CHAPTER LVI. Of the Abbot’s Table
9 Apr. 9 Aug. 9 Dec.
Let the table of the Abbot be always with the guests and strangers. But as often as there are few guests, it shall be in his power to invite any of the brethren. Let him take care, however, always to leave one or two seniors with the brethren for the sake of discipline.
The abbot, because he holds the place of Christ in the monastery, not only for his monks, but also with regard to pilgrims and guests, imitates the divine hospitality of Christ. In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture, hospitality is the sacred duty of the head of the household. The abbot, being the head of the monastic household, is bound to concern himself personally with the details of hospitality, even if, in the ordinary course of things, he entrusts the details of hospitality to the guestmaster.
Nothing is more important in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean home than making a guest feel welcomed, honoured, and served. A very poor family will spend all their money and even go into debt in order to honour a single guest. Any failure to show hospitality brings dishonour on the head of the household and discredits the whole family. The Benedictine ethos of hospitality suggests that any failure to show hospitality dishonours Christ, in whose place the abbot stands, and also dishonours Christ in the guest who is, in any way, slighted, or neglected, or made to suffer discomfort.
The abbot’s table—understand this expression as “the abbot’s hospitality”—is the measure of the whole community’s love for Christ who, in the person of the pilgrim or guest, visits the monastery. The arrival of a guest is a visitation of the mercy of God. This is why Saint Benedict associates Psalm 47: 10 with the arrival of a guest: Suscepimus, Deus, misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui, “We have received thy mercy, O God, in the midst of thy temple.”
In the early ages of the Church, hospitality was numbered, together with chastity and sobriety, among the essential and distinctive Christian virtues. Among the Christians of the first centuries, and well into the Middle Ages, and even until the Protestant revolt in northern Europe and the suppression of the abbeys in these isles, hospitality was not merely a personal or domestic virtue; it was one of the chief characteristics of the hierarchical community of the Church and of monasteries. Bishops and abbots were charged, not only with serving at the altar, governing, and teaching, but also with ensuring an active and attentive hospitality. This hospitality extended beyond the welcoming of strangers and pilgrims to the “hospitalisation” of the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the shamed.
The form taken by monastic hospitality has changed over time. Monasteries no longer provide hostels for travelers; there is a highly competitive “hospitality industry” that offers accommodations, meals, and entertainment. There are, nonetheless, things that today only a monastery can offer: an environment favourable to encountering God; silence; the experience of divine worship; and the succour of the sacraments. In addition to these things, our monastery offers frequent exposition and daily adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. It is this invisible but undeniable radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Christ that makes the hospitality of Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration unique, even in the monastic world.
Just as the abbot who holds the place of Christ stands in reference to Him, the abbot’s table points to the altar and stands in reference to it. Quite apart from receiving guests and, on occasion, some of the brethren at his table, the abbot is bound to attend to all the details of the Mystery of Divine Hospitality that is the Opus Dei. Benedictine hospitality extends from the cup of cold water (or the cup of tea) given in nomine Christi to the sober splendour and reverence of the Conventual Mass, the worthy celebration of the Divine Office, and the unique grace that is ours in making it possible for guests to linger in the radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Christ and to find there a hospitality that the world cannot offer: “Things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).