A Difficult Hospitality

By Judith Sutera, OSB

Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View from the Mount" that appears in our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. This column appeared in the July 30, 2016, edition of the Globe.

Sister Judith SuteraOne of the hallmarks of Benedictine life is hospitality. In his rule, St. Benedict points to the fact that Jesus said our final judgement will be based on how we treated others. Benedict says that, therefore, we must welcome everyone who comes to the monastery as Christ – not just as Christ would want but as if this person is Christ. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” not merely that he was watching you respond to them, but that he actually was them.

  This is a very challenging concept. It has no exceptions. It doesn’t specify any race, religion, sexual orientation or other qualifier that lets one opt out. Sometimes it’s not the stranger that’s the problem. Suppose there’s a knock on the door and a poor beggar is there. You fix a sandwich, maybe notice that he needs socks and give him an old pair of yours, and he leaves. You both part ways feeling good. Then you look out the door and someone else is approaching. It’s that annoying neighbor who talks too much and stays too long. You can’t just hand him a sandwich and have him disappear forever. 

  We all have people in our lives whom we find hard to welcome: the co-workers who irritate by their actions or their lack of action, the relative who causes problems at every family event, the acquaintance whose behaviors are destructive or immoral. How do we keep Christ in the picture when every time they approach we feel the hair on the back of our neck stand up? 

  I would guess that God probably doesn’t want us to pretend there’s no problem. God probably doesn’t expect us to just grin and bear it. But no matter how distorted the image of God has become, God does not create evil. We must still acknowledge that the other person is a creation of God and that we do not have permission to return evil for evil. We may not use the actions of one person to reject an entire class of people because they share some characteristic like religion or the color of their skin. We may not solve our conflicts by violence or revenge. 

  This other person may not look or feel at all like Jesus standing in front of us. Christians do, however, believe that Jesus represents the living Word of God. Perhaps God is truly coming to stand before us in this encounter. Perhaps God wants to speak some word. Every human being is subjected to difficult relationships with difficult people. Some of them may be crying out for help that we can give by recognizing their brokenness and offering them what we can to make them feel better about themselves and about life. Then we have truly fulfilled “I was hungry and you fed me; I was imprisoned and you visited me.” It may not be a physical need but an emotional one. 

  On the other hand, some people do make bad choices and do not consider the feelings of others or even themselves. I don’t think God expects that we continue to put ourselves into situations that are not fair or satisfying for ourselves. If we cannot change the other person, we can only change our reactions. Perhaps the word of God in these situations is the inspiration to try not to be like that person or to heal some past hurt that this person calls to mind. We must try every day to welcome what God brings us in every person.