Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, “I came as a guest, and you received me”. And to all let due honour be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims. In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing, let all humility be shown. Let the head be bowed or the whole body prostrated on the ground in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.
The monastery to which I go for my retreat has a custom that, when a ‘gentleman of the road’ calls in search of food and drink, the message, ‘Jesus is at the door’ is sent to the brother on kitchen duty. Very much in keeping with the 53rd chapter of the Rule of St Benedict (RB53), quoted above. But on one occasion, brother caterer, somewhat harassed by ‘one of those days’ syndrome, retorted, ‘Well, he’ll just have to wait: I’m busy!’
We are well used to Christian Aid’s moral appeal, to its unanswerable challenge to the way the world operates, and so on and so forth. John Fenton, of blessed memory, once commented on the Matthew 25 passage referenced in RB53, saying that those who point to the passage as the justification for Christian Aid have missed the point — Christian Aid needs no external justification. Its claims are beyond dispute.
However, what about the holiness of inconvenience as these messengers from the world outside our walls arrive at the doors of our organized, measured lives? There is something about the way in which we tend to interpret ‘charity’ which emphasises our control of the world, and our ability to normalise and universalise our world-view. We are (when we respond) the good guys, dispensing of our enlightened largesse to the importunate and the unfortunate before us.
It is so easy to turn Christian Aid (or Jubilee, or any one of dozens of Christian campaigns for social justice) into another 1960s style moral exercise which bolsters up our sense of being worthy, even superior members of the community. But to welcome the unexpected, potentially disturbing knock at the door? To allow ourselves and our outlook to be changed, to undergo the ‘conversio morum’ of the Benedictine tradition? To recognise the prophetic Christ, not just the needy one hidden in the stranger? We might better start to view Christian Aid not simply as a good cause, or a noble ideal, but as a necessary and jarring note from outside our warm Western cocoons.
The religious communities get this, by seeing in the person of the unexpected the presence of Christ knocking at the door, putting routines and default attitudes to the test. RB is particularly good at drawing attention to the prophetic voice of the outsider, the neophyte and the disregarded. The system in the monastery has to be sufficiently open to the promptings of the Spirit to be able not merely to deal with but also to absorb and welcome the new, even the uncomfortable, for in them Christ is received.
‘Well, he’ll just have to wait: I’m busy.’ As the European elections approach, the ‘Don’t bother me, I’m absorbed in myself’ seems to be an ever-more acceptable personal philosophy, and newspapers and politicians readily court the anti-Benedictine spirit. Sobering though it might be to consider how the Matthew 25 passage ends, chapter 53 of the Rule has something important to say to a complacent and narcissistic world as Christian Aid Week stands at the door amid a pile of electioneering leaflets designed to keep the inconvenient Christ at bay.