“Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ”—Rule of St. Benedict 53:1
Officially the Benedictine pilgrimage part of my trip does not start until I connect with thirty-six other pilgrims, but as I reflect on the readings/homily from Sunday, July 21, 2019 (the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C), it occurs to me that the week I spent with my cousins was just as much part of the pilgrimage. It was the embodiment of being Benedictine and of the hospitality demonstrated in these readings.
For having only met once, Jefferey and Sabine were practically welcoming a stranger in their home and yet, they received me with enthusiasm, providing food, water, bath, and bed for several days. So, too, did Jennifer and Santhosh. They planned events and excursions; they took care of transportation and many other practical details. Jennifer rearranged a room, asked if I needed shampoo, soap, lotion, a light, a different blanket, more food, a glass of water…so much hospitality that Santhosh had to drag her out of the room, laughing, “Let her sleep, she is tired.” But, mostly we were in each other’s company—listening, talking, asking questions. We were present to each other.
In Genesis 18:1-10a, Abraham welcomes three strangers, running enthusiastically to greet them; he offers the choicest food, water, rest, and a foot bath (okay, no one gave me a foot bath, but I did have wonderful hot showers!) He provides the strangers, often illustrated as the three angels of the Holy Trinity icon, the practical concerns of being hospitable, but he also “wait(ed) on them under the tree while they ate.” He meets their needs, but also gives them his attention; he is present to them.
In Luke 10:38-42, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, working hard on the practical elements of serving a guest, perhaps preparing the food, cleaning a room for the visitor, and setting the table. Mary, on the other hand, simply sits with Jesus and listens. She gives him her attention; she is present to him. Surely, the practical things are important (otherwise no one would ever eat), but Jesus tells them that “Mary has chosen what is better.” Both the practical actions and being present, or contemplative, are important elements of hospitality and being Benedictine.
My cousins provided me with the everyday comforts of room and board—incredible accommodations and food, but it was the time spent in their company that is memorable. We were present to each other—whether Jefferey or Santhosh were preparing a meal, or Jennifer and I were talking about our work and travels, or Sabine and I were listening to Jefferey’s memories of his father.
Hospitality is being present—taking time to enjoy one another’s presence, being attentive to what the other is sharing and accepting one for who they are and where they are in their own journey, their life pilgrimage.
It is when we practice hospitality that without being aware of it, we receive God in the guest. “Benedict explicitly says that the poor and pilgrims are to receive special honor and care when they come knocking. A pilgrim may be someone on the road to a holy place, perhaps in Benedict’s day the holy places of Rome. But for us Christians we know that our whole life is a journey and pilgrimage. For those of us on the inside, Benedict calls it seeking God. That is his phrase for being on pilgrimage. When the stranger knocks, I should be able to recognize him/her because I know what it is like to be in a strange place and on the move.”–Fr. Prior Joel Macul
Sunday, June 16—I take the train from Munich to Würzburg after Jefferey and Sabine make sure I arrive at my seat on the appropriate train (this took some time and discussion, but luckily it was accomplished.) About three hours later, I arrive in Schwarzach, home of Münsterschwarzach Abbey, the motherhouse to Schuyler’s monastery.
I settle in my room at Benediktiner Hotel, across from the Abbey and have some lunch. (Note the key: I could do weightlifting with it.)
I visit the new bookstore (under construction 5 years ago) and get the souvenir I have wanted—a key to recognize the 1200 year anniversary of the Abbey. Münsterschwarzach Abbey has a turbulent 1200 year history. Founded in 816, it was abolished in 1803 during the secularization, then reopened by the Missionary Benedictines of Saint Ottilien in 1913. It was confiscated during the Nazi Regime but was not destroyed because it had been used as a hospital. The oldest item that was found on the monastery grounds in 1939, is a key from the Carolingian period (8th —9th century). A replica of the key is a special symbol of the long tradition of Münsterschwarzach Abbey and was the inspiration for the jubilee year’s motto: “Be Open.” For the celebration of the 1200th anniversary, the goldsmiths and silversmiths produced the Carolingian key as pendants in various designs.
Later, I meet with Fr. Christoph—Benedictine monk, priest, astronomer, photographer of planets and stars, procurator of the Abbey, and retreat leader—to see the Abbey observatory. Fr. Christoph travels to Schuyler a few times during the year. In 2015, we viewed the partial eclipse and rings of Saturn on the hill above St. Benedict Center, an incredible experience. Seeing the telescope and computer system he uses at the Abbey was impressive, but scattered showers and clouds prevented a view. Fr. Christoph’s hospitality by sharing his talent and hobby with me was a special treat. I will get to enjoy his amazing photography all year with the gift of the Abbey’s 2020 astronomical calendar.
I love that I have been in this little town before—there is both familiarity and a sense of adventure (just like Violet’s story.) I reacquaint myself with the Abbey grounds—the crypt, the chapel, the walking paths—like a friend I haven’t seen in a while. I explore down the winding streets and meet the town goat just a block from the Abbey (very photogenic), stop at several of the Stations of the Cross markers that wind their way through town, enjoy some dinner outside and buy a bottle of wine with the Münsterschwarzach Abbey label to take back to my room. I spend the evening catching up with my husband and daughter on the phone and enjoying the sounds of nature on the patio. It was the perfect day to bookend the two parts of my pilgrimage.
Monday, June 17— I greet the bus as it arrives with new and old friends— people that I see at home on a regular basis, those that I haven’t seen since the last visit to Germany 5 years ago and those that I will come to know.
On this busload of pilgrims, I will meet strangers who become angels on the journey. We will extend hospitality to each other over the next two weeks in many ways—offering a chair at our dinner table or a seat on the bus or a coin to use the restroom; we will ask questions, share stories, have interesting discussions and enjoy silence. We will have opportunities for joy and discomfort. It will be a pilgrimage in every sense of the word.
I am at a new threshold of the unknown. There will be familiarity, but also surprises and challenges. Trust God, peace like a river flows—my mantra is my guide to accept all that will come my way. I trust there will be a higher meaning to all of the experiences and people that cross the path of this pilgrimage.
Again I quote Christine Valters Paintner, “A pilgrimage is an intentional journey into the experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations. We grow closer to God beyond our own imagination and ideas.” —The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within