Word Magazine October 1980 Page 11-12
YESTERDAY AND TODAY
By Brother Job, guestmaster,
Monk of Skete
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My Lords, if it please you, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, bathe your feet and recline under the tree. Let me fetch bread so that you may refresh yourselves, then, go on. . .
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick, three measures of choice flour! Knead bread! Make cakes! Then he ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and choice, and hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, set those before them and waited on them under the tree as they ate. Genesis 18, 1-8
We find in this simple scene from Genesis, later to be immortalized in Rublev’s Trinity icon, one of the first biblical accounts stressing the importance of hospitality. Many more similar accounts appear throughout the Old and New Testaments. Whether we are a layperson or a monk or nun, the message is clear: take care of each other.
For a monk or nun, offering hospitality is not an option or a punishment; it is a duty and a joy. Each monk or nun is, in fact, a model of Abraham, offering hospitality, waiting on guests without reserve. It is interesting to recall that Abraham was not an impulsive man. He was not given to flights of fancy. As he would show later in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his son, his response indicated his deep realization of the importance of listening to God, of doing the right thing, taking the action required by the situation. He never even stopped to ask the guests their names or their business. He jumped up immediately and served them. When I began as guestmaster at New Skete, my superior told me, as part of my training, that the first question to ask arriving guests is “Are you hungry? Would you like anything to eat?”
Saint Paul later alludes to this story by encouraging hospitality and stating that “some men have entertained angels without knowing it” simply by welcoming guests. This is a charming hope, and occasionally, a reality. It is not always the case. Some guests can seem real devils! This is all the more reason to welcome them, as a badly behaved guest is often simply an insecure person, all the more in need of mercy and love.
A Short History
Even before monks began to live in common, they offered hospitality to others. The monks of fourth century Skete accepted guests and encouraged other monks to do so. The sayings of the Desert Fathers are liberally dotted with stories of hospitality and its joys.
A brother came to a certain solitary, and when he was going away from him he said, “Forgive me Father, for I have made you break your rule.” But he replied, “My rule is to receive you with hospitality and send you on your way in peace.”
Later, with the development of cenobitic life, the reception of guests became a standard part of monastic life. Any monk who murmured against it was simply told to leave the monastery. There are accounts of Pachomius asking monks to leave for their lack of hospitality, and Saint Basil ranks hospitality as a monastic priority — although he does note that guests who go overboard and demand better accommodations, richer food, or any special treatment should be dismissed as quickly as the monk who refuses to share his simple life with guests. Saint Basil’s qualification is important: monks do not run motels. Guests do not come to relax at a monastic country club. The guestmaster is not a valet. The monk who cooks need not be a gourmet chef. The monks simply share their normal life with the guests.
Through the centuries, abundant examples appear illustrating the importance of monastic hospitality for monks of both the Eastern and Western traditions. At Optina monastery in Russia, hospitality was so honored a tradition that laypersons felt no hesitancy in coming to the monastery and mingling with the monks. They deeply respected the monks and their need for privacy, but they were also quite frank in their approach. It was their monastery, these were their monks, that is my spiritual father. It was not so much a spirit of possessiveness and clinging as one of affection and love. It demanded a total commitment to faith and belief, one that matched that of the monks themselves. Observers like Dostoevsky immediately caught this feeling and admired the interchange between the monks and their flock, even if they could not participate in it themselves. For laypersons in many Orthodox lands, a monastery became the hub of their spiritual lives, a bulwark of peace in a world where everything else was in turmoil.
The spirit of Optina has not been easily transplanted to American soil. From a realistic point of view, there has been a distinct lack of viable monastic communities in which this spirit could flower. Then too, Orthodox monastic communities in America are often closely identified with jurisdictional or ethnic groups, and, depending on the openness of the monks themselves, their hospitality may be limited to members of those groups.
Now, slowly, with the development of Orthodox monasticism on American soil, the spirit of Optina and the great Orthodox monasteries of the past is being re-discovered and renewed. For ourselves, we welcome all Orthodox Christians regardless of ethnic or jurisdictional ties.
Why a Guesthouse?
Paul Evadokimov once said, “The best way to penetrate Orthodoxy is through its monasticism.” A committee of laypersons, sensitive to this insight, recently organized itself in an effort to build a new guesthouse at New Skete. The groundwork for the new guesthouse has been laid, even as guests continue to use the small, four room wing that is presently available for them. In the last year, we welcomed about 215 overnight guests, 75 pre-arranged day retreats and countless tourists and pilgrims, Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
A monastic guesthouse makes it possible for the Orthodox Christian to integrate into daily life values that are often obscured by the pressure of secular life. What are these values? Silence. Solitude. Silent listening to the Lord. The primacy of liturgical prayer. Fraternal love and charity. Contact with God’s creation in nature, in the woods. Personal integration in Christ. Mysticism. Enlightenment. The list goes on. All these things, monks and nuns value, and the “world” suspects or even disdains. For the guest, the opportunity to perceive these values and integrate them into real life centers on the monastic guesthouse.
This is why it is indeed gratifying to see a group of laypersons intent on building a guesthouse. An Orthodox intuitively knows that monastic values are central to Christian experience. Our faith is mystical and monastic. More so, perhaps, than our Western brothers and sisters, we appreciate the values inherent in monasticism, even though, ironically, the Western church has many monasteries, while we have few.
Well, what do you do at a guesthouse anyway? How do you make a retreat? Is there any sense going to a monastery for longer than a day? How many people can I bring with me?
The answers are, you don’t necessarily “do” anything at a monastic guesthouse, other than attend the services, eat meals, pray, read, walk. You don’t need to bring anyone with you. There is a difference between a retreat and a pilgrimage. Orthodox Christians are generally enamored of pilgrimages. To a degree, a pilgrimage provides a security and camaraderie that is missing when one makes a personal retreat. In this respect, we should remember that Christ balanced his life with times of retreat into the desert and the wilderness and with times spent among large groups praying together.
The point of a retreat is to be rather than to do. Letting God work on us is something many of us find hard to do. Keeping up a constant, driving pace, makes it easier to evade God’s summons. On the other hand, we find that guests who come to the monastery with grandiose expectations, (such as finding their identity in three days, or making a major career decision) usually come away disappointed.
A laywoman who makes frequent retreats here described a healthy attitude she adopted on her first visit.
“I reminded myself that I was embarking on a retreat and as I drove up the last winding hill to the monastery, I decided to put aside all restraining and preconceived ideas about how the retreat would turn out and leave myself open.” (The Orthodox Church, August 1979)
Indeed, at each Divine Liturgy we pray for this stance of openness and receptivity when we sing “Let us lay aside all earthly cares,” — and we do, if only for the remainder of the service. At a monastery, we are invited to extend the process for a longer period of time.
A final hurdle in the mind of potential guests that they may find difficult to cross, is the fear of disturbing the monks, or of not fitting in, or of feeling out of place. These fears are groundless for, to the monk or nun, each guest is a living icon, an icon of Christ. And, lest a monk or nun feel pride in offering hospitality, or lest a guest feel hesitant about taking it, the words of Abba James, one of the Desert Fathers, come to mind:
“It is better to receive hospitality than to offer it.”