12605 224th Avenue
Benet Lake, WI 53102
By Abbot Leo M. Ryska, OSB
Monks are fond of tradition. At Benet Lake, two traditions nourish our monastic life and work: the Bible and the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. These two traditions, furthermore, establish our priorities. The first is a life of prayer (personal and common) centered on the Word of God. The second is the ancient Christian practice of hospitality. This work joins the efforts of the monks with that of a group of dedicated laywomen and men. Our center has been receiving guests since 1945. Today the center is guided by Abbot Leo Ryska, O.S.B., Director and Mrs. Denise Moczulewski, Co-Director.
All guests are to be received as Christ and accorded due respect. This mandate of St. Benedict in chapter 53 of the Holy Rule is known the world over as an identifying badge for all monks and nuns. Benedictine monasteries are everywhere experienced as centers of spiritual welcome.
The core of monastic hospitality is that it is primarily spiritual and not simply "mere hospitality" as important and necessary as that may be. In receiving guests the monk welcomes Christ Himself in the person of the guest be it visitor, stranger, pilgrim, pauper, monk or cleric.
The hospitality of which St. Benedict speaks initially according to the text extends to all who knock at the door of the monastery. However, in the same chapter that "all" becomes somewhat defined and limited and thus less inclusive; for example, heretics and non-Christians would hardly have been welcomed because they are not of the household of the faith.
To understand what demands this chapter on hospitality might make on monks and monasteries today, the wisdom of tradition is helpful. Historians have sufficiently documented the lights and shadows of monastic hospitality down through the centuries. Terrence Kardong in his work, Benedict's Rule, for example, cites the practice of St. Gall where there were two separate guesthouses; one for the rich (nobles) and one for the poor. Ludo J.R. Milis in Angelic Monks and Earthly Men (1992) adds further examples.
However, times, customs, and expectations have greatly changed since the sixth century. In addition, cultural differences have probably deterred implementation of the directive that the abbot as well as the whole community wash the feet of all guests.
One might even wonder how this could be done? Origen remarked that behind every word of scripture stands the Word of God. Thus what deeper meaning might one discover in the foot washing text from John's Gospel, Chapter 13, that is applicable to monastic hospitality?
Obviously, this startling act of Jesus has a very deep meaning because in the Fourth Gospel it takes the place of the Institution of the Eucharist. Thus the foot washing considered only in its external form is truly a significant act of humble service wherein the Lord and Teacher becomes the Servant and Slave. Jesus recommends that as He has washed the disciples' feet, so too should they, in turn, wash the feet of one another. It is in this way – as an act of humble service – that the Church has ritually understood this text.
Think of the washing of feet, also called Mandatum, on Holy or Maundy Thursday in our parish churches and monasteries. However, viewed internally, a much deeper meaning is uncovered. And this deeper meaning is uncovered in the entire Chapter 13 of John's Gospel which begins a section called "The Book of Glory." Surprisingly, this chapter opens with an action of offensive humility performed by
Jesus. He washes the feet of the disciples. Such is the irony of divine glory. A footnote in the New American Bible (John 13:5) simply states that this action "could not be required of the lowest Jewish slave." However, it was "required" of Jesus as an indication of the depth of love He possessed for us; a love that was to culminate in Calvary.
This foot washing by Jesus is much more than the removal of dust and dirt. Rather it is the cohesiveness of the Spirit that binds us to Jesus and through Him to the Father. It is an action of divine intimacy. This saving act of God joins us mystically to the whole Paschal Mystery, which we experience in a personal and collective way by Baptism and the Eucharist. This "washing" places the disciple in a new relationship with Jesus. Peter misunderstands this divine reality because he views it only through the lens of literal meaning. The command to "wash one another's feet" is much more than a call to mutual service although it is that too. It is the Humility of Christ summoning us to a free exercise of our humility whereby we prolong in the Church the sacrificial love of the Incarnate Word. The Spirit fills us with this divine love and life and so we can truly say: We love because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19) At the Last Supper and today at every Eucharist, the Risen Lord summons all disciples to unite them with Himself in a transforming union of sacrificial love. Whoever does not participate in the relationship remains outside the company of the divine Servant and Slave. Peter at the Last Supper continue to misunderstand the deep meaning of the washing of the feet because he added not only my feet but my hands and head as well. It was only after the Resurrection that Peter understood; this was the "later" of which Jesus had spoken. Monastic hospitality is the first external work of a monastery. It is perennial, enduring and a challenge for those responsible and especially the monastic community. As Benedict knew well, guests are never lacking.
Today many seekers come practicing a spirituality without boundaries that often incorporates a dual belonging to several faith traditions. This is a new situation and one must delicately support their journey since there are few proven signposts which indicate the activity of the Spirit and how to proceed. Just as the Word was contained and supported by a human community; a "container" so to speak. The community of disciples is a fitting container and has down through the centuries shaped and energized numerous new movements into true Gospel realities. Those who come to the open door of our monasteries seek transformation. The transformation we present is Jesus Christ by means of prayer with Divine Scripture. So it has always been and so, we pray, the Spirit will enable it always to be.