Mimetic Hospitality: Guests and Community in the Rule of St. Benedict

A Paper Read at the Hospitality Initiative Summit, Oakland University, MI, May 4, 2013

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In his Rule St. Benedict specifically identifies two groups of persons with Christ: the sick and the guests, especially guests who are poor, with reference to Matthew 25. Both groups are made up of vulnerable people, suggesting that Christ is particularly identified with those who are vulnerable. That is good news as long as are not dedicated to being as invulnerable as possible.

It is significant that one of these groups lives within the monastery and the other comes from outside. I suggest that the two go together. One cannot care well for guests if we do not care well for those within our households.

Given the tensions between ethnic groups and our normal but problematic fear of strangers, there is no question that we have great difficulties accepting those who are “other.” Among simple traditional societies the default is to assume that any stranger is an enemy. However, the analysis of mimetic rivalry by René Girard and the narratives in the Book of Genesis suggest that there is a deeper, prior, problem that leads to our difficulties with the Other.

Mimetic rivalry is a situation where two or more people desire what other people desire simply because they desire it. As Bob Dylan sings “Gates of Eden:”

The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got

Rivals think they are totally different from each other and each is convinced of being the sole owner of his or her desire. The reality is that the rivals become indistinguishable paupers who only want what they don’t have because others desire the same thing. These rivals are not “Others” in the sense of strangers whose ways we do not know well. These rivals are those closest to us.

Likewise, the strife in Genesis is mostly within families as we see with the strife between Cain and Abel, Jacob & Esau, Jacob & Laban, and Joseph and his brothers. As Girard also points out, communities experiencing discord often resolve the social tension by uniting against one of their number or against an enemy from without. That is, enmity with the other stems from enmity within one’s closest community.

Benedict’s admonition to treat the sick as Christ is part of his vision of a community bound by supporting one another rather than rivalry. Rather than fighting for position, monastics should be obedient to one another and care about the needs of others before their own. Most important, they should be patient with and caring for their weaker members. This is put to the test when members of the community are infirm and need care from others. While the healthy members engage in an exchange of goods and services on an equal basis, the sick need services and can do little or nothing in return. This inequality sets up a dynamic that can fall into a twisted mimetic rivalry where the sick engage in manipulative behavior and the healthy use their strength to dominate their weaker members. This is why Benedict is so insistent that the sick not be neglected and that the sick not distress their caregivers with “excessive demands.” That is to say, Benedict realizes that helpers are made vulnerable to the needs of the infirm. Both parties need to care for the other. As I say in my book Tools for Peace: “Just as there is an art to serving humbly and generously, there is also an art to being served in that same spirit.”

Guests in a monastery are not usually infirm, at least not these days, but they are vulnerable in the way that guests are always vulnerable because they must entrust their care and safety to strangers. Far from their usual props at home, guests depend on their hosts to meet their basic needs. Given this power differential, it is significant that Benedict insists that “all humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival.” Offering hospitality makes the hosts vulnerable as well. It is one thing to welcome a close friend into the home. Welcoming the stranger is a different manner.

There is always some risk with hospitality as monasteries with guest ministries know very well from experience. Benedict’s admonition to the sick that they not distress their helpers with excessive demands applies to guests who can also be quite demanding. Just as Benedict explains at great length that some personal problems within the monastery are intractable and an incorrigible monastic must be asked to leave, the same can happen with a guest. Caring for guests entails not saddling them with a fellow guest who is very difficult to cope with. The famous verse about the abbot assigning two stout monks to explain to such a guest why he must leave is apocryphal but it does reflect monastic experience up to the present day. Even the Catholic Worker hospitality houses have to send a person away once in a while. When this happens, it is still important to treat such a person with as much respect and dignity as possible.

The linking of both guests and the infirm with Christ suggests a deep connection between the two. Care of those within the community supports care of outsiders who come as guests. If conflict within a community leads that community to band together against a common enemy, then concord within the community opens the hearts of its members to strangers who need their hospitality. One of the results of communal tension it that a monastic at odds with others in the community will turn to a guest for support in the conflict. This sort of triangulation undermines hospitality. Likewise, spending time with guests can become a substitute for relating to the community, so that guests are used for the monastic’s own personal “needs.” This is one of the reasons Benedict admonishes his monastics not to talk to guests.

The third time Benedict identifies a person with Christ is when writing about the abbot. Since the abbot represents Christ, the abbot’s commands must be followed. End of story. But wait a minute! The person with the most responsibility is the most vulnerable. Moreover, if the needs of the sick and the guests, and therefore of all vulnerable people, represent the commands of Christ, then the abbot represents Christ by obeying these commands, such as taking extra time to deal with a struggling monastic, taking on the role of the shepherd who brings back the lost sheep rather than letting that sheep go astray.

Girard explains how two or more people who fall into mimetic rivalry become more and more preoccupied with one another until each becomes an idol. That is, the rival becomes the prime organizing factor in a person’s life. In such a case, God has been expelled from the relationship. This is why it is so important to see Christ in the people we deal with. Discerning the presence of Christ puts a transcendent element into our relationships with others, especially the vulnerable. This means that the sick and guests should also see Christ in their helpers and their hosts. Even with the best intentions, the entanglement of our desires with those of others can cause discord and undercut our attempts to help them. When we see Christ in others, then it is the desire of Christ that intervenes and brings each of us into conformity with that desire. This is why Benedict insists that both the infirmarian and the guestmaster be Godfearing people.

One practical way Benedict brings the vertical dimension into the community’s relationship with guests is to “invite them to pray.” His saying that “prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of delusions of the devil” is jarring for modern audiences but in Benedict’s time, monastic folklore had several stories of demons posing as guests so as to lead monastics astray. Leaving the devil to his own tricks, Girard shows us how we fall into delusions in our human relationships through rivalry and that is precisely why prayer should be a fundamental element in these relationships. Another important reason that Benedict forbids monastics to talk with guests is to make sure that guests have the space and quiet to spend time with God. Pastoral outreach to guests such as conferences need to be well integrated with the peaceful space they need.

All of this suggests that there is a continuum of openness to those people nearest us whom we know, openness to strangers, and openness to God. Intense mimetic rivalry shrinks the world to a struggle with the rival. This rivalry allows no room for hospitality of any sort as hatred of the rival is projected on the stranger and on God. A memorable line by the protagonist in Roger Zelazny’s science-fiction series Amber. A series where mimetic rivalry rips the cosmic royal family apart, says it perfectly: “I was ready to trust him like a brother, that is to say, not at all.” In my novella Merendael’s Gift in From Beyond to Here, the protagonist cannot welcome a visitor from another planet with a great need until he overcomes his need to be in the “in” group at school. Jesus’ disciples had to learn to stop fighting about who was the greatest before they could preach the Gospel. Jesus’ command at the Last Supper that we love one another as Jesus has loved us is so important because without love within the group, we will not welcome others into it. Jesus’ love was great enough to embrace everybody. We can expand our own love for others by being grounded in this Love.guesthouse1

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