Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us. (2 Kings 4:8)
With these words, the woman of Shunem described to her husband the guest room she wanted to build for the prophet Elisha. Add a crucifix, an alarm clock and a wastebasket and it also describes most of the guest rooms at St. Gregory's Abbey. There's nothing particularly surprising about that similarity. Assuming you are talking about societies that actually use tables, chairs, and beds, pretty much any hostess would call these the minimum furnishings for a guestroom. Even if she lived almost three thousand years ago.
How to furnish a simple guest room is a question with an obvious and almost universally applicable answer. But many other questions about the guest ministry require solutions custom made for the particular community involved.
Chapter 53 of St. Benedict's Rule for Monasteries is titled "On the Reception of Guests." Many people are aware of its initial and central precept, that all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. Not so many have actually read and studied the entire chapter. They certainly wouldn't be able to guess its contents by observing life as it's actually lived by the Benedictines of Three Rivers, Michigan.
The first part of Chapter 53 prescribes a great deal of high church carryings-on in the ceremonial welcoming of guests. The order is so time- and labor- intensive that it probably was never intended to be followed each time a guest moved into the guesthouse. Today we favor a more conventional "Hello" or "Welcome" with a handshake or a hug, rather than subjecting the new arrival to an unfamiliar bit of domestic liturgy. There are people who don't want to have their feet washed by a bunch of strangers. And some would take offense on learning that we are to pray with the new guest before exchanging the kiss of peace just to make sure the guest is really a human being, and not a demon in disguise. So we don't observe these particular prescriptions of Chapter 53.
The second part of the chapter establishes the boundaries that regulate interactions between guests and monks. Here again, we at St. Gregory's have departed from St. Benedict's instructions. He permits only a few officially designated representatives of the community to speak to guests. The rest of the monks are told to respond to guests with "Bless me, please. I'm not allowed to talk to guests." Unlike the first part of the chapter, these boundaries have always been, and remain, a living tradition in parts of the Benedictine world. (This isn't as cold as it sounds. In such monasteries the monastics and guests are normally physically, as well as socially, segregated. So St. Benedict's prescribed response is almost never called for. And the officials who deal with guests are warm and concerned in their care for them.) But in our particular monastery the prohibition on conversation between guests and monks doesn't exist. In fact, the schedule includes times when the monks and guests may, and times when they practically must, socialize.
In the end, the Rule is rather spare in practical guidance on managing guest matters. Perhaps the most useful thing Chapter 53 says, after teaching us to receive all guests as Christ, is in verse 22: Et domus Dei a sapientibus et sapienter administretur. "... and the house of God be managed by the wise and in a wise way." And that's not so useful as encouraging. It encourages any given monastery to seek the Holy Spirit's gift of wisdom in making choices concerning the monastery's guest ministry. That, in turn, means knowing something about the people who will be coming to the monastery, knowing what they are seeking and whether the monastery is the right place to seek for those things. Wise management also includes understanding what physical, personal, and financial resources are available to the community and required by different sorts of guest programs. Whether and how some things are to be done will be as obvious as the furnishings for Elisha's room. (These days it is simply not polite to wash and exorcize people before offering them a seat.) Finding the way of wisdom in other cases will require both study and experience. (When the interests of two classes of retreatants, say groups and individuals, clash; what is the best available resolution?)
This search for wisdom has led to much variety in the retreat facilities offered by different religious orders. One community might run a conference center, where a group can follow its own program and not have to coordinate with anybody else's schedule other than to show up in time for meals. Some communities provide topical retreats, where people gather to hear a particular part of the spiritual life addressed in talks by a specialist in that area. Other places offer intensive personal direction during a time of retreat, sometimes a meeting with a spiritual guide every day for holy conversation and a shared examination of what is in the retreatant's heart.
None of these, however, is what we offer at our particular monastery. When an inquirer phones or writes to ask what a retreat at St. Gregory's Abbey would involve, I explain that the most important things we have to offer to visitors are the quiet, the use of our grounds and our library, and above all the round of shared worship in the monastery church. These are things that nourish our own spiritual lives, and they are parts of the life of the monastery that we can share with our guests. A steady procession of guests indicates that these are things that many people outside the monastery are seeking.
Our own quest for wise management of the House of God includes pondering how we can best use the buildings that the kindness of our benefactors and the mercy of God have allowed us to buy or build. We want to be able to make the abbey's resources available for both group and individual retreats at the same time, rather than letting one exclude the other. And we want to be able to receive both male and female guests. Our current system for reaching these goals goes back to the fall of 1997.
On October 9th of that year, our Br. Wilfrid died in his sleep in the infirmary cell, a room adjacent to the refectory. He liked to refer to it as the "death cell," although the other monks who were there before him had ended their days elsewhere, and he himself was the only one who ever really died there. Then, on the first day of November, we dedicated the new monastic dormitory, with its much improved provision for customized rooms for infirm brethren. At this point, we were in a position where the refectory was no longer in a bedroom area of the monastery. We were also confident we wouldn't have to commandeer rooms on the ground floor of St. Anthony's guesthouse to use for a sick brother and his attendants. (We had done this during Fr. Anthony's final illness.)
Along with the obituary for Br. Wilfrid and the announcement of the completion of the dormitory, the Christmas 1997 edition of the Abbey Letter contained a note from the guestmaster describing the new system for allotment of guest spaces, which would take effect January 1st, 1998. In the past, the space assigned to a retreatant had been based primarily on the sex of the retreatant. Beginning with the new year, the main criteria would be the number of retreatants in a party, and the anticipated noise level of the visit. This change increased the variety of accommodations available for both women and men.
The most visible result of this change was that St. Anthony's and the refectory were no longer exclusively male areas. (The connection between those facilities is that St. Anthony's has no kitchen and the guests staying there eat with the community.) St. Benedict's guesthouse, which had been reserved for individual women or for female or mixed groups, became available for individual men and all male groups, as well. Previously, we had not provided space for a man to come on a solitary, hermit-like retreat.
Most people are unaware of another major result of the new system. It nearly doubled the number of weekends when St. Denys is available for group retreats. Before 1998 that guesthouse served both as the main building for groups and also for individual women retreatants. The guestmaster would take care that each month at least two weekends were available for individual women, and wouldn't book group retreats for those weekends. Once we had different arrangements for individual women, or women coming in a small quiet group, we were able to make those two weekends each month available to larger groups.
Although the size of the party is normally the consideration determining which building is best for a given retreatant, other factors may be important, or even decisive. There are questions of diets that don't match the shared meals of the community, families with children, a married couple who want to be on retreat together, and the specialized concerns that go with various physical handicaps. We have dealt with these variables in different ways at different times, depending on the type of guest ministry we were trying to offer, and what guest accommodations we had available.
Just as the rooms and buildings available here for use by the guests have changed through the years and decades of our presence in Three Rivers, surely they will continue to change. So will the society in which we find ourselves and the needs of that society and the church. As they do so, we will continue to try to find the best match we can between the resources we have to offer, and the needs of those who want to spend time with us.
Here's a thought to end with. Elisha repaid the Shunemite woman's hospitality by blessing her with the gift of a son. If you have ever been blessed by our Lord during a visit to the Abbey, then pray that he will bless our monastic family with growth in numbers and holiness as well. Then come back and visit us again sometime.
-- Fr. William