Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25 September 2011
25 September 2011 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
“Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself ... The greatest care should be taken to give a warm reception to the poor and to pilgrims, because it is in them above all others that Christ is welcomed.”
These are words from the Rule of St Benedict written back in the 6th century.
During this month of September in my sermons at Matins I’ve been looking at different aspects of our mission statement here at Westminster Abbey, the full text of which you can find in the Dean’s welcome on our website.
So far we’ve focussed our attention on the first two points in the statement - the worship of almighty God and how this underpins everything we do as a community, and our service of the Sovereign and why Westminster Abbey has a particular relationship with The Queen.
Today I want to consider the final part of our statement, which says that our mission is:
• To serve pilgrims and all other visitors and to maintain a tradition of hospitality - asking why hospitality plays such a crucial part in our life here and why it is important within all Christian communities.
The answer to the first part of that question takes us back to the quotation I started with from the Rule of St Benedict, because for nearly 600 years (between 960 and 1540) this Abbey was a Benedictine monastery.
Benedictine monks down through the centuries gained a well-earned reputation for treating their guests well and for being very generous in their provision of food and wine!
And if you read some of the historical records of life at Westminster Abbey back in the 12th and 13th centuries, the monks themselves were very well fed and provided for, and it seems that they had plenty to share with their guests and visitors.
Of course life at Westminster Abbey today has changed in many ways. Nevertheless the rules and principles laid down by Benedict continue to influence our way of life, and especially the great emphasis he placed on hospitality and welcome.
Most of our visitors in the 21st century are very different from those who might have presented themselves during the time the monks were here.
People now come from all over the world and many will have travelled thousands of miles to get here. The majority will be enjoying a holiday here in comfortable surroundings and will eventually be returning to nice homes. This is in great contrast to many of the visitors one imagines will have arrived at the Abbey hundreds of years ago.
Some of those might well have travelled some distance, but they will have arrived on foot or possibly horseback; some of them will have arrived sick and hungry or possibly in other kinds of trouble or need; others are likely to have been destitute in a society which had no social services.
Benedict’s rule about receiving them as if they were Christ himself, relates directly to Jesus’ teaching: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.
However, different as those early pilgrims and visitors were from our pilgrims and visitors of today, they all have one essential thing in common - something which indeed all of us as human beings have in common - the need to be cared for and to receive spiritual sustenance.
And this leads on to the second part of the question I posed at the beginning, of why the offering of hospitality plays such an important part in the life of any Christian community?
Probably most of us have experienced at one time or another, going into a crowded place and not knowing a soul. This is a very lonely experience and for some people a very frightening one.
What a relief it is once someone approaches us with a smile or greeting and makes sure that we are welcomed and included. And when we are new to a place - perhaps in a new job or after moving house - what a difference we feel within ourselves once we have made some friends.
To thrive as human beings we need to have that sense of belonging and feeling included - this is not just a question of being physically comfortable; it is a deeply spiritual matter.
This is what a writer by the name of Verna Holyhead says about Benedict’s Rule:
“The hospitality Benedict teaches is not a social event but a holy event. It is costly, not in terms of money, but in the demands it makes on our hearts, our time, and our personal resources.
In each of us there is some inner homelessness, some alienation from ourselves and one another which longs for a welcome.”
She goes on: “Our own times know much hostility and loneliness. Benedict’s call to his monks to offer a special welcome to pilgrims and the poor can be translated in to a call to the wider Christian community for hospitality to those who are both materially disadvantaged or spiritually starved in a world hungry for success at any price”.
So offering true hospitality to those with whom we come into contact, although it sounds a mundane thing, can literally be a life-giving or life-changing experience. And this message lies at the heart of the teaching of Jesus himself.
He told his followers to go out of their way to offer hospitality to those who would not be able to reciprocate, and in his parables he made it quite clear that his vision of heaven was of a banquet where all kinds of people would be welcome - especially those who had been treated as outcasts in this life.
So the way we greet others and include them in the hospitality we offer is vital - it’s vital in our individual lives, in our families, and above all in our churches.
I finish with now some more words from Verna Holyhead, who tells this story and relates it once again to the Rule:
“A reporter in an Indian town at the centre of a violent earthquake once described how he sat beside an old man who had just cremated his wife, killed in the earthquake. With tears streaming down his face, the man offered the reporter some tea. Not even the intensity of that earthquake and a husband’s grief could shake his hospitality.
Benedict believed that nothing can shake the ultimate and patient hospitality of God, for we are all guests of the one who has welcomed us into the mystery of life; guests before whom God has spread the lavish feast of creation. We are to respond by moving over, making room, and sharing graciously with our sisters and brothers”.