13 July 2014

Feast of St Benedict: Hospitality as a Synonym for Mercy

When, while reflecting on Friday's readings two years ago, I told the story of the Nickel Mines massacre, I mainly focused on the theme of forgiveness and how it is that the Amish were capable of forgiving Roberts and also extending that forgiveness to his widow and larger family. When Matthew tells us not to worry about what we are to say in such crises because the Holy Spirit will  provide us with whatever that is, it reminded me of the Amish practice of forgiving routinely, consciously living from the Gospel, and thereby creating habits of the heart which do indeed enable them (and us) to speak and act as Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit in even such terrible situations. My point two years ago was that we are called as Christians to hand on the Gospel of reconciliation and the Amish show us vividly what that means.

But those daily readings have to do with more than just forgiving those who hurt us. Again and again references are made to a richer or broader concept than forgiveness as we ordinarily understand it. That broader concept, that reality is the mercy of God. As I reflected and meditated on these readings I was reminded once again of how inadequate our common notion of mercy actually is. Too often we see it as "letting someone off the hook" or as "the opposite (or at least the mitigation) of justice." Too often I have the impression we see mercy as a form of sentimentalism or weakness and we say that God's mercy must be balanced by his justice (or vice versa).  But Pope Francis, Walter Cardinal Kasper and others (including myself in some of the things I have written here) are clear that God's mercy is his justice. It is in being merciful that God sets things right and establishes a Kingdom we can hardly imagine. Friday's readings along with the tragedy at Nickel Mines helps us understand how that is the case.

Each of the readings speaks of forgiveness but they also convey the more expansive and challenging idea that when God is merciful it means that he gives us a place to belong, a place in his own life, a place where we are safe and free to be ourselves, a place which is free from fear and where vulnerability is not a dangerous to us but is an altogether (if still risky) human and normal reality.  When God forgives it means God extends his mercy to those who are sinners, those who are strangers or aliens, those who have offended him and injured those most precious to God (including themselves!). After all a sinner is one who quite literally has made herself alien to God, a stranger whom God does not know in that intimate Biblical sense of the term. In each of the readings there are references to being offered such a place, being made to be other than orphans or sinners, being shown compassion and having a place in God's own life.

In the Gospel lection Matt is dealing with a community being torn apart because of the new faith; it is a community in which the people are asked to continue to proclaim the Good News in the face of all opposition and to offer mercy and make neighbors and even family of strangers and aliens on a level which was not common otherwise. Both the Nickle Mines Amish and St Benedict, whose Feast day was yesterday, help us to understand this mercy in terms of doing justice and making the world a different place -- the world of neighbors, not aliens. The word which ties all three dimensions together, forgiveness, mercy as offering people a place to truly belong, as well as the stories of the Amish and St Benedict, is hospitality. What I came to see in reflecting on the readings, the original story of Nickle Mines and my own Benedictine Tradition is that hospitality and mercy stand as synonyms in the Christian Tradition.

In the Nickle Mines massacre the Amish offered forgiveness almost immediately and I told that story two years ago. But there was more to the story, more that I did not know until I read the book, Amish Grace. Forgiveness would have allowed the participants in that story to move forward without holding grudges. It would have allowed a more or less easy peace with the world of the "English" and especially with Robert's (the gunman's) wife, children, and larger family. But this was not sufficient for the Amish. They literally welcomed the gunman's family into their lives. Not only did they allow Robert's wife and mother to visit the victims regularly, but, as I may have noted, his Mother came weekly to the most badly injured child and read to her, sang to her and sometimes bathed her. Robert's parent held pool parties for the children and had teas for the parents. They were welcome in one another's homes. Indeed the Amish children were reported to have said to Robert's Mom, you haven't come to read or sing to us yet; when will you come and visit us? Everyone involved spoke of "the new normal" they had to get used to --- there was no going back to the way it was or pretending it had not happened! But additionally they worked hard to create a "new normal" in which strangers became neighbors and neighbors became family. In short, they showed mercy as well as forgiveness and changed the nature of their world for everyone involved.

It is more than a little appropriate then that the Church asks us to revisit these readings and I choose to revisit this story on the feast of St Benedict. Benedictines know that hospitality is a key virtue and very high value in the Christian life. In the Rule of St Benedict we are reminded that everyone who comes to our door is to be treated as Christ. All monasteries have guesthouses and most do a wonderful job of accommodating guests as they would Christ himself. But hospitality is about more than providing someone a place to sleep or a seat and plate at our table. It is about learning to see the face of an individual in place of that of the stranger; it is about overcoming the stereotypes and bigotry that are parts of our own hearts and ways of seeing reality. It is about facing the fears within us that are triggered by our encounters with those who are different than we are and in so doing, making of the world a place which is truly more just and safer for everyone. To be merciful to another is to do the same. It is to allow them a place in our lives, yes, but even more it means to let them into our hearts.

When the young man asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus doesn't point to any single group. Instead he tells the story of the good Samaritan, the quintessential alien who cares for a man (an enemy) who has been mugged and who then ensures that "enemy's" future care at a local inn as well.  Neighbors, Jesus tells us in this way, are simply strangers we do not allow to remain strangers. They are strangers whom we allow to genuinely belong in our own lives and world, aliens we make at home. In Jesus' parable the Samaritan makes a neighbor of a stranger while the religious leaders who are this man's neighbors treat him as an alien and make a stranger of him. The Samaritan makes of the world a place which is a bit safer and looks a bit different to the man who was mugged. Of course it takes preparation and practice to do such dramatically compassionate acts. The Amish practice forgiveness and mercy/hospitality everyday of their lives. In this regard at least, their hearts were readied in a significant way for the crisis that befell that awful day in Nickel Mines, PA. When Jesus/Matt tells the community not to worry about what they are to say on their own day of crisis he points to the Holy Spirit who will speak through them --- if, that is, their own hearts are readied as well.

My prayer this day is that each of us will look at the ways in which we fail to have mercy, fail to offer hospitality, fail to make a neighbor of the stranger, choose to remain aliens or to treat others thusly and act in some way to change those things. For God, having mercy and offering a place in his own life is the same thing. It is in loving that God mercifully does justice and makes the world a hospitable place. May we draw these realities a little closer together in our own minds, hearts, and lives as well --- and may our world be made more merciful, more hospitable, and more just in the process. I also pray especially for those Dominican Sisters in Iraq who have made it their own mission to make neighbors of the stranger and to break down the stereotypes and walls of bigotry (especially religious bigotry!) that keep their world broken by alienation and hostility. May our own efforts at hospitality be the Christian response and counter movement and dynamic to hostility. (cf also The Homeless Jesus)