Being Present to One Another: The Root of Benedictine Hospitality

Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the circumstances of the place and the nature of the climate in which they live…  Rule of Benedict

When Mara* saw the tsunami from her home in the hills of rural Indonesia, she thought it was a black cloud. She had spent the day before down on the beach with her husband and daughters, laughing and splashing in the water. As word traveled up into the hills, she learned that what she had seen had been a devastating tidal wave, killing many of her friends and crippling their way of life. Then, before all of the victims had been identified, Mara had to board a plane for Rock Island, Illinois, to become a visiting professor at Augustana College for the semester.

   “She had to leave her grief behind,” says campus minister Sr. Marilyn Ring, OSB. “But it got to her. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t eat. She missed her classes. Within a few days, she was throwing up blood. Her sponsor called me and asked if I could help.

   “Mara looked terrible. Her eyes drooped and she could only whisper. I took her to the doctor, who ordered a body scan. As we waited, I tried to soothe her. I rubbed her forehead and prayed with her. She was feeling disgraced, as though she was failing her family and the college. I just stayed with her, and listened. I accepted what she said, and offered what comfort I could.

   “The doctor gave her something to heal her stomach and to relax her, and she slept for eight hours in a row. When she woke up the next morning, it was like a miracle had taken place. Her voice was strong and she seemed energetic. She decided to finish the semester here, rather than return early.

   “Mara told me later that she really had heard what I was saying to her while she was waiting for the scan. She knew I understood how she felt. It was surely an instance of being present for someone. We didn't have a common cultural experience, but we did have a common human experience. We had a common understanding of fear, loneliness and physical discomfort, and we connected there.”

   Being present for others is at the root of the Benedictine practice of hospitality and Christ-centeredness. Being present requires listening, both to words and to wordlessness.

   “Listening is the core meaning of hospitality,” say Lonni Collins Pratt and Fr. Dan Homan, OSB, in their excellent book, Radical Hospitality (Paraclete Press, 2002). “You know it’s true because every now and then you’ve listened enough to hear the truth. ... You have heard the more that runs through it all.”

   The authors offer an anecdote: “A young man who worked all during his high school years bagging groceries said that the vast majority of people who went through his line never looked at him when he asked, Paper or plastic? He said people did not meet his eyes, smile at him, or acknowledge him in any way. What a tiny thing. Look up; look into the eyes of (others) and smile.”

   Benedictine Oblate Frank Young, of Moline, Ill., agrees. “We should smile at each other in the grocery checkout line. We should say please and thank you to the waitress. We should treat other people as if they are important. They are important!

   “We get up everyday and go about our business. Are we looking for Christ in other people? Are we looking for Christ in the faces of our neighbors? The sweetest word to anyone is their name. Use other people’s names. Look them in the eye, and affirm that you really do care. Do it for your friends, but do it for people you don't know, too. You have nothing to lose, and a lot of satisfaction to gain.”

   Pratt and Homan say the “simple courtesy of looking strangers in the eye affirms people. ... These seemingly casual encounters of graciousness with others affect you and affect them. They fill the very deep need of the human heart to be heard.”

   Sr. Michelle Rheinlander, OSB, ‘40, says that presence is a mutual exchange founded on the precept that Christ is among us.

   “I first learned how to be present from babies,” she begins. “They  needed to be held, and we   nursing students wanted to hold them. It was certainly an example of simply being there for another human being, and that’s what presence is all about.

   “Presence is always an exchange. Each interaction depends upon understanding the other person’s need. I once served in an orphanage in Mexico where I had 87 kids under the age of six. I held each of them every day. I didn’t know their language, but I recognized their need. It was to be  accepted and held. It was to be loved.”

   Presence allows you to transcend yourself and your needs, to live in the moment and experience the now, both with others and with God. Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Everyone has pain and suffering. We have to be able to let go of them and to smile at our suffering. We can only do this if we know that the present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive. Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. How wonderful to be alive!”

*Not her real name