Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, “God is Love,” beautifully reflects the first Pope’s first encyclical. You will be surprised to know that you probably have a copy of that ancient document. It’s in your New Testament. It is the First Epistle of St. Peter. In it, the first Pope writes “Above all hold unfailingly your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:8) The next verse tells exactly how we can translate this ideal called love into action: “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another.”
When I have traveled around the country and around the world, I have been blessed many times by people practicing the Gospel of Hospitality. But on one particular trip I experienced it in a profound way in two very different but surprisingly connected places. The first was a Benedictine monastery. Clear Creek Monastery is set in the foothills of the Ozarks in eastern Oklahoma. It is relatively new and very devoted to the traditional Benedictine monastic ideal: work and pray. The monks pray the office seven times a day, chanting in Latin. They are presently in a temporary facility that they have built with their own hands, but they are in the process of building a permanent Romanesque church and enclosure designed to last as long as the grand monasteries of Europe that have been standing for over a thousand years.
I had the privilege of being invited into their chapter house to give a talk on my favorite writer and also to dine with them for a simple and hearty meal. A monk waited on me with more attention than I’ve ever received in a fine restaurant, washing my hands for me, serving the food and clearing the plates. All done in silence, while another monk, in a chant-like tone, read some spiritual writings. The Rule of St. Benedict calls for every guest to be treated like Christ. Nothing will make you feel more unworthy. Believe me.
The second place at which I stayed made me feel even more unworthy, if that is possible. It was the Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker house in Houston, Texas. It is run by a saintly couple, Mark and Louise Zwick, faithfully adhering to the vision of the original Catholic Worker houses founded by Dorothy Day over a half century ago. Everyone who comes to them is treated like an honored guest. Like the honored guest. Like Christ.
The Zwicks, like Dorothy Day before them, and like the monks at Clear Creek Monastery, practice the corporal works of mercy which comprise the Gospel of Hospitality as plainly set forth in Matthew 25:34-40:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when did we see the hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it me.”
Interestingly, both the monastery and the Catholic Worker house have a Benedictine connection. Dorothy Day was a Third Order Benedictine, and tried as much as possible to apply the rule of St. Benedict to the way that Catholic Worker houses were run. If some modern Catholic Worker houses have not lived up to this ideal, the Houston Catholic Worker house certainly has. Dorothy Day was also very devoted to the writings of G.K. Chesterton, who defended human dignity against all of the modern forces that devalue humans – especially in large urban areas. Mark and Louise Zwick welcome their guests, but the idea is always to help them become self-sufficient, because this will give them back their dignity. They help people get on their feet. In some cases, literally. One poor fellow had fallen under a train and lost his foot. He was an “undocumented” worker, which means he had nowhere to go for help. Mark arranged for him to get a prosthetic foot. He told me, “You have no idea what it is like to see someone come hobbling in on one leg, and then being able to walk away on two legs.”
I have heard from some people who sneer at the work the Zwicks are doing because they help undocumented workers. Ironically, most of the people are brought to them by the Immigration and Naturalization Service or by the police or by the FBI. They are sick, injured, hungry, homeless, helpless. The Zwicks welcome them as they would welcome Christ. These are people who want a better life and have risked everything to get it. It is easy to complain about them from our comfortable chairs and full refrigerators. I would meekly suggest that before we complain, we read I Peter 4:9 again: “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly.”
But I have also heard an almost opposite complaint: that the Catholic Worker house is doing the real work of the Church and the monastery is not, that the Catholic Worker house is more relevant and practical and effective than the contemplative monks.
Well, the Benedictines have maintained their way of doing things for well over a thousand years. They must be doing something right. Effective, even.
In medieval times, the monasteries were the center of culture. Wherever a monastery was built a town grew up around it. The monks provided the focus of faith, which always has practical implications that are seen in art, craftsmanship, education, and simple economic stability. Interestingly enough, Catholic families have already started to settle around the edge of Clear Creek Monastery. This is where they want to raise their children. It is the medieval model working perfectly, a place done right, right from the start. Chesterton predicted: “Whenever monks come back, marriages will come back.”
The monastery must be the center, not a satellite, in a thriving Catholic community. The Houston Catholic Worker house also does things right, but in a place where everything has gone wrong, because it went wrong almost from the start. The Zwicks are dealing with one soul at a time in a place where people are cold statistics. Their hospitality cannot solve the large problems that plague huge cities, but it can treat each of the problems that show up at their door each day. Their source of strength and love is their faith. Each house has a chapel. Jesus is always present, both in the souls of the poor and in the Blessed Sacrament.
I know. I was there.