Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger

“You can tell we weren’t in a Catholic Church,” I said to Elena yesterday, as we walked back to our car after attending Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, Wisconsin. “How can you tell,” she asked. “Because every person I came across said “Hi,” or “Welcome,” or “Great to have you here.”

Elena has a job this term singing with the choir at First Presbyterian Church. Yesterday was her first time singing with them and, since I had driven her back to school the day before, I decided to stay and go to the service with her before driving back to the Twin Cities.

We walked into the Church ninety minutes before the service was to begin, since Elena had choir rehearsal. As she went off to the choir room, the woman welcoming people who came in introduced herself and told me where the coffee and snacks were. She told me I was welcome to sit in the coffee room before the service and that others would be coming in as well, but that I was also welcome to attend the adult education class, which would begin shortly. I decided to go to the class and, after getting my coffee, went to the room where it was being held. Every person who walked into the room for the class introduced themselves to me. After the class, several told me how happy they were I was able to be there and that they hoped to see me again.

As I walked into the service, expecting to sit alone, one of the women who had been in the class, waved me over. “Come sit with us,” she invited, making room for me in the pew. She proceeded to introduce me to the people sitting behind us After the service, the women I sat with, as well as several others, made a point of saying that they hoped I enjoyed my visit and would come again as they said good-bye.

I also found it striking that in the worship aid, under the description for Sharing of Our Gifts and Offerings was a parenthetical that instructed, “Please sign and pass the Fellowship Pads, noting other names as they are returned and greet one another after the service.”

As we talked about our experience at First Presbyterian over brunch afterward, Elena asked, “Why is it that Catholics aren’t as welcoming to people they don’t know?

I don’t have a good answer to that question. We talk about the virtue of hospitality, but we don’t seem very good at practicing it. It is true that some priests begin mass by extending a corporate welcome to visitors, but individually we don’t seem to go out of our way to welcome make visitors feel at home, to make them feel like it matters to us that they are with us.

I think this is an area where we might take a lesson from our Protestant brothers and sisters.


Feast of the Visitation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

When Mary says yes to the angel Gabriel, she has to live out the months before Jesus’ birth. In St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, when the angel appears to Mary, one of the things he tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. I’m thinking that Mary, confused and a bit frightened, thinks a visit with her older cousin is a good idea.

So Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says something else, making her the first person to designate Mary in this way: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” And “Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.”

In The Hospitality of God, Brendan Byrne, S.J., writes of this scene that Elizabeth

is the first in a long line of characters in this Gospel who give hospitality to Jesus only to find themselves drawn into the hospitality of God.

Elizabeth singles out Mary’s faith as the instrument of her blessedness: “Blessed is she who has believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was promised by the Lord.” Mary believed in the angel’s message concerning herself and, accepting the further assurance concerning her cousin, had set out in faith on her journey. Now, as the older woman recounts what she has just experienced, Mary knows that what she has hitherto held in faith ahs in fact been realized. The two women and the two stories have come together, and faith overflows in knowledge, testimony and celebration. In the meeting of these two women, in the hospitality they exchange, we see the beginnings of the community that will share and celebrate the blessings of salvation.

But there is something more to hospitality in Elizabeth. Think about this encounter, which could have gone completely differently than it did. Mary might have gotten all puffed up with pride and said, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be her who travels to see me. After all, I’m the one carrying the King.” And Elizabeth, the older of the two, might have been filled with jealousy, thinking “Why does Mary gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger. Surely I’m at least as good as she is.” We’ve all had enough experience of encounters marred by overinflated or bruised egos to imagine the possibilities.

Instead what happens is that the young woman who has just learned that she is to bear the Christ immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child. And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children. And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine what must have transpired between those two women during those months. Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together. Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other. Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.

The Visitation is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.

Working on our Welcome

I wrote the other day about the welcome I received when I arrived here at St. Benedict’s Monastery on Monday.

The subject of hospitality also came up in the discussion period after my talk at Our Lady or Lourdes on Sunday on the subject of Intentional Discipleship. One young woman talked about the lack of welcome she felt in a Catholic church she attended.

I was reminded of both of my welcome here and Sunday’s discussion last night when I came across something in a blog post, a copy of which was in a pile of papers I brought with me here to St. Ben’s. Although the post was written last year, it mirrors the experience I and others have had. The author of the blog, writing about the efforts of she and her husband to find a community in which to find Jesus, said this:

We knew just two young Catholics who practiced their faith, but their quiet reverence was eclipsed by the Protestants we knew, who unabashedly talked about their love for Jesus and whose churches were vibrant and welcoming. When you showed up at their services, they were on you like white on rice and never failed to invite you to their spiritual family. We’d attended several Catholic Masses to learn more about Catholicism, but we’d never once been approached by a welcoming Catholic. In fact, when we’d asked one priest if he’d meet with us to answer questions about the faith, he gruffly told us, “Call the diocese.” Catholics seemed to worship more as individuals, even in Mass.

As I said when this issue came up in the program at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sunday, it may be that instances like this are isolated. But if they are not, our lack of welcome to newcomers in our midst is something that deserves attention. How can we be in relationship with people if we can’t even make them feel at home in our home?

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The theme song to Cheers, a sitcom from the 1990s, pointed out that “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Yesterday morning I arrived at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I will spend ten days hopefully doing the final round of edits of the manuscript of my book on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism. The Monastery has a visiting scholar program (Studium), and this is my sixth stay here in the last several years.

As they always do, Srs. Ann Marie and Teresa, directors of Studium, had coffee and breakfast for me when I arrived. After breakfast, I had enough time to unpack in both my apartment and my office before it was time for noon prayer. At prayer time, I sat in my “usual” spot in Oratory, next to 89-year old Sr. Olivia, who was delighted to welcome me into our pew. After noon prayer, it was off to the Monastery dining room for lunch where I was warmly greeted by any number of the Sisters, including the prioress, someone who always makes you feel like you are the one person she has been waiting to see.

Hugs. Smiles. Welcome back greetings. Queries about my current project and about how my daughter is doing. It is hard to imagine being more embraced by a community. Welcomed into a place where everybody knows your name and is glad you came.

During my talk at our Lady of Lourdes on Sunday, someone commented that many Catholic churches are not welcoming of new people. I thought of that comment as I walked back from lunch yesterday. The Benedictines here at the monastery are a model of welcome. All of our Christian communities should be as welcoming.

Welcoming the Stranger

I have a question that I don’t know the answer to and wish I did.

On any number of occasions, I have attended Sunday morning services at one or another Episcopal churches. Usually that happens because I’m giving a talk immediately after the service, as I was yesterday at Christ Episcopal.

Every time I have walked into an Episcopal church for the first time, I am no sooner in the door before someone detaches himself or herself from whatever group they were talking to, walks over and says something like, “Hi. I haven’t seen you before. Are you a visitor? Welcome.” As near as I can tell, the people who do this are not “official” church officers charged with a task, they are just people noticing a stranger and making the stranger feel welcome.

I have NEVER had that experience in a Catholic Church. Although I most often attend Mass at the Catholic parish to which I belong and where I, therefore, know at least some people, I quite often end up as Mass elsewhere. I have never, in all of my years of attending “new” Catholic churches had people come and welcome me as a visitor to their parish. In fact, I find myself joking to my husband when I get home from places like Christ Episcopal, “I could tell I wasn’t in a Catholic Church, because someone came to welcome me before I even closed the door behind me.”

Except I don’t really think it is a joke. We talk about welcoming the stranger being part of our Catholic faith. Why then don’t we practice it in those places where we have the opportunity? How many of us are on the lookout for new faces on Sunday morning?

Is there a reason others do a better job on this than Catholics do? If there is, I don’t know what it could be.

But I do know that we can do better.

Feeling at Home

This is my last full day at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I’ve been since Monday morning. (I leave tomorrow morning.) This is my third stay at the St. Benedict’s since May, as part of the monastery’s Visiting Scholars Program. Although this stay has been shorter than my last two times here, I have gotten a lot of good editing done on the manuscript of my book adapting Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians.

Here at St. Benedict’s, the rhythm of my day is simple. I join the sisters for Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, Mass, and Evening Prayer (except when the cold deters me from walking back to the oratory for Evening Prayer), and eat lunch and dinner with them in the monastery dining room (I eat breakfast in my apartment) and otherwise spend most of my time in the office they provide that is separate from my apartment here.

The first night I walked into the dining room for dinner, one of the sisters walked over to me and said, “Welcome home.” I smiled, for I do, indeed, feel very much at home here. Part of that is simply the ease with which I slip into the rhythms of monastic life; I’m comfortable with the quiet (more pronounced during this early January than during my May or September visits because the snow and fewer people around) and with the punctuation of the day with periods of communal prayer.

But a large part of it has to do with the way in which the sisters welcome guests into their community. When I walked into the apartment assigned me for my stay, the kitchen was already stocked with what the sisters knew I liked (including crunchy peanut butter). I have a designated place among the sisters in the oratory for prayer while I am here. When I walk into the monastery dining room I know I can find a welcome spot at any table, whatever sisters are sitting there. I was invited to lector at Mass one day, one of the things I most love doing. Many who met me on one of my previous visits stop to ask about my daughter and husband. Every day I am asked how the work is going or someone just stops me to say they are glad I am here. Everything comes together to make me feel a part of the community – comfortable, welcomed and loved.

Hospitality is a particular Benedictine charism, but it is a virtue all Christians should strive to embody. My experience here encourages me to reflect on how well I do at making others feel at home – whether in my own home, my place of work, my parish or any other place I encounter my brothers and sisters.


Hospitality has always been viewed by Christians as an important virtue and it is one for which the Benedictines are especially known. One of the original Rules of Benedict states, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for him himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25-35).”

I arrived yesterday morning at St. Benedict’s Monastery, about an hour from the Twin Cities, for a nine-day period of intensive work on the book I’m writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism. On my arrival, I was warmly greeted by Sr. Ann Marie, who runs the Monastery’s Visiting Scholar Program (the Studium), under the auspices of which I am here. After dropping my suitcase in my apartment and my computer, notes and other material in my office, we went to the apartment of one of the other sisters, who had fruit out, coffee made and bread ready to be toasted for our breakfast.

Although all visitors eat lunch and dinner in the dining room with all the sisters, fruit, bread, coffee, juice, etc., is provided in the apartment in which the visiting scholar stays in the event he or she wants to sleep late or otherwise eat in hir or her room rather than walking over to the dining hall. Ann Marie asked me if I wanted this or that in the room and when I answered yes to peanut butter, she immediately asked “chunky or creamy.” It may sound silly, but the question delighted me and made me feel even more welcome and cared for. I LOVE chunky peanut butter and it has been years (decades?) since anyone asked me what kind of peanut butter I preferred to eat.

Ann Marie escorted me to the oratory for noon prayer to make sure I found my place, which was then marked as “Studium Guest” so that everyone would know that was my place for the time I was there. She explained that there was always extra seating in the back for visitors, but that they wanted me to feel part of the community during my stay as a visiting scholar.

At lunch, Ann Marie introduced me, telling the others a little about my project. The excited and interested reaction that I heard and could see on the women’s faces was again touching, and several woman made a point of stopping me at or after lunch to greet me and say how interesting my work sounded.

I felt and feel completely welcomed here – in meals, in the oratory for Liturgy of the Hours, in the chapel for Mass, in the halls. I am grateful for the hospitality of the Benedictine sisters and am excited about the time I will spend here.