One of our core values is “healing hospitality.” Hospitality is an ancient Benedictine way of being, as found in Chapter 53 of the Rule of Benedict. In the Benedictine tradition, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’” (Mt 25:35; RB 53.1). This gospel directive lies at the heart of all extensions of courtesy, welcome, and ministry of human needs that comprise the rituals and caring actions of hospitality. Hospitality to guests, strangers, and the sick was the basis for the establishment of the first ministries of monastic communities: hostels and hospitals.
The word for guest in the Rule is hospes in Latin, a word rich in multivalent nuances. Hospes refers to both the host and guest. In the ancient monastic ritual of hospitality, there was the reception of the stranger or foreigner (hospes) by the host (hospes) or guestmaster, who, in offering the ritual greeting of the kiss of peace, the foot-washing, and prayer, provided the social context for the stranger to become a guest (hospes).
The word for healing has an even more ancient meaning. In Hebrew the word for healing comes from rafa, meaning to heal, that is, to grow fat, to make well, to restore and to build up strength. Many of us remember the name of one of the archangels—Rafa-el, that is, the angel of healing. From the book of Tobit, we learn that Rafael took Tobit on a journey to find his future wife Sarah, to cure her of the demon that brought death to her intendeds, and to heal his father Tobias of blindness. In the ancient Jewish world, there was a belief, likely inherited from the ancient cultures around them, that any illness or disease was the result of God’s punishment for sin or wrongdoing. However, another whole strand of Jewish belief, as represented by the story of Tobit, reveals that God’s deepest desire is for healing.
Jesus’ healing of the sick, which occupies a significant portion of the Gospels, is to be understood in terms of his signs of care to the outcasts of Israel. Jesus firmly refused the Jewish teaching of the connection between illness and sin. Rather, his attitude was one of seeing illness as something missing from invigorating strength, which needed to be treated. Jesus is unique among all the great leaders of world religions in that the care of people’s minds and bodies was of particular concern to him.
In the letter of James 5, the notion of healing is understood in the Greek word sozein, which means both to heal and to save. Verses 14-15a show the elders of the church praying in faith over the sick person to heal/save him/her, that is, that the Lord “will raise the sick one up” from his or her illness. Over the centuries, particularly from the Middle Ages on, the notion of salvation of the soul took precedence over healing of the whole person.
So, what does all this ancient history of words have to say to us today? My own sense is that when we welcome Christ in another, when we are hospitable to who Christ is in the stranger and pilgrim, we have the opportunity to experience healing of our attitudes and perceptions of them by engaging in conversation and prayer together. Many of the retreatants coming to the Spirit Center comment on the peaceful atmosphere of the woods and grounds and the welcome of the sisters and staff. We sisters have experienced the loving receptivity of strangers become friends and companions on the journey to wholeness that is not only salvific, but also healing on many levels. How God brings that about is part of the mystery of the Lord’s presence in our exchanges and our on-going prayer for all who come seeking a quiet place to rest, to renew tired bodies and spirits, and to refresh the perspectives of their lives.
Instead of New Year’s resolutions, what if we undertook “healing resolutions”? How might the way we greet each other be a sign of welcoming the Divine more deeply into our own and others’ lives? How might we converse with each other such that we are open to the surprise of the giftedness of presence together? Who among family members, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances needs a healing touch and mindful prayer that they be blessed with wholeness? Who will gift us with the hospitality of their lives when next we open our door to them?
For all of them I offer this prayer:
Lord of All Hospitality, you knew what it was like to be born in a strange place, far from home. You also knew the experience of those who were ostracized from the religious society of the righteous and well. You ate at the table with tax collectors and sinners, you welcomed strangers to be your disciples, and you honored women by calling them to spread the good news of your resurrected presence. Let your own Spirit of hospitality, the coming into the midst of strangers, be as blessing for us today as we ponder the meaning and practices of welcoming, acceptance, and giftedness which underlie hospitality. May your own gift of humble hospitality to the great love of the One you called Father be deepened in our hearts this day, that we may witness to the Spirit of love that enlivens all creation and brings healing to those most in need of it. We ask this in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.