Every year, the feast of St. Benedict is celebrated on July 11 who was born in the year 480. At that time, there were many people on the move. Former world powers were weakening and losing control. There was a lack of moral authority in the leadership and there were large and small wars in many places. Climate change and population pressure forced people to move and seek other land. New ethnic groups, languages and religious practices were appearing in places where they were previously unknown.
Sound familiar? This is what Italy was experiencing in the lifetime of St. Benedict. In the 500’s, the Roman Empire had collapsed under the weight of its own expansion, moral failure, loss of military control, and corruption. On top of everything, in the 530’s a “dust veil event” from volcanic eruptions reduced the sun’s radiation and sent agricultural output plummeting for more than a decade. Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks, Saxons, and other “barbarian” groups were moving across the landscape of the former empire.
It is little wonder that St. Benedict wanted to leave Rome, a place in both moral and economic decline, but he didn’t flee the world and exist in isolation. From his biography, we may find some sense of how he interacted with strangers and guests. We are told that “… a humble Goth came to adopt the religious life and Benedict willingly received him.” HIs ideal was a radical one: social equality. All the members of his monastery, and of ours to this day, are expected to serve one another in prayer, meals and other activities. He gave dignity to those who had never enjoyed it and gave practice in humility to those who had always enjoyed privilege.
We read in his rule that rich and poor could offer their children to the monastery. Besides the Goth, several other members of the community are identified in his story and they seem to represent more than one ethnicity or social class. Benedict’s own interactions with the world were numerous. He notes in his rule that there will never be a lack of guests in the monastery and each is to be greeted as Christ. The abbot himself is to sit at the table with them.
There are, as well, a couple of stories of cruel Goth leaders coming to visit. Benedict is gracious but also chastises them. It seems that the role of a person of holiness includes speaking truth to power. In one of these stories, a peasant in chains is with the Goth and, when Benedict speaks, the chains fall from the captive. Then the stunned captor is told to stop his oppression. For Benedict, compassion for those suffering is coupled with the courage to challenge the injustice causing the suffering.
There are certainly numerous lessons here for our times. To see others as guests rather than mere strangers is a challenge, whether it is welcoming a person of another race, religion, or culture, or just being open to a person who has opinions that are radically different from our own. In a time of racism, clericalism, sexism, classism (just to name a few), the idea that all are welcome and equally invited to share in the world’s gifts is still radical. Often, it is difficult just to recognize our own prejudices and privilege so that we may practice a deep sense of trust rather than merely giving lip service to universal love. On this feast of St. Benedict, more than 1500 years later, Benedict would have us learn to welcome others by coming face to face with them, listening to their needs and hopes, and serving them as Christ.