All guests that present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.
– The Rule of St. Benedict 53:1
The first time I read The Rule of St. Benedict was in October 1990. I was thirty three years old. I had ridden the freight train that ran between The Pas and Lynn Lake. I had requested a stop at a certain lake where I had been off-loaded…tent, canoe, and gear. I had paddled many miles through a chain of lakes and set up camp. I was all alone. I was there for a week. I had made the excuse that I was going to hunt moose. But I was just looking for a chance to get away. I wandered the bush for a couple of days to get my bearings. I encountered woodland caribou, black bear, and timbre wolf, but no moose, which was fine. I let the beauty of locations seep in as as a tonic as I sat and cleared my mind and just was. Those were warm days and cold nights. It became more and more glorious as the days went by because it always takes some time for my brain to leave behind all the nasty mental baggage I drag with myself into those times…all those things that are genuinely unimportant to life over all but that loom large in daily life back home. I rose in the dark and ate and walked and called and trailed and explored and grazed and slept and read. By the end of the third day I had given up on moose and spent days exclusively sitting on fallen timbre and chewing on St. Benedict’s writing.
As a 1500 year-old guide, The Rule pre-dates all modern theological rifts and splits. In this sense is a gift to the entire church. It is, in my experience, the single greatest book on Christian discipleship ever written. It is filled with good-will and discipline, seriousness and humour, sound psychology and ancient wisdom, and elements that caused me discomfort and needed to be understood in the context of its own time. Yet even with those misgivings its rigour caused me to do some serious reflection on my own life’s priorities. If the development of character has to do with coming to terms with the consequences of our life’s choices, then St. Benedict was most certainly sitting next to me on those granite outcroppings overlooking those stunningly blue lakes on the Canadian Shield asking me the hard questions about what my life was going to amount to.
Certain phrases were particularly thought-provoking, mostly because of their stunningly simple, yet direct way of questioning my daily life. Upon my first reading I found myself arguing with Benedict on several counts. But by the end of the week as I sat along the tracks waiting to flag down the train I had become convinced that my objections were not justified in the least. Being part of a religious system that had no real intent of doing what it proclaimed I came to fully face myself. I was a hypocrite. Now, what was I going to do about it?
Not long ago and long after the sun had gone down I had walked with a guest through the forest to one of our guest cabins where they would be spending the night. Dinner had followed their arrival. Then we sat and they had talked and I had listened. And then we had taken a slow, ruminating walk together on a trail here. They talked about their life. A fire in the stove that I had started in the afternoon had stored up heat in the walls that would keep the cabin warm all night. Water had been hauled there prior to their arrival. Everyone who comes here and wants to spend time alone comes with an overworked brain chocked full of thoughts that really do not matter to their lives over all. Most people sadly do not spend enough time to begin to develop the skills needed to set those aside to be able to actually start to hear God. They are unwitting hostages to themselves and their enculturation. Many days of sound sleep is one of the cure-alls that can start this process of decompression rolling. And that night it was all that remained for any of us to do.
And then in that post-sunset our good-nights were interrupted by movement through the brush. A lone cow elk’s silhouette appeared a couple hundred yards to the west. She stood there for a long time. Ten minutes? Listening. Looking. Then she stepped cautiously forward. One-by-one other cows and calves followed until our hay field was full of feeding elk, dark ghostly figures. You could hear them eating.
Then a deer also materialized half way between us and the elk and stepped cautiously out to feed. More deer followed. And then, within seconds of the deer’s appearance, a ruffed grouse shot its way past our shoulders nearly clipping us with its wings and landed only a few feet away behind us.
There were no words that could take in the moment. There was just joy in being there.
People are driven these days. Like a herd of crazed animals alternately pushed and pulled by the empty panacea of technology, ghost riders whip them on their way from one eroticism to the next. If I had been driven then I could have cut that hay that those animals were feeding on. But what did I have to gain, a few hundred dollars? And then what, that I could spend it on some trinket to entertain myself with or to impress someone with?
Hospitality is one of today’s watchwords, and needs to be jealously guarded. Where there are too many facile and empty gestures, social well-being and beauty itself loses all significance. People are perishing, leading empty lives and they do not even realize it.
Standing there in the dusk watching those animals I was grateful that I had learned a more fulfilling way to live, even if everything I had ever done came to fruition only in that moment out of all moments in all of eternity. In the face of so many threats to becoming caring, compassionate, loving, and loveable people, All guests that present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. And that means anyone, any creature. In caring for others and in caring for this place I find that I am most cared for myself. Indeed,
everyone and everything matters in the eyes of God.
– Esther deWaal, A Life-Giving Way
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.