To Have and to Hold

from Jayan Koshy

Hospitality is baked into our vocation as Christians. In his now-ancient Rule, St. Benedict exhorted his monastic brothers to welcome each and every guest as Jesus Christ himself, reminding them that Jesus will bless those who welcomed lowly strangers because, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). The humble service the Rule asks monks to show to complete strangers is lavish. We live more than a millennium removed from St. Benedict, and it’s easy to set this radical show of hospitality aside as only relevant to a different place and a different time.

But even our day, we see the baptismal covenant, which we revisit every time a new person is grafted into the Body of Christ, exhorting us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (BCP, p. 305). We’re called, not just to welcome people, but to seek them out and serve them as we would Christ. We’re called to go find the hungry, the thirsty, the naked (whether in a physical or a spiritual sense) and treat them with the utmost tenderness—to tend to their most fundamental needs.

Of course, Benedict didn’t intend for this humble service and hospitality only to be directed toward guests. This spirit of tender service infuses every aspect of the common life he sketches in the Rule. The vow of obedience that Benedictines take is as much (or even more) about a mutual deference and service as it is about submission to an authority figure. The community is bound together by a commitment to stay together in a life built on tending to each other’s spiritual and physical needs.

A parish like St. John’s obviously isn’t a monastery. Most of us haven’t taken religious vows. Many of us are married with children. But that doesn’t mean that this spirit of mutual care is somehow separate from our lives. Rowan Williams, Archbishop Emeritus of Canterbury, touches on this in his recently published book about the Benedictine Rule. He draws direct parallels between the monastic life of St. Benedict and marriage and parish life, states of life we more often find ourselves in. All of them, he says, are built on a commitment to stick it out for the long haul—to be “in this together,” meeting each other’s needs.

So we need to ask ourselves and each other, “What do we need?” Earlier this week, as I shared a coffee over Zoom with a parishioner (an activity that’s become strangely normal), we were talking about what the parish could give them and what they could give the parish. It came down to a desire to be held and to hold in return. That’s a pretty fundamental spiritual and emotional need—to be tended to with simple caring presence. I know this resonated with what I’ve longed for in this exile, and it echoes themes I’ve heard and noticed with a lot of you.

The beauty is that this is exactly our common life. Like marriages and monasteries, St. John’s is bound together by a commitment to be “in it” with another. As the marriage vows put it: “to have and to hold.” Our basic need is also our basic vocation as Christians. Holding one another in God’s love is central to our faith. This is what we welcome others into. And this is what we go and invite people into.

So let us hold one another and invite others into this communion of holy care.

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