The Two Stout Monks Myth
The Two Stout Monks Myth
by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe
Part Three of
Fr. McGivney’s Guests
Except those specifically attributed otherwise, all texts from the Church Fathers are taken from the monumental work coordinated by Philip Schaff between 1886 and 1900, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.
A word of caution
Throughout this book, the translations of texts from Latin and Greek are relaxed. I don’t think I’ve altered the meaning of any passage. In general, I started with the English translations from Philip Schaff and his team of renowned scholars who did so much a century ago to make Patristic texts available in English. But I moved away from his style, which was shaped by the King James Version of the Bible, which I found it archaic and unnecessarily distracting. However, his translations were precise, based on the original texts. My translations are not based on the original, and are not as precise as his. Scholars who need precision in the text should not rely on my work.
© 2020 John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe. All rights reserved.
to Fr. Francis Martin
monk, scholar, author, preacher, pastor, friend
Fr. Francis Martin loved the Lord,
and he loved the Church,
and he loved the people whom he served.
Rule of St. Benedict
Chapter 56, about the abbot’s table. The Abbot shall always take his meals with the guests and strangers. But as often as there are few guests, it shall be in his power to invite any of the Brethren he may choose. Let him take care, however, that one or two Seniors be always left with the Brethren, for the sake of discipline.
Chapter 53, about welcoming guests. All guests who come are to be acknowledged and accepted as Christ, because he himself will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Chapter 74, about contumacious visitors. If any pilgrim shall come from distant parts with wish to dwell in the monastery, and will be content with the customs of the place, and does not by his lavishness disturb the monastery but is simply content, he shall be received for as long as he wishes.
If, indeed, he shall find fault with anything, and shall expose the matter reasonably and with the humility of charity, the Abbott shall discuss it with him prudently lest perchance God hath sent him for this very thing.
But, if he shall have been found contumacious during his sojourn in the monastery, then it shall be said to him, firmly, that he must depart. If he will not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.
(Note: Benedict’s Rule had 73 chapters. Ahem.)
Table of Contents
We pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
And He does.
Fr. Francis Martin, a renowned Scripture scholar whom I knew for 30 years, worked hard to teach, joyfully and tenaciously. He told a story from Hasidic literature about a big Jewish wedding, with several old rabbis as guests. At one point, most people were dancing, and the rabbis enjoyed it, but they didn’t dance. So they slipped away into a back room, to “string pearls.” They sat there talking about God, and their joy burst into flame. The room was completely filled with fire. The host burst in. “What are you doing? You’re going to burn my house down?” “No,” they said, “be at peace. This is the fire of Sinai. It will warm you. It will light your way. It will never harm you.”
So for non-Jews, or for non-Hasidic-Jews, what does this mean, “stringing pearls”? Fr. Martin said they had three kinds of pearls. The first was Scripture, the Torah or Law and the Prophets. Next was the Talmud, all of the commentary on Scripture, all of the wisdom of the ages since Sinai. And third was all of the experience of these men themselves, their own stories. The rabbis shared Scripture, and commentary, and experience, stringing them together – one, two, three, then do it again. And when you put these three together, fire may burst out, with a joy that surpasses wedding dances. So said Fr. Francis Martin.
Imitating our older brothers and sisters in faith, the Jews, we should work to tie together Scripture, and Tradition, and experience. For Christians, Scripture includes the Law and the Prophets, and then also the New Testament. Our Tradition includes the teaching of a living and unified community, from the Fathers in our early centuries up to and through Vatican II, on to Pope Francis and the bishops who cooperate with him. Our experience includes world history, but also includes our (my, your) own individual lived experiences. We find God revealing himself in Scripture and Tradition – and also in the quiet of our own hearts.
St. John Paul II made a huge change in the way we teach. His encyclicals, like the previous century of encyclicals, include carefully protected continuity, with numerous references to earlier teaching, including previous encyclicals. But he added an amazingly rich layer of thought: he drew extensively and explicitly on the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. I don’t know why he did that; perhaps it was because he was Polish, and had grown up in between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church(es). Whatever the reason, he made this change, and serious Catholics should notice it and imitate it.
Hence this book, the third in a series. I set out to understand the teaching of the Church on immigration, the teaching in Scripture and Tradition. I started with the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Second was the New Testament. Third, the Fathers – and more, but just “the Fathers” for now.
I say “Fathers.” But I went centuries past the Patristic era, to St. Thomas Aquinas.
Problems abound. First, where are the boundaries of this exploration? Who qualifies as a “Father”? And what about the Mothers? There are hundreds or thousands of eligible candidates, men and women whose lives and writings are precious to the Church. This is a huge field.
Second, wherever you draw the boundary, I’m quite ignorant. Or was; after a couple of years, I may have graduated from quite ignorant to pretty ignorant.
Third, this is an intimidating bunch of folks. It’s not just that they all have mouths that turn down in the corners; they have beards that keep right on drooping grimly for another foot or two. They don’t seem to invite chit-chat. When you find these guys on pedestals, you might think it’s best to just leave them there, back up, and go away. This pedestal problem is testable: just for fun, tell a few people you have started studying Patristic literature. You’ll get silence, maybe, or laughter. Except in very special places – highly specialized corners of ivory towers – that’s not a conversation starter. So to talk about insights from the Fathers, I have to move fast to break the ice that accumulates like an Arctic January. Desert Father jokes, Jerome’s refreshing profanity, Athanasius’s gnarly feet. Maybe a handful of quick quotes. Patristics: people are scared by the weird, bored by the beard, generally ungeared, almost never endeared.
And that’s before people think (but don’t bother to say, because it’s just so over-the-top foreign so why try?) why patristics without matristics? Have you noticed that when you talk about Patristics, you sound patriarchal, and that’s a problem? (Or a moblem?)
And the people who study Patristics and associated whatchamacallits: they’re a strange and unpleasant bunch! Do you remember the rabbi in The Fiddler on the Roof? He was wonderful, delightful. But do you remember the people around him? Nasty smelly skinny angry googly-eyed brain-squashed heart-pinched arrogant ugly fanatic misfits.
It’s odd: I am not intimidated by Moses, whom I came to love when I understood what he said about strangers. I’m not intimidated by Jesus. I’m respectful of the Lord, and with Thomas the Doubter I kneel before him; but I trust his invitation, and I’m awed but not intimidated. So I think there’s something unhealthy about being intimidated by the Fathers.
Deep breath. Patristics: Pope John Paul II wanted it, and Fr. Francis Martin encouraged my search. Jump!
The starting question was simple. Jesus said, welcome strangers and meet my Father, or don’t and go to hell. Why did he say that? What did he mean? Who’s a stranger? So I read the Old Testament to try to figure that out. And I found a shockingly forceful and abundant body of teaching about welcoming strangers in the Old Testament. The moral teaching of Moses can be understood starting with the command to welcome strangers because – remember! – you too were once a stranger in a strange land. Jesus talked about welcoming strangers because he’s Jewish.
If I understood the teaching in the Old Testament correctly, then it had to show up in the New Testament as well. So I went to the New Testament for confirmation; and again, I found far more than I had expected or imagined. Jesus summed up the Law and Prophets in two intertwined commands: love God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Okay, but who’s my neighbor? Jesus answers that question in almost the same way Moses did: get inside the mind and experience of the person in need. Moses talked about remembering the Exodus; Jesus talked about imagining the Good Samaritan; what they said was presented in slightly different ways, from different angles, but the key demand about strangers or non-neighbors was identical.
If I was right about the force and abundance of the teaching in Scripture, then it would show up in the life and teaching of the Church. If I had a different angle on the teaching, with questions about global migration, okay. If I brushed off insights that people have neglected a little sometimes, okay. But if I started saying things that no one else had said in 2,000 years, then I was crazy, or at least mistaken. So: does the teaching of the Church support what I think I found in Scripture? Did the Fathers talk about this stuff?
That was the question. That’s where this short book, third in the series, came from. And the answer is yes.
I couldn’t read all the Patristic literature in the world, nor even a noticeable fraction of the thousands of books, millions of pages. How could I limit what I would use, without descending to mere cherry-picking, which could probably prove any point I wanted to make? Cherry-picking, I could probably build a case for a flat earth, with impressive quotes from St. Cherubic the Bald and some obscure Gnostic texts. I chose to focus on the eight Fathers who are called “the Great” – four Latin Fathers and four Greek Fathers – plus the work of St. Benedict and then St. Thomas Aquinas almost a millennium later. (Plus some cherries.)
As in any contact with intelligent people, there were many surprises. Chief among them: the general approach to hospitality in the history of the Church was organized in a way that was different from the Old Testament pattern, and also different from the pattern in the New Testament. The Church developed a third pattern. Moses and the Hebrews saw a national problem, and responded nationally. The Gospels seemed to focus more on a personal problem, and a personal response. The Church for a millennium embraced both; but for the most part, the pattern of response was ecclesial. Monks welcomed strangers, in the name of the whole Church. This third pattern is immensely important; it opens the door for a fourth pattern, free of any sense that new patterns undermine or betray or stray from the teaching of Moses and Jesus.
May the Lord grant you joy in the reading, as he gave me joy in the writing. And then, with joy: let us welcome the Lord in our midst.
I am not intimidated by Moses, whom I came to love when I understood what he said about strangers. I’m not intimidated by Jesus. I’m respectful of the Lord, and with Thomas the Doubter I kneel before him; but I trust his invitation, and I’m awed but not intimidated. So I think there’s something unhealthy about being intimidated by the Fathers.
What return can I make to the Lord for His goodness to me?
To understand hospitality in the first millennium of the Church, we need to understand monasteries. May I tell you a small story about a small paper bag of small plums?
When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer near Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, NM. I spent 40 days there, trying to learn something about prayer. I didn’t have any agenda beyond responding to the invitation to call God “Father.” It was a glorious time, a fount of insights and memories that I have treasured and drawn on ever since.
I got there with a friend, but after a couple of weeks, he had to leave for a family event, so I was there alone most of that time. (To be fair, I had abandoned him alone in the desert on the previous trip.) We hitch-hiked from Maryland, so we didn’t have much control of our schedule; but we got there on June 24, the birthday of John the Baptist. And when I walked out 40 days later, the reading at Mass was about the beheading of John the Baptist. I hadn’t planned the beginning or the end, but I definitely noticed it.
The monastery in Abiquiu is in a canyon, on the Rio Chama. It’s at the end of a dusty dirt road, seven miles off the highway. The walls of the canyon have all the color of the Painted Desert or the Grand Canyon. We saw, I believed, clear evidence of the love of God, prepared hundreds of millions of years ago, poured and splashed all around the whole area.
I didn’t have any set agenda, and didn’t have a plan to complete anything. But taking one little step at a time, I read the Bible, entire, in those 40 days. That was wonderful in a million ways, but one detail was that I read books as unified works, rather than reading one pregnant passage after another, more or less in isolation. I was very much aware of how some books (like Jonah and the Song of Songs) hung together, with a beginning and middle and end (and others, including some lesser prophets, didn’t cohere – not in any way I could discern, anyway).
I tried to keep vigil. Not for any specific purpose. It was just that some people pray that way, so I tried it too. I tried to stay awake through a night, praying and reading Scripture. First time, I fell asleep around 3 AM. A few days later, I tried again, supported by coffee. I buzzed all night, and in the morning I passed coffee unpleasantly. Strike two. The third time, I climbed up out of the canyon onto the mesa north of the monastery, and lit a fire that probably could be seen for miles and miles. And during that night, I had a remarkable experience of God’s love. I don’t claim that anything happened that was noteworthy to anyone other than me; but it was immensely noteworthy to me. God loves us, including me. I say that, and I believe it; but I have also experienced it, that night. The experience seemed to last for centuries. As I was returning to normality, I was distraught that I didn’t see how to hang on to the experience. It was different from anything else I had ever experienced, and so I couldn’t attach it to memory. It wasn’t that the experience was vague: quite the opposite. It seemed to me that the experience was more real than anything else I had ever experienced, and its solidity was the problem. Everything else was flimsy. It was like a solid little ball of reality, a BB, bouncing around in an empty boxcar. It wouldn’t attach itself to the thin air that we accept as normality. I was determined to hang onto something, though, and the best I could do was an assertion: if I could remember this experience, I would never again lose my temper with anyone, ever, for anything.
I have forgotten the experience, and I have lost my temper – often. But I remember that I have forgotten. I know – from my toenails to the tips of my hair – that God loves us far beyond anything we can imagine. I’m a pretty screwed up guy, but I know a detail about God’s love. Or anyway, I know that once I knew. And it doesn’t really matter to me whether I can recall the experience or not: it was real, even if I’m forgetful and blind.
I (we) didn’t stay at the monastery; we camped a mile east. After Dave left, I thought of the tent as a “hermitage,” which makes the thing sound a little pompous and weird. “I went camping in New Mexico one summer” sounds delightful. Take your pick.
We weren’t staying at the monastery, but we did walk in for morning prayer or Mass most days. There were three monks there at that time, plus a family that was an integral part of the monastic community (in ways that someone else will have to explain, if you’re interested). The monks included two founders, Father Aelred from Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island, and Father Gregory, from Mount Savior Monastery in New York; the third monk was Brother Anthony, from a Benedictine monastery in Alabama. Father Aelred looked like a desert creature: he was slight, with worn leathery skin, the color of the desert sand. His eyes were bright, and calm, and I guess they were “piercing.” That is, when you met his eye, you wondered what he could see in you – or I did, anyway. He looked as if he would be content in an hour-long staring match with a lion or a rattlesnake. For sure, he knew something that I didn’t know.
Father Gregory was a much more comfortable guy. If Father Aelred seemed to come straight from the austere monastery at Citeaux, Father Gregory seemed to be from the lavish monastery at Cluny – if that makes sense. His voice was beautiful, and I can still hear him clearly, singing psalms: “What return can I make to the Lord, for his goodness to me? The cup of salvation I will take, and call on the name of the Lord.” And I remember clearly one of his sermons, explaining his response to the question in that psalm. He said we can’t give the Lord anything to match his gifts to us, so don’t try! The proper response to generosity is generosity, poured out freely, unstintingly, without measure.
I went to the desert without any agenda, other than living with the invitation to call God “Father.” But a few days before I left, I thought that I got an answer to a question I hadn’t asked, or hadn’t meant to ask: what should I do with my life? I sensed that God would bless it if I decided to stay there and join the monastery, but that his preference was that I do something else. And the something else was out of sight – not hidden, but not visible either – to be found by trial and error, to be found in the dark, to be found by trust. I chose the latter, chose to leave. (And I have been stumbling happily in the dark ever since. Usually happily. Fifteen-plus grandchildren: that’s one indication of happiness.)
The day before I left, I went up to the monastery for evening prayer. And after prayer, I wept. I wasn’t noisy, but when I stopped and got up to leave, I noticed that I had left a puddle on the floor about eight inches across. Someone checked on me, to find out who had died. I was at peace about my decision to leave, but I was still very sad. I had been so very happy there.
In the morning, I went back in for Mass, and then said goodbye to the people who had befriended me. I couldn’t find Father Aelred, and was sorry about that. After searching for a while, I went on my way, walking out. When I had gone about a mile, I heard a car crunching rock and gravel on the road behind me. Father Aelred had come after me, to say goodbye. He had a bag of fruit for my lunch. There in the desert, they had irrigated a small orchard, and had small plums.
I was glad to have the plums. I had eaten the monastery’s plums before, and they were sweet. But that wasn’t really the point. We talked a few minutes, about what I was doing next; and that was good too, but it wasn’t the point. He looked at me with his bright eyes under his leathery eyelids, and smiled. And smiled. He saw me, and I saw his love for me. And that was the point.
The plums were good plums. But they were just a little token, to help explain his eyes, his heart.
In my third vigil, I experienced God’s love. It was a reality way beyond beyond. Father Aelred’s love was a small but important detail of God’s love for me. But with this much smaller love, there was a way to – not capture it, but hint at it. The plums were an expression of love.
I was received at the monastery by Christ – by Father Aelred, in persona Christi. And I was received there as Christ, by Father Aelred, a true monk. The last I saw of Father Aelred, his ministerial ordination shown in his face: he was a porter, standing by his dusty Jeep at the gate of heaven.
So what do I know about monastic hospitality? Not much. But I think I saw the heart of the thing. I stood on the threshold of eternity with a brother who knew what matters in the world, and he supported me without limit. The tangible expression of his love was negligible. It was a vessel – a hint, a sign, a rune, a marking – like a sacramental. Negligible, but unforgettable. Just a little bag of plums.
Hospitality in the Desert
The stories and insights in this chapter are taken from The Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton (New York, NY: New Directions, 1960).
In the third and fourth centuries AD, there was a new movement in Christian life that laid the foundations for a millennium of monastic life. The “Desert Fathers” and mothers abandoned the wreck of the Roman Empire and fled into the wilderness to pray – some alone, some in small communities. There were hermits and monks scattered along a 250 mile stretch in the Egyptian desert, from the Mediterranean south toward Lycopolis on the road to Sudan. They were in the mountainous region in the northern end of the Aegean Sea, around Skete on Mount Athos. They showed up in the deserts in Palestine, Arabia, and Persia. For over a century, these fugitives from decadence, pioneers of Christian life, tended the fire of the Gospel.
The paradox: solitude and hospitality
In their lives, solitude was fundamental, indispensable, mandatory. Abbot Anthony said, “Just as fish go back to the sea, we must return to our cells” (Merton, XI). And Abbot Moses in Skete, asked for a word of wisdom, suggested a source better than himself: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (Merton, XIII). And yet, this much-sought solitude was only a tool, a means to an end. The true goal was a deep relationship with God – which cannot be separated from love of your neighbor. These men and women struggled with incredible determination to find solitude; but at the same time, they were profoundly committed to hospitality.
Thomas Merton tells of a man visited a hermit, and stayed for a period of time. When he left, he apologized for intruding: Forgive me, Father, for I have interrupted your observance of your Rule. The hermit replied, my Rule is to receive you with hospitality, and to let you depart in peace. (Merton, LXXV)
To know God, the hermits sought solitude. In solitude, God taught them to love. And the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor. Their solitude prepared them for hospitality.
The joy of hospitality
The hospitality of the hermits is usually described as joyful. It’s not seen as a burden accepted obediently; it’s a plain joy. For example, there’s the story of an elder who fasted most days. But when he met his brothers, he invited them with joy to dine with him. With joy: that’s a part of the story. We today, who are accustomed to luxury, might be quick to explain that joy: the old man had a good excuse to eat, and he was hungry! But the story asserts otherwise. The elder explained his joy, giving two reasons. Out of charity, he set aside the rewards of fasting, and fulfilled two commandments: he set aside his own will, and he refreshed his hungry brethren. Joy! (Merton CXLI)
There’s a similar story about Abbot John the Dwarf at Skete. A group of priests came to visit. During their dining, a very old priest, one of the visitors, got up to serve, offering a cup of water to each person there. No one would permit this esteemed old man to be a servant to them, except John the Dwarf. Afterwards, they all questioned John, asking how he could dare to accept the service of such a revered old man. He said that when he got up to pour water for his friends, he was happy when they accepted. He took the drink because he thought it would please the old man, and protect him from feeling sad because no one took what he offered (Merton, CXVIII). In other words, hospitality is a fountain of joy for the giver as well as the receiver.
The stories about the Desert Fathers includes a collection of visitor jokes. We tell (or listen patiently to) knock-knock jokes, a recognizable sub-genre of literature. They had something similar – visitor jokes. For example, there’s the story of a hermit who was visited by several men from a nearby community. The visitors were monks, from a new-fangled thing, a monastery; there was a little competition between the hermits who lived alone and the monks who lived in groups. To be properly hospitable, the hermit brought out all the food he had stored away, and they ate it all. That night, he heard his visitors whispering amongst themselves, saying that this hermit ate far better than they ever ate at the monastery. So in the morning, when they were preparing to leave to visit another hermit, he asked them to bring a message: be careful not to water the vegetables. The second hermit understood the message, and he had the visitors sit down and weave baskets for hours without a break. Then he fed them a little bread with salt. Then they started reading the Psalms, and prayed right through the night until it as almost dawn. Then they got a short rest. When they got up, they were ready to leave; but he insisted they accept his hospitality for several days. Charity demanded that he serve them. That night, under the cover of dark, the monks fled (Merton, VIII).
Abbot Simon worked hard to avoid visitors who came to him for enlightenment. Hearing that a provincial judge with a retinue was coming, he scrambled up a tree and pretended to be a workman picking dates. They asked where to find the man of wisdom. “Not here!” he assured them. Another time, friends warned him that another judge was on the way, to get a blessing. This time, his disguise was food. He sat in the entrance of his cave, eating bread and cheese. So when this judge with his retinue arrived, they saw a glutton, not a disciplined hermit. They insulted him, and departed. Which left him in peace. (Merton, CIV)
Hospitality to the weak
Some brothers approached Abbot Anthony, asking what they had to do to be saved from damnation. At first, he tried to deflect the question: you have Scripture, and you can find the answer to this question by yourself! But they pressed, asking for a word of wisdom direct from his mouth. So he suggested they try to follow the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: if someone hits your left cheek, offer him your right cheek. They said they couldn’t do that. Okay, if you can’t offer your other cheek, at least accept the first blow patiently. They said they couldn’t do that either. Okay, then don’t hit back. A third time, they demurred, saying that the challenge was beyond their strength. At that, Anthony turned to his servant and asked him to cook some food for these men, because they were weak. And he said to the men that if they couldn’t listen to the words of Jesus, how could he help? He could only pray for them. (Merton, CXXXVII)
When Anthony began to prepare food for them, was he just being sarcastic? Was he dismissing their efforts to live an ascetic life in the desert? If they couldn’t do what the Lord asked, why were they undertaking a life of fasting? That’s plausible. But it’s also plausible that what he did was simple: he saw their weakness, and so he fed them. Hospitality is neither a curse nor an insult!
Hospitality: the test of holiness
Two brothers got a reputation for humility. The desert fathers were not pleased when people developed reputations and received praise for their lives; at best, it’s a nuisance and a temptation, and it may be a fraud. So one holy man went to test them. He visited them, and they received him with joy. They prayed the psalms together, and then the father went outside to their little garden, and destroyed it, smashing every plant with a stick. The brothers watched without saying a word, nor even showing dismay on their faces. When the destruction was over, the three went back inside and prayed Vespers together. Then the brothers found one remaining cabbage, and invited their guest to dinner. The elder fell to his face in front of them, and thanked God. He was convinced that the Spirit of God rested there. What was the proof? Hospitality. (Merton, CX)
The Old Testament and hospitality
There is a story that there was a brother who wanted to know how to do good, and went to a friend of Abbot Anthony, Father Abbot Nisteros. “What good work should I do?” he asked. Abbot Nisteros said he should understand the models in Scripture, then pay attention to what his soul desired when he was praying, and do that. The elder held up three possible models: Abraham and Elijah and David. These men pleased God in different ways, by hospitality and solitary prayer and humility. (Merton, III)
Thus the story. What can we take from it? Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to do one and not the other two; the brother should focus and work hard on one, without neglecting the others. All three are necessary; they correspond to the teaching of the Lord that the Church recalls in Lent, when we seek to renew and deepen our spiritual life, so we pray (like Elijah’s solitary prayer) and fast (to learn humility, like David) and give alms (imitating the hospitality of Abraham).
The priority: almsgiving over fasting
The hermits and monks in the desert were committed to prayer and ascetic practices. However, love mattered more. A brother put this question to an elder. There are two brothers, one who prays all day, fasts six days a week, and does penance. The other cares for the sick. Which work pleases God most? The elder did not say, listen to your heart and choose. He said that the one who fasts could also hang himself up by the nose, and he would still not come up to the level of the one who took care of the sick. (Merton, XCVI)
Avoiding food that perishes
On another occasion, a young monk avoided work in the kitchen, because he was busy praying. He said he had chosen the better part, like Mary. So they didn’t feed him. When he got hungry, they urged him to be spiritual, and avoid food that perishes. He thought that over a bit, then apologized. Martha’s work of hospitality is necessary for Mary’s work of listening at the feet of Jesus. (Merton, XXXIII)
Hospitality in the Didache
The Didache is a short catechism summarizing the beliefs and rituals and structure of the Church, that may have been written in the first century AD. It’s short, perhaps 3,000 words in English, shorter in the original Greek; it is often presented in a chapter format, with 16 chapters; but each “chapter” is a single paragraph.
It summarizes the commandments under two headings, love of God and love of neighbor. But the details do not follow any other familiar list. The section on love of God includes many details from the Sermon on the Mount, and the section on the love of neighbor overlaps the neighbor-oriented half of the Ten Commandments. But it’s not a neat and tidy fit.
The teaching on sharing is forceful. If someone asks you for something, give it to them, and let it go! And don’t try to retrieve it! Because God wants us to share the blessings that he has given to us.
Elsewhere: You should be ready to give away what you have, as payment for your sins.
And elsewhere: Don’t hesitate to give, and don’t damage the gift by complaining! Be confident that you will come to know the true Giver of all good gifts.
And elsewhere: share everything with your brother. In fact, don’t even assert ownership! If you share imperishable and eternal gifts with your brothers, then you should share the perishable goods in the meantime.
Some of the teaching in the Didache starts out familiar, then veers. “Don’t fast like the hypocrites,” it says. We think we know where that’s going: the next line is, be discreet. Nope! “They fast on Monday and Thursday.” Okay. What are we supposed to do? Fast every day? Fast when we have sinned (every day?)? Fast more, three times a week? Less: once a month? Fast before a feast? No, we should fast on Wednesday and Friday. No explanation given. (One can perhaps surmise that the point is to imitate the strengths of the Jewish Pharisees, but to develop and protect a separate identity.)
The call to love your neighbor is not quite as lofty as the Sermon on the Mount. It divides people up in four categories: those we hate, those we try to fix, those we pray for, and those we love more than life itself. Those we hate: ZERO. Those we love more than life itself: that may or may not be a large group. As to the middle two groups: there’s no explanation of the difference between them.
The Didache has much to say about itinerant preachers. Much of it is simple and sweet: if they seem to be chasing money or comfort, they are frauds. And the teaching about welcoming strangers appears in this context – and indeed, it may refer specifically and solely to visiting missionaries. If someone comes “in the name of the Lord,” make him welcome. But what does that mean: “in the name of the Lord”?
The expansive Hebrew concept of welcome for immigrants is not in the Didache. Instead, it says that if a visitor is just passing through, you should take good care of this person – for two or three days. And if the newcomer wants to settle down, that’s probably fine – if he has a craft and wants to work. If he doesn’t have a trade, that’s a problem: Christians should not live idle among you. Bottom line, with all visitors: use your judgment. And the text repeats over and over: genuine prophets and true teachers are entitled to support, like any workman, but watch out for frauds!
In sum, the Didache calls eloquently for great generosity – but within a small community. It isn’t clear whether the text says anything at all about visitors other than preachers like Paul. What is does say is very cautious, in marked contrast to its call for wide open generosity within the community.
I have argued that Scripture is full of passionate calls for hospitality for strangers, especially those from another land. If I’m right, I will find it reflected and explained in Patristic literature as well. So is it there? Looking at one significant item, the Church’s oldest catechism, the answer is clear: nope, not here.
Why not? Three thoughts:
First: the Didache may not reflect New Testament thought because it pre-dates Matthew – or, more likely, was contemporary with the Gospels, starting to circulate among first-generation Christians at about the same time as the Gospels. Look, for example, at its description of the Eucharist. It’s recognizable, unmistakable; and yet it’s also clearly not based on the Gospels: it has the offering of wine preceding the bread. The author of the Didache had heard the Sermon on the Mount, in some version; but did not base his description of the Last Supper on the Gospels. It’s a different strand of thought, a separate development.
Second: similarly, the Didache may not reflect the Old Testament because – perhaps – it developed among the Greek Christians. I have no data to support that except that it was written in Greek, and doesn’t have any references to the Hebrew Bible, nor any echoes of it.
Third: Just as Jesus and his disciples did not think about how a nation should welcome immigrants, because they lived in an occupied land, as strangers in their own land, so too the same may apply in the communities that produced, used, and disseminated the Didache.
There is another significant insight to draw from the way the Didache treats the matter of hospitality. The teaching is encased in suspicion about false prophets and teachers. In the 21st century, we are all familiar with hucksters presenting themselves as evangelists and pleading for money. The Didache reflects a similar suspicion – but for them, it wasn’t just about money. It’s clear that the frauds they saw in their time abused money and hospitality. Ancient stranger danger! For them, the warning signs of fraud included excessive pleas for monetary support – or for hospitality.
St. Martin of Tours
In the history of the “corporal works of mercy,” there are few stories more delightful than the little jewel about St. Martin of Tours.
For centuries, the Church has used a list of seven specific services to people in need as a teaching tool. They are good things to do in Lent, which is a time of prayer and fasting and almsgiving, or indeed good to do any time. The list is based on Scripture, with six items taken from Matthew’s Gospel, and one from the Book of Tobit. It’s a teaching tool aimed at practical action, leaning forward to concrete service. Although it is based on Scripture, it is not an excerpt from the Bible; so it is plastic and malleable – and the list has been changed somewhat from time to time.
One of the items in the list is to clothe the naked, and the story of St. Martin (fact? legend?) is an illustration. Martin was a soldier in the Roman army for a period, stationed in Gaul. One cold night, he was approached by a beggar who was freezing. He promptly cut his cloak in half, and shared it. Later that night, he had a dream in which he heard Jesus telling the angels what Martin had done for … for him.
St. Martin was a complex individual. He was the bishop of Tours, and cooperated with St. Hilary of Poitiers in the struggle to explain the Trinitarian teaching of the Church. He founded a monastery at Marmoutier (where, centuries later, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and my grandmother Ruth Evans were taught by Sacred Heart sisters). His military service makes him a model for some Christians in the military, and his exit from the military in order to serve the Lord makes him a model for some conscientious objectors. So you might wonder what he would think about being remembered for a brief incident one night when he was an impetuous teenager.
The story of Martin cutting his cloak left an interesting streak across the languages of Europe. His cloak, or “cappa,” was (the story goes) cut up, and pieces of it were treasured in many shrines, including some along a popular pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The small stone structures built to hold the relics of Martin’s “cappa” were called “little cloaks” or “capellas.” This is the origin of the word “chapel,” the word for a small church or shrine. Since the shrines were small, often designed for pilgrims, the music in them was generally simple, without instrumental accompaniment: hence, “acapella” music. The word “chaplain” also has its roots in the torn cloak of that young and idealistic Roman soldier. That’s a lot of language from a little incident.
It’s worth noting that no version of the story about Martin’s cloak indicates that the beggar was a Christian. If we set out to serve the Lord, we serve people in need. They don’t have to show any credentials in order to make a claim on Christian service: their need is enough to clothe them in the dignity of Christ.
“Clothe the naked.” This is one of the corporal works of mercy, and this one is taken directly from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus commanded it. Interestingly, in Scripture, we do read about Jesus serving people in some of the ways mentioned in his six precepts, but not this one. There is no story about Jesus giving clothes to people who were freezing. He certainly clothed people with dignity, a metaphorical extension of the idea of clothing. When he met the women at the well, for example, his conversation with her got around to the worst problems in her life, but in a way that left her joyful and hopeful: he clothed her with dignity.
We don’t see Jesus clothing others – not literally, at any rate. But we do read of Jesus becoming the one who needs help. Before he was crucified, he was stripped. So when we set out to obey the Lord’s command to clothe the naked, we don’t imitate something we saw him do; rather, we recall his assertion that when we serve people in need, we serve him. Jesus reveals himself, sometimes as one who serves, but sometimes as one who is in need of service. Jesus at the well was thirsty. Jesus in his preaching mission was homeless. Jesus after his arrest was imprisoned, and naked.
We find the Lord in the encounter between people who are in need and people who serve. But which is he: broken, or savior? Both. Which are we? Both.
One of the great works of St. Pope John Paul II was strengthening links between Eastern and Western Christianity, between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches. He was not the first to struggle for unity, nor the last; the task is not completed yet. One detail of his great work for unity was re-establishing a habit of thinking through issues in part by drawing on the wisdom of the Fathers of the Church. Reading the encyclicals of the past century, it struck me that for decades the teaching was often somewhat self-referential: the popes quoted previous popes, making sure that the continuity from one to the next was clear. But then, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, the encyclicals returned to the teaching of the past, drawing extensively on Scripture. And then John Paul II took another step, and began drawing extensively on Patristic literature.
I’m sure many people know better than I why he made that change. But I thought it was because he was Polish, from a nation that struggled for identity – caught between Catholic (and Protestant) Europe and Orthodox Russia. But whatever the reason, he made a great change, and I have tried to follow in his footsteps, tried to draw on the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages.
When I embarked on this effort, I drew up a list of Fathers and Doctors, and their major works. Then I hunted out an easy one: a short narrative work. I started with “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” written by St Irenaeus. St. John the Evangelist lived to a ripe old age, and so did Polycarp; so the account of Polycarp’s death may have been written late in the second century, but was nonetheless an account of the life of a man who knew the apostles. (That is, setting aside scholarly disputes, the following may be approximately right: John may have been exiled in 95 AD, and lived for years afterward; Polycarp lived from about 69 to about 155, and he knew John and other apostles; and Irenaeus lived from about 130 to 202, so he spent many formative years with Polycarp.) I have accepted the story as translated into English by J. B. Lightfoot, a 19th century Anglican bishop of Durham and a renowned Patristics scholar.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, a Greek city on the Aegean coast of what is today Turkey. Smyrna is north of Ephesus, in an area where St. Paul preached. On-again off-again persecution was a part of Christian life at that time, and Polycarp was swept up.
His pursuers were hunting for “atheists.” From their polytheistic perspective, monotheists and atheists were pretty much the same, and they deserved to die for their lack of piety. When Polycarp first heard that he was being hunted, he left Smyrna, persuaded that he should try to stay alive. The question of how to deal with martyrdom was a pressing issue then: should you turn yourself in and try to get executed, or flee? Not long after Polycarp’s death, large groups of Christians turned themselves in and demanded to be executed; officials cooperated with some requests, but then decided it was a nuisance, and told the would-be martyrs to go hang themselves. But there were others who turned themselves in, then saw death approaching and re-calculated. Polycarp was a moderate on the issue: he fled, but calmly.
While he was on the run, he stayed with friends. That is, one of the last acts of his ministry was hospitality – visiting friends. While he was with them, he and they prayed for the whole world, and for the whole church.
When he was caught, he asked his hosts to provide food and drink for the arresting officers, as much as they wanted. While they were eating, he stood up to pray and preach, at length; so one could perhaps argue cynically that this hospitality was just a ruse, to buy time. In any case, Irenaeus records that the pursuers were impressed, and began to repent that they had come out to chase a venerable old man.
When he was hauled into court, the prosecutor – the proconsul – demanded that Polycarp cooperate with Roman authorities and denounce atheism. From the perspective of someone who worships many gods, someone who worships only one god looks a lot like someone who worships none. Polycarp fussed a bit, but – without defining the term – decided he could do that; he agreed to cry out, “Away with the atheists!” But the proconsul amended and focused his command: “Denounce Christ!” And that point, Polycarp dug in: “I have served him for 86 years and he never did me any injury! How, then, can I blaspheme my king and my savior?” To me, it seems that this decision to embrace martyrdom was not cerebral, not about lofty principles; it was, rather, a simple statement of love and affection, issuing from a loyal heart.
After a little debate, Polycarp was bound and burned. Irenaeus records that witnesses tell of miracles at his death. They said that the fire swirled around him in the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind. Within this circle of fire, Polycarp didn’t look like burnt flesh; instead, he looked more like baked bread, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And the odor of the fire didn’t have the stench of burnt flesh; it was more like frankincense or some other precious spice smoking there.
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, then, has three references to hospitality. (1) Among the final acts of his ministry was visiting friends. (2) When he was taken prisoner, he asked that his hosts provide hospitality to his pursuers. (3) When he was burned at the stake, witnesses did not see a horror; instead, their recollections of the event include images of freedom – sailing with the wind – and purification – like gold in a furnace – and prayer – like incense – and a sacrificial meal – like baked bread. To be sure, these recollections may be pious reconstructions. But even if these accounts are just reconstructions, only loosely based on facts, the reconstructions include the central image of hospitality: to explain Polycarp’s death, like the death of Jesus, we would like to talk about the bread that we share.
The Treasures of St. Lawrence
Like many Catholics who attended parochial schools, I was raised with an awareness of St. Lawrence the determined comic. He was martyred in the third century, roasted over a fire. Legend has it that while he was being roasted, he offered advice to his executioners: “Turn me over! I think I’m done on this side.” In response to this legend, Catholics have appointed him the patron saint of cooks and tanners. The nuns who taught me held him up as a model of courage in the face of death, and as an example of holy humor. (Catholics are a weird bunch.)
The earliest source material about Lawrence was a collection, The Acts of St. Lawrence. It is long lost. But St. Ambrose referred to him in his treatise, On the Duties of the Clergy. Lawrence died in 258; Ambrose wrote in 391. When he referred to Lawrence, Ambrose was not focused on biography; he was making an argument about proper care of sacred vessels. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, had broken up gold items and sold them, in order to buy freedom for some captives. Responding to critics, Ambrose offered the story of Lawrence – and explains why Lawrence was executed. During a persecution in 258, Pope Sixtus was martyred; and after his martyrdom, Roman officials looking for the gold of the Church demanded that next official in line – a deacon, Lawrence – produce the wealth. Lawrence agreed to collect the Church’s treasures, and then showed up at the government building with the poor people of the city. “These are the treasures of the Church,” he said, pointing to the poor. For this, says Ambrose, Lawrence received the crown of martyrdom. The story about flipping the Lawrence-burger may or may not be factual; but the joke does indeed fit the known facts about his sense of humor in the face of tyranny.
St. Ambrose (discussed below in his own chapter) has some ideas about St. Lawrence worth noting carefully. He talks about why Lawrence brought the poor to city hall. Indeed they are treasures, he says, these people in whom Christ lives. He recalls the words of St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:7): God, who created light out of darkness, now shines in the hearts of his people, and so we “hold a treasure in earthen vessels.” He recalls also the words of Jesus (Mt 25:35): “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”
It is noteworthy that Ambrose refers to the text in Matthew as a source of joy: look at our treasures! He does not suggest that they are investments that will pay off later in heaven; he sees them as treasures now. The text in Matthew describes both eternal benefits and eternal punishments associated with the way we deal with these treasures: whatever we do for the poor, the Lord considers to be a gift to himself, and also whatever we fail to do for the needy, the Lord considers to be neglect of himself, with heaven or hell at stake. Ambrose focuses on the benefits.
In our time, Mother Teresa said that she saw the face of Christ in the poor of Calcutta. Well, did she, or didn’t she? Was that silly pious noise? Was it a flat lie? Or did she see something?
Some people have served the poor out of obedience, and that’s not a bad thing. But that’s not what the saints did – or at least not all, or at least not all the time. Mother Teresa and Ambrose and Lawrence saw treasures here and now, not investments that may produce something valuable in the future.
It is also noteworthy that when Ambrose recalled the list of six treasures (or precepts, or whatever you make of the list), he mentioned three. Recalling a piece of the list calls the whole list to mind. But his three included “strangers.” Far too often today, when people recall the list, they recall five of the six, and skip strangers.
When I heard the story of Lawrence, year after year, in parochial school and then a monastery school, I never heard any reference to strangers. I heard that Lawrence brought the poor and crippled and blind to city hall. The idea was clear; the details were smudged.
What Ambrose was doing, besides breaking up and selling liturgical items, was ransoming captives. In later years – for example, at the time of St. Thomas Aquinas – ransoming captives was understood to be a direct response to the Lord’s precept: “visit the imprisoned.” There are some people in captivity you can’t visit; ransoming them is practical help. So when Ambrose invokes the words of Jesus about feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty and welcoming strangers, it is plausible that he is recalling the list of six precepts in Matthew’s Gospel, because he is acting in the spirit of those precepts, especially the sixth (visit the imprisoned.) It was common, in the Gospels and in the teaching of the Fathers, to refer to familiar lists by using a few items, clearly meaning the whole list. To explain why he ransomed prisoners, Ambrose says that Jesus requires that we feed the hungry. That’s completely clear, although the modern ear might prefer a more specific reference.
Often, the attitude of people recalling the Lord’s precepts about care for those in need is dutiful: we will try to do what we know we should do. The attitude that Ambrose had, and that he saw in Lawrence, is very different from grumpy grey obedience. Referring to the hungry, thirsty, strangers, and others, Ambrose asks: What better treasures does Jesus have than those treasures in which he loves to be seen?
Introduction to the Eight Great Fathers
I came to this perusal of Patristic literature with a simple question that a non-expert could hope to answer. Were the ideas about hospitality that I thought I had found in the Old and New Testaments reflected in the life and teaching of the Church? If so, good. If not, then the ideas I thought I had found in Scripture were probably nonsense. The answer was unequivocal: the ideas that I found in the Old and New Testament are indeed reflected in the Tradition of the Church, in the Patristic and Scholastic periods.
Nonetheless, I wanted to guard against accidental cherry-picking. That is, I found the letters of Theophilus to Autolycus encouraging – but so what? Who are they? So I decided to look carefully at the teaching of more easily recognized leaders, and opted for The Four Great Latin Fathers and The Four Great Greek Fathers. So with my simple question in hand, I approached the teaching of a limited number of leading thinkers. I read others as well, but focused especially on these eight.
The Eight Greats are four who wrote in Greek, from the East – Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, John Chrysostom – and four who wrote in Latin, from the West – Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Six of them were born in a 25-year period, just after the Council of Nicea. Athanasius was of the previous generation, when Constantine ended the era of persecution and encouraged Christianity throughout the Roman Empire (315 AD). He attended the Council of Nicea as a young man. So they lived in a time when the Church was no longer dealing with martyrdom, and was instead cooperating with the State, working out theological ideas. The Council of Nicea (325 AD) – asserting that Jesus was truly God, truly man, and not schizophrenic – was a shaping event of their era. The eighth Great, Pope Gregory I, came along almost two centuries later.
Jerome and Basil were instrumental in building the institutions that provided hospitality. Ambrose and Gregory provided a systematic approach, describing hospitality as the role of the clergy (on behalf of the people). They all wrote with passion and conviction. And all eight – including John Chrysostom, although he threw a curve ball – understood hospitality to be mandated by the Lord, not a matter of optional decoration in the corner of Christian life.
1. The extraordinarily clear and forceful teaching from Moses and Jesus that I thought I found in the Old and New Testaments is indeed prominent throughout their teaching.
2. There are some significant differences among them on critical issues. In particular, Jerome said with great passion that Jesus commanded his followers to care for the needs of all strangers; John Chrysostom, on the other hand, said that the command from Jesus was limited, not expanded, by his words that whatever we do for the least of the brethren, we do for the Lord himself. The brethren, said Chrysostom, means Christians. It seems to me that this disagreement was settled in favor of Jerome’s view by the monks of the next millennium, who served all, not just Christians.
3. The pattern of hospitality in the life of the Church was different from the two pattern that seemed to be evident in the Old Testament and then the New Testament. The responsibility to welcome strangers was primarily national in the Old Testament, and primarily personal in the New Testament. In the life of the Church, at least from the Patristic era up to the Reformation, welcoming strangers was understood as a Church responsibility. Of course, these patterns overlap; but there were three different models. This is immensely important in understanding the modern pattern, the global approach of the Social Gospel.
4. I was startled over and over by the joy in their writing. I am perhaps a little bit morose and big bit argumentative, but sometimes I recognize joy: “See that silliness over there? That might be a drunken orgy getting underway, but I think it’s joy.” Joy is the flute of the Spirit.
The first thing you have got to understand about Jerome and the other “Great Fathers” is that they are accessible.
“Patristic Literature”! What does that call to mind? Frowning monks, frowning scholars, weird hats, black robes – foreign, distant, formidable, holy-holy – ancient texts, scary smart people, incense – get on your knees and kiss the right thing or get lost, and if you don’t know what to kiss then get lost fast.
Don’t get scared off yet. Jerome was one of the scariest of these ancient dusty holy-holies, but I promise that if you listen to him – not to his weirdo followers, but to him – you will like him. Some of his writing is about issues we have forgotten or don’t understand, but relax and try to understand the guy.
Among the scary brilliant scholars and holy men (sorry, just men and not women, for the moment) who helped shape the Church after the time of Jesus, there were some who were called “Fathers of the Church” or “Doctors of the Church.” When they said “Doctor,” they meant “Teacher.” (I didn’t do that; I’m just reporting.) And among these scary brilliant and holy men called Fathers and Doctors, there were eight – four from the West who wrote in Latin and four from the East who wrote in Greek – who were identified as the “Great” Fathers. Jerome was the first of the Great Latin Fathers.
My first encounter with Jerome was in a poem by Phyllis McGinley, which I heard in grade school:
“God’s angry man, his fiery scholar
Was St. Jerome, the great name-caller,
Who cared not a dime for the laws of libel,
And in his spare time translated the Bible.”
I was pleased that there was an angry saint, because that meant I had a chance. I liked shouting and arguments and fights. And even when I didn’t enjoy it, I still did it. I understood that my attitude and behavior were bad, and I knew that I had a persistent problem. But if Jerome beat the rap, maybe I had a chance too.
A quick anecdote. (I’m not sure that this anecdote is factual. My sources were good, but oral, not quotable footnotable text.) Jerome was a brilliant man, doing great things; and like all brilliant men, he had a boss who wasn’t as smart as he was. They tangled over something, and Jerome called the bishop a “matella.” That’s Latin for a chamber pot, which is a bucket for use during the night, but not for drinking water. In other words, Jerome the “great name caller” had a potty mouth.
The story I heard included that he was punished for this verbal assault: for two years, when he went to Mass, he had to stay outside the church and listen through a window. He said he was sorry, and tried not to do it again. He’s not revered for his potty mouth; he said other things too. But I admit that from my perspective, Jerome is accessible and attractive because of his problems.
In all creation, is there a creature more worthless than a saint who seems so celestial that people dare not approach him? Do not let holy-holy people scare you away from Jerome. He is a delight.
(He was in fact holy, which is just about the exact opposite of holy-holy.)
The struggles of Jerome’s life were familiar, and interconnected. He offers an example that we need today, in his struggles to do three things. He was determined to know God, to serve the needy, and to control his passions. I don’t think you can understand his life without seeing these struggles together.
He loved the Lord, and knew him. This knowledge infuses his work, especially the major work of his life. We remember him because he was the principal translator of the Vulgate Bible. He tried to make the Bible accessible to everyone in the West (in Europe) by translating it from Hebrew and Greek into the common language of the continent, Latin. He knew Scripture, and loved the Lord with every fiber of his scrawny being.
He was a great pioneer of Christian hospitality. He was attached to a monastic community in Bethlehem, and he was the moving force in having a house of hospitality built as an adjunct to the monastery. It’s not clear exactly who they hosted (much more below). This was in Bethlehem: they must have hosted pilgrims. So it was like the hostels along the Camino in Spain today, which are for a specific slice of the world, pious and/or searching folks on pilgrimage who need a place to stay for a night or two. Was it also for a much larger group, the homeless and needy in general? We can’t find an annotated guest book to prove it. But what we can find is his lyrical description of Abraham’s hospitality, which was his model. And what he said about Abraham bursts out of Jerome’s heart, not out of Scripture. Abraham raced to serve everyone, Jerome declares. Everyone. And (says Jerome, not Scripture) God came to visit Abraham because Abraham was so generous in welcoming the poor. Like Mother Teresa. Like Pope Francis.
Jerome fasted often, to get control of his passions. The stories that we hear about his “passions” are stories about his anger, denouncing this person and that. This kind of anger is familiar to everyone in our century: people who fight for justice for the poor find rage at complacency boiling up inside all the time. This righteous (?) anger is often self-defeating and counter-productive. Self-righteous anger can destroy every work that you undertake, by triggering a visceral reaction against everything you say. It seems to me that this anger – however counter-productive it is – remains a permanent temptation. (I speak for myself here, but I suspect that other people find themselves doing the same.) I take immense comfort from Jerome’s struggles, although I am dismayed by his solution: he fasted a lot. I am among the world’s abundant false-pious who are enthusiastically in favor of fasting, except when we’re hungry.
Jerome wrestled with his “passions”— especially anger, but passions, plural.
It intrigues me that the Church today – like the world today – is divided sharply, with a faction that works for social justice and faction that works for personal morality. This division is schizophrenic: justice and morality are flip sides of a single thing. I think that many people are delighted by Pope Francis, and others are puzzled by him, precisely because he does not share this schizophrenia; he has a left hand and a right hand, and he can use both hands at the same time. Wow! The problem, stated more specifically: pro-life/pro-family activists and pro-immigration activists despise each other. Not always, but often.
And so it seems immensely important to me to understand that hospitality has two dimensions, breadth and depth. I think the Lord challenges us to reach out broadly, caring for people from outside our comfort zone – Mexicans, Muslims, Republicans, whoever. God created this person, and brought this person into my life: I cannot love God and reject this person. Reach out broadly. But also, he challenges us to see past the surface, to look for the light and the life that lies hidden beneath the skin. God created this person with a face, but also with hopes and dreams and drives and stories. I cannot love God and get stuck on the surface; I must see and love more deeply. The habit of seeing past the surface and approaching the depths of a heart – when permitted or even invited, of course – may not be exactly the same thing as chastity, but it’s close. Hospitality requires breadth and depth, both.
Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty (friends, and founders of the Catholic Worker and Madonna House) both welcomed everyone, and then (both) also worked hard to listen to each guest. Breadth and depth: two dimensions of one service – not in competition but complementary. Neither is optional. Hospitality should be universal, and chaste.
In Jerome, we find complementary virtues. He was known for hospitality, his universal hospitality. But also, he struggled to see past the surface and to get at the heart of mankind. That is, he was a man of both hospitality and chastity.
Refuse to choose
There is a great wealth of wisdom to be found in the ancient stories about Abraham, whom Jerome also admired. I think that the stories of Abraham offer an insight that is critical in 21st century American politics. Specifically …
It’s odd that one of the fiercest divisions in American today is about sex and the definition of marriage, and another is about hospitality to migrants and refugees – and that these two divisions often follow the same fault line. God’s command that we love your neighbor is not permission to go after his wife, nor his ass, says a Republican. And the Democrat responds: God’s command to love your neighbor is not limited to your monochromatic gated suburban community.
God wants love, says the Republican, so be faithful to your spouse.
God wants love, says the Democrat, so welcome strangers.
That’s an argument? We’re supposed to take one of those sides? That’s completely ridiculous! God says, quite clearly, do both! If some preacher or pseudo-prophet tries to force you to choose between (a) the depth of love and (b) the breadth of love, refuse! Demanding that people make such a choice is broken and unhealthy and very weird.
McGinley points out that Jerome prized the work of Cicero. Jerome, like Cicero, was interested in rhetoric. But also, Cicero had a perspective on love that’s worth examining. (It’s plausible but not certain that St. Paul referred to Cicero’s ideas in his Letter to the Romans.)
Cicero described an ideal form of love in his essay “De Amicitia.” There’s no equivalent word in English, so I’ll stick to his word: amicitia. It’s a relationship between two men (Cicero thought women were necessary for the next generation but otherwise generally a nuisance), but without any apparent sexual attraction. It’s a meeting of the minds on all important matters – serious men sharing ideas and insights, exploring depths. Stories of Hasidic rabbis discussing the Torah together – “stringing pearls,” moving from Scripture to commentary to one’s own insights – might be an example from another culture of the relationship that Cicero prized.
In our time, there’s a wonderful set of stories that explores amicitia. Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume series of novels about the British navy during the Napoleonic era, the “Master and Commander” books, is about two men, a captain and a spy, one strong and decisive, the other smart and incisive. Their friendship is deep, a thing of great beauty. It’s a rare example in literature of an extended exploration of amicitia.
Amicitia, Cicero insisted, is possible only between virtuous men, a meeting of minds in the open air of freedom and ambition. He considered it to be rare, but also thought that life without it was not worth living. It provides hope and joy. It includes kindness, generosity, and shared admiration for virtue. It also includes loyalty, including the prompt and automatic willingness to die for another person. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul notes that some great people might be willing to lay down their lives for a virtuous man, but not for unworthy people; by contrast, Paul said, Jesus laid down his life for sinners. It is plausible that Paul was deliberately contrasting the love that Jesus exemplified with Cicero’s amicitia.
It's hard to describe chastity positively; it is usually described negatively – no sex. But I think Cicero comes close to a positive explanation.
Jerome certainly knew Cicero’s essay. But also certainly, Jerome had a more expansive view of love than Cicero – higher and deeper, wider and more inclusive. He was a monk, and was serious about chastity/amicitia, with all the depth and focus which that virtue brings. But he was also serious about hospitality, with all the breadth which that virtue brings. Jerome’s insights into love spilled over into a new social construct. He gave shape to monastic hospitality in the West – not the spirit of it (see Abraham), nor the commitment of individuals to it (see Jesus), nor in the East (see Basil) – but the institutionalization of it. Jerome added guest houses or hostels to monasteries.
Sometimes people describe the cross as a challenge to love “vertically” (like the upright of the cross), developing an intense relationship with God, and simultaneously a challenge to love “horizontally” (reaching sideways like the crossbeam), developing various relationships that stretch us. You can emphasize one or the other – a monk emphasizes a vertical relationship, while an activist emphasizes horizontal relationships – but you can’t choose one and ignore the other. Unequivocally, God demands that we do both.
It seems to me that the story of Abraham points to this conjunction. At Mamre, God accepted Abraham’s hospitality, and rewarded him for it. The reward: despite the difficulties and challenges in Abraham’s marital life, he and Sarah would – in their old age – be fruitful. They would have a son within the year, and through that son Abraham would be the father of a great nation. Because Abraham stretched to be hospitable, his relationship with his wife would deepen and flourish. Abraham had a lot of trouble with chastity, but God still worked within the context of human sexuality to pour gifts on him. More tersely: Abraham’s virtue was hospitality, and his reward was fruitful sexuality. These two realities are connected.
Like his uncle Abraham, Lot welcomed angels. And although he lost his wife on the night when Sodom was destroyed, still he too became the father of great nations. Lot’s family had trouble with chastity, worse than Abraham’s troubles; but God still worked within the context of human sexuality to pour gifts on him. Lot was hospitable to angels, and was rewarded with children. These two realities are connected.
Lot’s neighbors were neither hospitable nor chaste. They were racist and xenophobic, and they were ready to use another human being as an object for their own pleasure. Because they attacked strangers and attempted homosexual gang rape, they were incinerated. These two vices are connected.
It is so odd that Christians are divided today over why Sodom was destroyed. Was it inhospitality, or homosexual gang rape? What a weird argument! Of course it’s both! Love reaches up and down, and left and right! Phobia (hatred & fear) refuses to reach up and down, or left and right.
One more example of this conjunction …
In France, there’s a lay community at Taize, welcoming people from many backgrounds, for retreats and shared music and prayer. A few miles south of Taize are the ruins of the great abbey of Cluny, and 50 miles north is the great abbey of Citeaux. Cluny was full of rich imagery: God reveals himself in all of creation, and we can learn to see his work everywhere. Citeaux was ascetic; to find God, set aside the distractions of the world. Which way was right? Both, of course! Each person must figure out for himself/herself which emphasis works better for him/her; but the Church embraces and encourages both. The “via positiva” and the “via negativa” both lead to God. Both!
Vertical or horizontal? Both!
Contemplation or action? Both!
Morality or justice? Both!
Chastity or hospitality? Both!
Jerome was a transitional figure. He saw the immense power of the teaching in Scripture about hospitality. He drew the same conclusions that the popes and bishops of the 20th and 21st centuries have drawn. But he was among the great leaders who initiated a revolutionary new pattern of hospitality – as a separate church institution to serve strangers (and pilgrims and perhaps the homeless). This pattern is different from the nation-based response in the Old Testament, and also different from the personal and individualized response in the New Testament. Although he drew on the national and personal models, Jerome (and Fabiola and Basil and Macrina and Benedict and Scholastica and many others) established a new pattern – an ecclesial approach, with specialized institutions.
Excerpts from St. Jerome’s Letters
Jerome’s principal work (written work) was his translation of the Bible into the language used by most people of his day, Latin. He also wrote some commentaries on Scripture, some historical and biographical works, and many letters. The following excerpts on hospitality are all from his letters. (From the Philip Schaff’s compilation in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.)
Persevere in hospitality
(from Letter LXXV, to Theodora)
In 398, Jerome wrote Theodora, the widow of his friend Lucinius, offering encouragement. He notes that she has said she intends “seek the wilderness with Jesus and to sing the prophet's song.” The “song” that Jerome they were talking about is from the Psalms: “O God, you are my God – it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, in a land parched, lifeless, and without water. I look to you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory.” (Ps 63:2-3) He urges her to persevere to the end of her life, to run so that she might win. Then he draws on Scripture to give examples of perseverance. It’s interesting that all of his examples are models of hospitality.
First, Ruth. Jerome writes:
My soul rejoices, yet the very greatness of my joy makes me feel sad. Like Ruth, when I try to speak I burst into tears.
Why Ruth? Ruth too was a widow. But after her husband died, she went to live among the Hebrews, and was welcomed into their community. The Book of Ruth explains something about her great-grandson David, but also describes in some detail how the Hebrews carried out the laws about hospitality laid down by Moses.
Second, Zacchaeus. Jerome writes:
Zacchaeus, the convert of an hour, is accounted worthy to receive the Savior as his guest.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. When Jesus passed by and Zacchaeus wanted to see him, he climbed a tree, because he was a short man. Jesus looked up and called to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house!” So he came down, and received him with joy. (See Luke 19.) The incident is a poignant example of hospitality and salvation tied tightly together. The host is not worthy of the guest, but it doesn’t matter.
Third, Martha and Mary. Jerome writes:
Martha and Mary make ready a feast and then welcome the Lord to it.
The Gospels record Jesus visiting Martha and Mary on at least three occasions – when Martha served and Mary listened (Luke 10:42), when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), and the day before Jesus entered Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and dried them with her hair (John 12). The stories of Martha and Mary contain profound teaching about hospitality: listening is best, care for feet, the link between the women’s hospitality and the salvation of their brother.
Fourth, the woman with tears. Jerome returns to the image of washing feet, which is central to hospitality after Abraham’s example:
A harlot washes his feet with her tears and – preparing for his burial – anoints his body with the ointment of good works.
This recalls the remarkable and densely narrated story of Jesus at the home of a Pharisee, where an infamous woman causes scandal by touching him and Jesus defends her (Luke 7:36-50). The story connects hospitality and repentance and forgiveness.
Fifth, Simon the leper. Jerome writes:
Simon the leper invites the Master with His disciples and is not refused.
Jerome recalls a host to the Lord who was unclean, unfit to be a host, and yet was blessed by a visit (Matthew 26:6). A significant detail of the story is that hospitality is an event of mutual respect and benefit; Simon was not an honored guest, he was an honored host. Perhaps there’s a difference between a host and guest, but it doesn’t amount to much.
Sixth, Abraham. Jerome recalls the Lord’s call to Abraham, the patriarch who was blessed by God in the world’s most amazing incident of hospitality (before the Last Supper). To him, God said, “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go forth to a land that I will show you.” So Jerome urges the widow to become a wanderer and a stranger.
Seventh, David. Jerome recalls the words of King David: With you, I am a stranger and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
And finally, Jesus. Jerome recalls the words of the Lord to his disciples to leave home – thereby becoming a stranger – in order to serve the Lord.
Writing to a widow about persevering to the end, Jerome offers example after example of hospitality. Why? Was she joining the widows who offer hospitality, the community of service that shows up in Paul’s letters? Was a widow so much like a stranger that the two – almost always linked in the Old Testament – are indistinguishable in Jerome’s thinking? Was she about to embark on a pilgrimage? It’s not clear in the letter. But what is clear is that Jerome was captured by the teaching about hospitality in Scripture a great deal; examples and insights pour out of him.
Comments about hospices, from one builder to another
(from Letter LXVI, to Pammachius)
In 397, Jerome wrote to Pammachius, a Roman senator who became a monk after his wife died, and lived a life of self-denial. Pammachius had opened a hostel or “hospice for strangers” in Portus, near Rome, similar to Jerome’s hospice attached to the monastery in Bethlehem. Jerome writes:
I hear that you have erected a hospice for strangers at Portus and that you have planted a twig from the tree of Abraham upon the Ausonian [Italian] shore. Like Aeneas you are tracing the outlines of a new encampment. When Aeneas reached the waters of the Tiber, hungry and desperate, he ate square flat cakes, fulfilling a prophecy about eating a table. And there you are, in the same place, building a house of bread to rival the little village of Bethlehem where I’m staying. There, you welcome travelers after their long struggles, and satisfy them with unexpected abundance. Well done! You have surpassed my poor beginning.
“A twig from the tree of Abraham” apparently refers to the oaks at Mamre, where Abraham offered hospitality to strangers – including God and two angels.
Jerome refers to the great epic poem, The Aeneid, by Virgil. In Virgil’s tale, Aeneas fled from the ruins of Troy and founded Rome. But Pammachius is part of a far greater epic, bringing the work done in Bethlehem to the outskirts of Rome.
You have reached the highest point. You have made your way from the root to the top of the tree. You are the first of monks in the first city of the world: you do right therefore to follow the first of the patriarchs.
When Jerome speaks of “following the first of the patriarchs,” he is referring to Abraham’s commitment to hospitality. From Jerome’s perspective, following Abraham means making a serious and permanent commitment to hospitality. Jerome continues:
Abraham was rich in gold and silver and cattle, in substance and in raiment: his household was so large that on an emergency he could bring a picked body of young men into the field, and could pursue as far as Dan and then slay four kings who had already put five kings to flight. Frequently exercising hospitality and never turning any man away from his door, be was accounted worthy at last to entertain God himself. He was not satisfied with giving orders to his servants and hand-maids to attend to his guests, nor did he lessen the favor he conferred by leaving others to care for them; but as though he had found a prize, he and Sarah his wife gave themselves to the duties of hospitality. With his own hands he washed the feet of his guests, upon his own shoulders he brought home a fat calf from the herd. While the strangers dined he stood by to serve them, and set before them the dishes cooked by Sarah's hands – though meaning to fast himself.
Jerome’s description of how Abraham and Sarah served their guests with their own hands is not based on Scripture. It seems to reveal Jerome’s own heart, attributing to Abraham the behavior that he himself thought was appropriate.
The regard which I feel for you, my dear brother, makes me remind you of these things; for you must offer to Christ not only your money but your very self, to be a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” and you must imitate the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve.” What the patriarch did for strangers that our Lord and Master did for his servants and disciples.
It is worth noting that Jerome links the First Feast with the Last Supper – links Abraham’s hospitality at Mamre to Jesus’ hospitality in Jerusalem.
“Skin for skin, yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. But,” says the devil, “touch his flesh and he will curse thee to thy face.” The old enemy knows that the battle with impurity is a harder one than that with covetousness. It is easy to cast off what clings to us from without, but a war within our borders involves far greater peril. We have to unfasten things joined together, we have to sunder things firmly united.
For two reasons, it is fascinating that Jerome chooses to bring the Book of Job into his eloquent exploration of hospitality. First, Job was among the Biblical champions of strangers, a fact that many of the Fathers noted: when he defended himself from critics who insisted that his suffering must be a punishment for his sins, his claims about himself included that he defended widows and orphans and strangers. But also, Jerome links covetousness and impurity. The story of Sodom also includes this link, in a way that has baffled many Christians today, who argue bitterly about whether Sodom was punished for impurity or for inhospitality.
Zacchaeus was rich while the apostles were poor. He restored fourfold all that he had taken and gave to the poor the half of his remaining substance. He welcomed Christ as his guest, and salvation came unto his house. And yet because he was little of stature and could not reach the apostolic standard of height, he was not numbered with the twelve apostles. Now as regards wealth the apostles gave up nothing at all, but as regards will they one and all gave up the whole world. If we offer to Christ our souls as well as our riches, he will gladly receive our offering. But if we give to God only those things which are external while we give to the devil those things which are within us, the division is not fair and just. The divine voice says to us, “Haven’t you sinned in making an appropriate sacrifice, but not dividing up the gift justly?”
Jerome insists that external service is not enough; you have to throw your heart into your gifts if you intend to please God. Provide shelter – but also provide a heartfelt welcome!
For my part, here in this province [near Bethlehem] I am building a monastery with a hospice close by; so that, if Joseph and Mary chance to come to Bethlehem, they may not fail to find shelter and welcome. Indeed, the number of monks who flock here from all quarters of the world is so overwhelming that I can neither desist from my enterprise nor bear so great a burden. The warning of the gospel has almost been fulfilled in me, because I did not count the cost of the tower I was about to build. So I have had to send my brother Paulinian to Italy to sell some ruined villas which have escaped the hands of the barbarians, and also other proper we inherited from our parents. I would hate to give up ministering to the saints, now that I have begun, especially since I do not wish to earn the scorn of envious people.
It's noteworthy that Jerome thinks of Mary and Joseph as the prototypes of strangers and pilgrims!
Jerome’s new hostel was popular before he finished building it. Location matters! But having started the task, he refuses to give up, and pours his substantial inheritance into it.
“You are my portion and cup.”
(from Letter LII, To Nepotian)
In 394, Jerome wrote to a man who had left a military life and become a priest. He begins with a brief meditation on what it means: “You are my portion and lot.” The role of the clergy is to serve the Lord, which includes hospitality to strangers.
The Lord Himself is their lot and portion. Now, he who in his own person is the Lord's portion, or has the Lord for his portion, must so bear himself as to possess the Lord and to be possessed by Him. He who possesses the Lord, and who says with the prophet, ‘The Lord is my portion,’ can hold to nothing beside the Lord. For if he holds to something beside the Lord, the Lord will not be his portion. Suppose, for instance, that he holds to gold or silver, or possessions or inlaid furniture; with such portions as these, the Lord will not deign to be his portion. I, if I am the portion of the Lord, and the line of his heritage, receive no portion among the remaining tribes; but, like the Priest and the Levite, I live on the tithe. Serving the altar, I am supported by its offerings. Having food and raiment, I shall be content with these, and as a disciple of the Cross shall share its poverty.
Jerome continues, pleading pointedly to distinguish between a military life and the life of the clergy:
I beseech you, therefore, and again and yet again admonish you: do not look to your military experience for a standard of clerical obligation. Under Christ's banner seek for no worldly gain, lest having more than when you first became a clergyman, you hear men say, to your shame, ‘Their portion shall not profit them.’ Welcome poor men and strangers to your homely board, that with them Christ may be your guest.
Jerome adds a caution about mixing wealth with your service.
A clergyman who engages in business, and who rises from poverty to wealth, and from obscurity to a high position – avoid him as you would the plague. For ‘evil communications corrupt good manners.’ You despise gold; he loves it. You spurn wealth; he eagerly pursues it. You love silence, meekness, privacy; he takes delight in talking and bragging, in squares, and streets, and shops. What unity of feeling can there be where there is so wide a divergence of manners?
So what does it look like if God himself is your portion? Your guests are the poor and strangers; that is, Christ is your guest.
(from Letter XXXIX, to Paula)
In a letter of condolence written in 389 to a friend, Paula, Jerome includes a word about Ruth, a stranger who comforted a widow.
Naomi, fleeing because of famine to the land of Moab, there lost her husband and her sons. Yet when she was thus deprived of her natural protectors, Ruth, a stranger, never left her side. And see what a great thing it is to comfort a lonely woman! Ruth, for her reward, is made an ancestress of Christ!
This brief passage is pregnant with insight. First, note what draws widows and orphans and strangers together: that they are deprived of their natural protectors. Second, note that once again the Lord’s reward for hospitality is progeny.
The hostel in Rome and universal hospitality!
(from Letter LXXVII, to Oceanus)
In a letter to Oceanus in 399 AD, Jerome wrote a moving eulogy of his friend Fabiola – about her sin, her penitence, her service of the poor in her hostel or hospital at Portus, her visit to Bethlehem, and her determined study of scripture. And he includes remarks about Pammachius, another friend in the hospitality movement.
As I pen Fabiola’s praises, my dear Pammachius seems suddenly to rise before me. His wife Paulina sleeps; he keeps vigil; she has gone before, and he remains behind to be Christ's servant. Although he was his wife's heir, others – that is, the poor – are now in possession of that inheritance. Pammachius and Fabiola contended for the privilege of setting up at Portus a tent like that of Abraham. There was a contest between them for supremacy in showing kindness. Each conquered and each was overcome. Both admitted themselves to be simultaneously victors and vanquished, because the goals that each had desired to accomplish alone were accomplished when they worked together. They united their resources and combined their plans; harmony brought forward what rivalry must have destroyed. They purchased a house to serve as a shelter, and a crowd flocked into it.
The last chapter of the Book of Acts includes three instances of extended hospitality: the man who sheltered Paul and the crew for three months after a shipwreck, then the welcome Paul received in Rome, and finally the hospitality that Paul offered for two years while he was awaiting trial. Jerome recalls the hospitality after the shipwreck – and says his friends did better than that.
What Publius once did in the island of Malta for one apostle and a single ship's crew, Fabiola and Pammachius have done over and over again for large numbers. And not only have they supplied the wants of the destitute, but their generosity has been so universal that they have provided even for those who had something already. The whole world knows that a home for strangers has been established at Portus. Britain, far to the west, has learned in the summer what Egypt and Parthia, far to the east, knew in the spring.
The widows’ club
(from Letter LXXIX, to Salvina)
In 400 AD, Jerome wrote to a wealthy and prominent widow, Salvina, who was attached to the court of the Roman emperor. He referred to a letter attributed to St. Paul which describes the qualifications for joining a kind of service organization, a kind of a ladies’ guild, but specifically for widows. The letter refers to the way the early church cared for widows in need: the family should care for them first, but if the family cannot do so, then the church should take responsibility. The widows’ service guild is a separate issue; some widows need help, and others provide help.
The letter to Timothy says that widows who join the service guild should be past the age when they are still considering marrying again. But also, they should have a reputation for good works, and should involve herself in every good work. So what are these good works, more specifically? The list of good works is fascinating:
1. she has raised children
2. practiced hospitality
3. washed the feet of the holy ones
4. helped those in distress
Of the four, the second and third are quite pointedly about hospitality. And raising children is a cognate of hospitality, if not exactly the same thing. That is, children show up in our on their schedule, not ours; and we welcome them as gifts from God and care for their every need for as long as necessary. And the fourth item of four – “helping those in distress” – was one of the purposes of a hostel in Jerome’s time.
On earth, we are all exiles, longing for our true home.
(Letter CVIII, to Eustochium)
In 404, Jerome wrote a long eulogy for his friend Paula. She had been a wealthy woman descended from leading families of Rome. But she left her status and money to embrace a life of poverty and prayer.
Noble in family, she was nobler still in holiness; rich formerly in this world's goods, she is now more distinguished by the poverty that she has embraced for Christ. … She preferred Bethlehem to Rome, and left her palace glittering with gold to dwell in a mud cabin. We do not grieve that we have lost this perfect woman; rather we thank God that we have had her.
We have lost her, it is true, but the heavenly mansions have gained her; for as long as she was in the body she was absent from the Lord, and would constantly complain with tears: ”Woe is me that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar; for ages, my soul has been a pilgrim.” [Psalms 120:5]
She would frequently exclaim: “With you, I am a stranger and a sojourner, as all my fathers were,” and “I desire to depart and to be with Christ.” [quoting the words of Abraham among the Hittites, Genesis 24:4, and to St. Paul, Philippians 1:23].
Quoting Virgil for clarity about universal hospitality
(Letter XVII, to the Presbyter Marcus)
In this letter, written in 378 or 379 AD, Jerome insists that true hospitality embraces all people, not some select portion. To clarify his point, he quotes Virgil, a Roman poet whose great epic poem was written in imitation of Homer’s Odyssey. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest poem of the Renaissance, chooses Virgil to as the guide in the Inferno – also written imitating the Odyssey. The lines that Jerome quotes are from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I, lines 539-541.
I am forced to cry out against the inhumanity of this country. A hackneyed quotation best expresses my meaning:
What savages are these who will not grant
A rest to strangers, even on their sands!
They threaten war and drive us from their coasts.
I take this from a Gentile poet that one who disregards the peace of Christ may at least learn its meaning from a heathen.
Mary and Martha and prayer
(Letter XXII, to Eustochium)
In 384, Jerome wrote a long and letter to Eustochium, exploring a wide variety of topics, including hospitality.
Read the gospel and see how Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord is given precedence over the zealous Martha. In her anxiety to be hospitable, Martha was preparing a meal for the Lord and His disciples. But Jesus said to her: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things! But only a few things are really necessary. And Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken away from her.” Then be like Mary: prefer the food of the soul to that of the body. Leave it to your sisters to run to and fro, trying to find the best way to welcome Christ. Instead, you should do this: once and for all, throw away the burdens of the world, sit at the Lord's feet, and say: “I have found him whom my soul loves; I will hold him, and I will not let him go.” Then the Lord will answer: “My dove, my undefiled!”
On the duties of the clergy, including hospitality
(another excerpt from Letter LII, to Nepotian)
The letter, written in 394 AD, is a systematic treatise on the duties and proper lifestyle of the clergy. It had was widely read, and it stirred some controversy.
Focusing specifically on hospitality: the letter can be read as being somewhat dismissive of hospitality. Speaking about Martha and Mary, Jerome seemed to urge prayer instead of the busy-ness of hospitality. Speaking about Zacchaeus, Jerome seemed to urge heart-felt love over external acts of hospitality. Here, he seems to prioritize wisdom over the corporal work of hospitality. I don’t think it’s possible to carry that idea forward very far. In this passage, hospitality is on a par with being earnest and steadfast in prayer.
Almost all bodily excellences alter with age, and while wisdom alone increases all things else decay. Fasting, keeping vigil, giving alms – these things become harder. So also do sleeping on the ground, moving from place to place, hospitality to travelers, pleading for the poor, earnestness and steadfastness in prayer, the visitation of the sick, manual labor to supply money for alms-giving. All acts, in short, of which the body is the medium decrease with its decay.
Invite guests, and hold on to them!
(from Letter CXXV, to Rusticus, written 411 AD)
In a letter to a young man considering becoming a hermit instead of a monk, Jerome wrote that it is not enough to avoid evil; you must pursue good. He quotes Psalm 34:15: “Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” He adds that pursuing peace is “a fine metaphor,” and compares it to St. Paul’s advice (Romans 12:13): “Pursue hospitality.” The line from Romans is softened in modern translations; the New American Bible says, “Exercise hospitality.” But the Greek word, dioko, is considerably more aggressive than “exercise”; it means to “hunt down” or “pursue” or “chase after.” Jerome interprets the line from Paul with passion: “It is not enough, he [Paul] means, for us to invite guests with our lips; we should be as eager to detain them as though they were robbers carrying off our savings.”
Chastity and hospitality
(from Letter LXXVII, to Oceanus)
The story of St. Fabiola is rich, complex, and significant for our own time. So the following excerpt is long. The letter to Oceanus includes an eloquent eulogy of Fabiola, explaining her commitment to hospitality, and also the difficulties in her marriage.
At the very beginning of this account, there is a rock in the path. She is overwhelmed by a storm of censure, for having left her first husband and having taken a second husband. I will not praise her for her conversion until I have first cleared her of this charge.
So terrible then were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them. [Fabiola chose not to give detail about her husband’s behavior, so Jerome doesn’t either.] The Lord has given commandment that a wife must not be put away ‘except it be for fornication, and that, if put away, she must remain unmarried.’ Now a commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. For it cannot be that, while an adulterous wife is to be put away, an incontinent husband is to be retained. … Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations.
Fabiola then has put away – they [her critics] are quite right – she put away a husband who was a sinner, guilty of [unmentionable sins]. … On the other hand, if someone makes a charge against her that after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried, I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity. ‘It is better,’ the apostle [Paul] tells us, ‘to marry than to burn.’ She was quite a young woman, she was not able to continue in widowhood. In the words of the apostle she saw another law in her members warring against the law of her mind; she felt herself dragged in chains as a captive towards the indulgences of wedlock. Therefore she thought it better openly to confess her weakness and to accept the semblance of an unhappy marriage than, with the flame of a monogamist, to ply the trade of a courtesan. … Fabiola therefore was fully persuaded in her own mind: she thought she had acted legitimately in putting away her husband, and that when she had done so she was free to marry again. She did not know that the rigor of the gospel takes away from women all pretexts for re-marriage so long as their former husbands are alive. Not knowing this, though she contrived to evade other assaults of the devil, she at this point unwittingly exposed herself to a wound from him.
But this one thing I will say, for it is at once useful to my readers and pertinent to my present theme. As Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, so He shall not be ashamed of her in heaven. She laid bare her wound to the gaze of all, and Rome beheld with tears the disfiguring scar which marred her beauty. She uncovered her limbs, bared her head, and closed her mouth. She no longer entered the church of God but, like Miriam the sister of Moses, she sat apart without the camp, till the priest who had cast her out should himself call her back. She came down like the daughter of Babylon from the throne of her daintiness; she took the millstones and ground meal; she passed barefooted through rivers of tears. She sat upon the coals of fire, and these became her aid. That face by which she had once pleased her second husband she now smote with blows; she hated jewels, shunned ornaments and could not bear to look upon fine linen. In fact she bewailed the sin she had committed as bitterly as if it had been adultery, and went to the expense of many remedies in her eagerness to cure her wound.
Having found myself aground in the shallows of Fabiola's sin, I have spoken at length about her penitence so that I might be able to open up a large and unimpeded space to praise her. Restored to communion before the eyes of the whole church, what did she do? In the day of prosperity she was not forgetful of affliction; and, having once suffered shipwreck she was unwilling to face the risks of the sea again. So instead of re-embarking on her old life, she broke up her extensive property and sold everything that she could lay hands on. She turned it all into money that she laid out for the benefit of the poor.
She was the first person to found a hospital, where she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Do I need to go over all the various ailments of human beings? Do I need to speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of arms and legs trembling with weakness? Or of rotten flesh alive with worms? Often, she carried men and women on her own shoulders, infected with jaundice or with filth. Often, she washed the pus and filth out of open wounds, discharge from wounds that others, including men, couldn’t bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarcely breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid.
I know of many wealthy and devout persons who were unable to overcome their natural repugnance to such sights. They participated in this work of mercy by supporting others, by giving money instead of personal aid. I do not blame them. I am far from criticizing their weakness as a lack of faith. However, while I pardon such squeamishness, I praise to the skies the enthusiastic zeal of a mind or heart that gets over these obstacles! Great faith makes little of such trifles!
I know how terrible the retribution was, that fell upon the proud mind of that rich man clothed in purple who did not help Lazarus. The poor wretch whom we despise, whom we cannot even look at, the very sight of whom turns our stomachs, is human like ourselves, is made of the same clay as we are, is formed out of the same elements. All that he suffers, we too may suffer. So let’s look at his wounds as if they were our own. Then all our insensitivity to another person's suffering will give way to our pity for ourselves.
Not with a hundred tongues or throat of bronze could I exhaust the forms of deadly diseases which Fabiola alleviated so wonderfully among the suffering poor. Aware of her work, many of the healthy began to envy the sick she served!
And indeed, she did show the same generosity to the clergy and monks and virgins. Was there a monastery which was not supported by Fabiola's wealth? Was there a naked or bedridden person who was not clothed with garments supplied by her? Were there ever anyone in need who went to her for help whom she failed to assist, giving promptly and without hesitation? Even Rome was not extensive enough for her pity. Either personally or with the help of trustworthy friends, she went from island to island, giving away her wealth – not only around the Etruscan Sea, but throughout the district of the Volscians, to secluded and winding shores where communities of monks are to be found.
A time came when she made up her mind, suddenly and against the advice of all her friends, to take ship and to come here to Jerusalem. Here, she was welcomed by many people, and for a short time she accepted my hospitality. Indeed, when I recall meeting her, the memory is so vivid that I seem to see her here now, not just in the past.
St. Fabiola and the necessity defense
The Orthodox Churches have been permitted couples to receive Communion after divorce and re-marriage. Perhaps this is because they have drawn more from the Fathers like St. Jerome. Consider Jerome's remark about his friend who was divorced and re-married.
The Catholic Church is split, left against right. The most visible manifestation of the split: immigration versus abortion. Most pro-lifers oppose the Church’s teaching on immigration, and most pro-immigration activists oppose the Church’s teaching on abortion. This weird split in the Church, setting justice against morality, is new, going back perhaps two generations.
The split is bizarre in many ways, including that it sets one way of understanding God’s own life against another. That is, King Louis IX of France, a saint, is reputed to have prayed by the side of a crib when he could not pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And St. Augustine made a similar remark, not about babies but about immigrants. He urged the people of his diocese in northern Africa to welcome refugees from Rome, saying that we have the same opportunity to meet the Lord that the people of Galilee had when Jesus walked there: we can meet the Lord in strangers.
The bizarre split goes a level deeper: it’s not just that some people expect to meet the Lord in babies and others hope to meet the Lord in strangers. Beyond that, more specific and deeper, consider the ways the Lord has revealed the life of the Trinity. Jesus Christ spoke about God – the Father and the Son and the Holt Spirit. The Father and the Son are one, in the Spirit that unifies. So any father-son relationship offers a glimmer of insight, is an invitation to move toward some understanding of The Father and The Son. And beyond understanding, it’s an invitation to participate. Similarly, marriage is a shockingly rich image of the Trinity: husband and wife become one, and the relationship between them, step by step, engenders a third person (often, not always). The relationship between them is not identical to the child; but here on earth within the confines of times and space, there’s a relationship that flows into a child. There are indeed explosive and creative moments along the way from love to baby, but the continuum is impressive too; procreation – or co-creation – is an invitation not only to understand but also to share in the life of the Trinity. There are other relationships that reveal the life of the Trinity and also invite us to enter in and participate – including the host-guest relationship, from the First Feast at Mamre to the Last Supper in the Cenacle. So when Christians despise each other because one person sees and participates in the life of the Trinity here, while the other sees and participates in the life of the Trinity over there, is so shockingly weird it makes your ears smoke. How can we be divided by an invitation into God’s unity?
Bizarre or not, the division exists. And indeed, there have been some hints of it in the past. Consider, for example, the story of St. Jerome’s friend, St. Fabiola, one of the world’s great models of hospitality. In about 399 AD, her story extracted a tantalizing remark from St. Jerome: “… after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried … I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity. It is better, the apostle [Paul] tells us, to marry than to burn.”
If St. Jerome was the Father of Christian Hospitality (in the West), then St. Fabiola was the Mother of Christian Hospitality (in the West). The two were friends, they and worked together in the hospitality movement. St. Jerome was the first (as far as I know) to attach a hostel to a monastery; this significant new pattern of hospitality began in Jerome’s monastery in Bethlehem and then spread around the world. Fabiola also built a hostel about the same time, near Rome, for pilgrims and the needy there.
But before her years of service and hospitality, Fabiola had a somewhat scandalous life. She married a man who became notorious for sexual license, details unspecified. She left him, got a civil divorce, thought she was free to re-marry, and did in fact re-marry. After her second husband died, she was reconciled to the Church, and poured her life into serving the poor. After her reconciliation, questions about her second marriage subsided.
Jerome is a hero to the left because he was committed to hospitality. It’s a little disorienting to find the same kind of left-right split that affects the 21st century cropping up in the 4th century: a hero of hospitality slightly lax about divorce laws. Jerome (like Pope Francis today) does not deny the authority of the teaching against divorce and re-marriage, but (again like Pope Francis today) he is ready to see and understand mitigating circumstances. He seems (to me) to suggest that what Fabiola did was indeed wrong, but not mortally sinful.
I think it’s fair to connect Jerome’s attitude toward Fabiola’s situation with his fierce fights with his bishop. Jerome argued fiercely with his bishop, Bishop John II of Jerusalem, and called him a chamber-pot. The angry arguments were – at least in part – about the teachings of Origen. Origen was an original and provocative thinker, and he spurred fascinating discussions about the Trinity that have been of great value to the Church ever since. However, Origen had some troubled theories about the human body. For example, he speculated that since the saints in heaven have perfect bodies, and since the perfect shape is a sphere, perhaps everyone in heaven is spherical. How about that? I’m not sure why Peter and James and John didn’t notice that Moses and Elijah were remarkably rotund when they saw them with Jesus at the time of the Transfiguration.
Spherical speculation is one thing, but action is another – for better or for worse. Origen read that if your arm leads you to sin, you should cut it off; and if you eye leads you to sin, you should pluck it out. Origen’s arms and eyes didn’t lead him to sin, but he did have a troublesome appendage – and in perhaps excessive obedience, he lopped off his peccant parts. Just about every Christian thinker since then has suspected that his attitude towards the human body was flawed.
By contrast, Jerome was an ascetic, but he had a respect for human bodies, and sometimes he seemed to have had a patient awareness of frailty.
St. Ambrose, the second of the Great Latin Fathers of the Church, sharpens the idea that hospitality in the life of the early Church was seen as a church responsibility – not just a personal responsibility as in the New Testament, nor a national responsibility as in the Old Testament. Most of his insights and expectations about hospitality are found in a manual written for the clergy – not for everyone, and not for political leaders, but specifically for the clergy.
Sketch of his life
Ambrose was born in Germany in 339, and died in Italy in 397. He was from a powerful family; his father was the Roman prefect of Gaul. He lived in a time of tremendous social change. He was born in the first generation after the end of age of persecution and martyrdom. The Church was working out its relationship with the State. There were bitter power struggles between Trinitarians and Arians. The Germanic tribes conquered by Rome were beginning their long struggle for power.
At age 35, Ambrose was in Milan, as the Roman prefect (governor) of Liguria. The bishop died, and there was a bitter dispute between the Nicene Christians and the Arians about his successor. Ambrose intervened to prevent violence and riots. The prompt response from both sides was to ask him to be the next bishop. He resisted briefly; but eight days later, he was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop.
Ambrose wrestled with the Arians in his writing, but also in politics. He led a kind of a sit-in to protect a basilica that the Arians tried to seize; after some negotiation, the Roman government backed off and let Ambrose keep his church. But his attitude toward church property was nuanced: he fought to keep a building then; but on another occasion, he broke up chalices and other consecrated items to amass treasure to ransom captives.
He brought music from the Eastern churches to the West, and composed some beautiful hymns. His preaching was eloquent; most notably, he led St. Augustine into the Church.
Excerpts from St. Ambrose on hospitality
Be hospitable, but avoid banquets.
The first time the matter of hospitality and strangers comes up in Bishop Ambrose’s instructions for his priests, The Duties of the Clergy, he seems a little hostile to strangers. He advises, “If we are going to preserve our modesty, we must avoid fellowship with wasteful men, and must stay away from the banquets of strangers.” But within a couple of paragraphs, he clarifies: avoid banquets, but be hospitable to strangers. The problem is the habit of luxury: avoid that. But hospitality to travelers is a duty for clerics. (Duties of the Clergy, Book I, chapter 20)
It is wise, befitting the duties of clerics, especially priest, to avoid the banquets of strangers, but still be hospitable to travelers. Do not expose yourself to criticism in this matter. Banquets with strangers capture your attention, and eventually produce a love for feasting. Tales of the world and its pleasures often creep in: you can’t shut your ears against such tales, and if you try to forbid them, that’s seen as haughtiness. Also, whether you want it or not, you find that your wineglass is filled time after time. When you get up sober, you don’t have to put up with the insolence of others.
Abraham: moderate and balanced – and hospitable
Ambrose teaches that the life of the clergy should have three characteristics. “First, our passions are to be controlled by our reason; next, we ought to observe a suitable moderation in our desires; and, lastly, everything ought to be done at the right time and in the proper order.” He notes that this list of characteristics – being reasonable, moderate and prudent – is similar to the list of the cardinal virtues of the Romans (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance); and he states that these characteristics should shape an active life. Then he explains what he means by examining the lives of holy men in Scripture, particularly Abraham. (Duties of the Clergy, Book I, chapter 24)
Note how everything meets together [in Abraham’s life]. Passion was not lacking, but it is kept in check. His mind was balanced and tranquil in action; he did not treat great things as unimportant, or minor matters as great. Here there was moderation in different affairs, order in things, fitness of occasion, due measure in words. He was foremost in faith, conspicuous in virtue, vigorous in battle, in victory not greedy, at home hospitable, and to his wife attentive.
Goodness is in the will, and then in the action
Ambrose distinguished the underlying desire to give – or good will – from the habit of generosity – or liberality. Then, in explaining how valuable good will is, he refers to hospitality, using Job as an example. (Duties of the Clergy, Book I, chapter 32)
Remove good-will out of the reach of men, and it’s like taking the sun away from the world. Without good will, men would no longer care to show the way to strangers, to give thought to wanderers, to show hospitality. Hospitality is not a small virtue! When Job defended and praised himself, he said: “Strangers did not crouch waiting at my doors; my gate was open to everyone who came.” Without good will, you might not even share the water that flows by your door, or light someone’s candle from your own. Good will exists in such simple acts, like a fount of waters refreshing the thirsty, and like a light, which shines for others without diminishing the light that available to the giver.
Paradoxes in Mercy
St. Ambrose came back to matters of balance and proportion repeatedly. Here, he considers the paradoxical balances in the practice of mercy. When we give to the poor, what seems like a small gift to the giver may seem immense to the receiver. But then, when God rewards our small acts of mercy, what God gives us in return is far greater than what we gave. (Duties of the Clergy, Book I, chapter 11)
Mercy is a good thing, because it makes men perfect, in imitation of the perfect Father. Nothing graces the Christian soul so much as mercy. Mercy is shown chiefly towards the poor: you treat them as sharers in common with you, sharing the products of nature, which brings for the fruits of the earth to be used by all. In mercy, you give what you have freely to a poor man; and in this way, you help him who is your brother and companion. You bestow silver; he receives life. You give some money; he considers it his fortune. For you, it’s a coin; for him, it’s all his property.
But looking further: he bestows more on you than you bestow on him. Consider your salvation! If you clothe the naked, you clothe yourself with righteousness. If you bring the stranger under your roof, if you support the needy, he procures for you the friendship of the saints and an eternal dwelling. That is no small recompense! You sow earthly things and receive heavenly things.
Do you wonder at the judgment of God in the case of holy Job? Wonder rather at his virtue, who could say: “I was an eye to the blind, and a foot to the lame. I was a father to the poor. Their shoulders were made warm with the skins of my lambs. The stranger did not sit waiting at my gates; my door was open to everyone who came.” Clearly, blessed is he from whose house a poor man has never departed empty-handed.
Is anyone more blessed than he who is responsive to the needs of the poor and the hardships of the weak and helpless? In the day of judgment, that man will receive salvation from the Lord, who will be in his debt for the mercy he has shown!
Hospitality isn’t flaunting your wealth ostentatiously
St. Ambrose devotes a full chapter to exploring hospitality. (Duties of the Clergy, Book II, chapter 21)
The respect that people have for you is very much enhanced when you rescue a poor man out of the hands of a powerful man, or save a condemned criminal from death. But it’s disturbing if it seems that you are doing these things for the sake of showing off rather than for mercy’s sake.
Hospitality serves as a recommendation. It is an open display of kindly feelings, so that the stranger will not feel unwelcome, but instead be received courteously, and that the door may be open to him when he comes. It is appropriate in the eyes of the whole world that the stranger should be received with honor, that the charm of hospitality should not fail at our table, that we should meet a guest with prompt and relaxed service and look expectantly for his arrival.
This was an important detail in the praise of Abraham, that he watched at the door of his tent that no stranger would by any chance pass by unnoticed. He kept a lookout carefully, so as to meet the stranger, and anticipate him, and ask him not to pass by, saying: “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.” And so, as a reward for his hospitality, he received the gift of posterity.
Lot was another example. Abraham’s nephew was near him not only because he was a relative, but also because he had the same virtue. And because he was ready and willing to show hospitality, he turned aside the punishment of Sodom – not from the whole town, but from himself and his family.
So a man ought to be hospitable, kind, upright, not longing to have what belongs to someone else, and even willing to give up some of his own rights if attacked rather than to take away someone else’s. He should avoid disputes, and hate quarrels. He should restore unity and the grace of calm. When a good man gives up any of his own rights, this is not only a sign of liberality, but also it confers serious advantages. To start with, it’s not a small gain to be free from the costs a lawsuit. And it brings other good results from the growth of friendship, which in turn has many advantages. Over time, there are great advantages to letting little things go without a squabble.
The duties of hospitality must be shown to all, but greater respect must be given to the upright. For “Whoever welcomes a man of integrity, because he is a man of integrity, will receive the reward that is due to a man of integrity,” as the Lord said [Matthew 10:40-42]. God prizes hospitality to highly that even if you just give someone a drink of cold water, it won’t be overlooked, and you will be rewarded.
You see that Abraham, watching out for guests, received God himself to entertain. You see that Lot received the angels. So don’t you understand that when you welcome someone, you may welcome Christ? Christ may be in the stranger who comes, because Christ is there in the person of the poor, as he himself says: “I was in prison and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me.”
It is sweet, then, to pursue – not money, but grace. It is true that this evil entered into human hearts long ago, so that money stands in the place of honor, and the minds of men are filled with admiration for wealth. In this way, the love of money sinks in and dries up every kindly duty, so that men consider every penny spent beyond the standard amount to be a loss. But even here the holy Scriptures have been on the watch against love of money, that it might prove no cause of hindrance, saying: “Better is hospitality, even though it consists only of herbs.” [Proverbs 15:17: Better a salad with love than a steak with hate.] And again: “Better scraps of bread in quiet than a feast with strife.”
The Scriptures teach us to be – not wasteful, but generous. There are two kinds of giving, one arising from generosity, the other from wasteful extravagance. It is a mark of generosity to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to redeem the captives, to help the needy. But it’s wasteful to spend money on expensive banquets and flowing wine. And so we read: “Wine is wasteful, drunkenness is abusive.” It is wasteful to spend your money just to be popular. There are some people who spend their inheritance watching games at the circus, watching plays, enjoying shows with gladiators and wild animals, just to match the habits of their famous ancestors. But this is all foolishness! It’s not right to be extravagant and wasteful, even when the thing you are doing are proper, and even when it resembles generosity.
It’s noteworthy in this excerpt that Ambrose uses the six precepts from Matthew 25 (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc.) almost interchangeably. For him, this list is a single entity, and the spirit of it flows over into services – redeeming captives and helping the needy in general. He explains Abraham’s hospitality by reference to two other precepts – visiting prisoners and clothing the naked – neither of which resembled Abraham’s actions, at least not superficially.
The sale of church vessels controversy
One of the best known incidents in the rich and tumultuous life of St. Ambrose was his decision to ransom captives with treasures from the church. What are the riches of the Church?
In explaining his decision, St. Ambrose referred to the six precepts of the Lord in his description of the Last Judgment. But he was drawing on the spirit of the precepts – serve those in need – not on a specific item. Later in Church history, the six precepts in Matthew’s Gospel became the foundation of a teaching tool called the seven “corporal works of mercy.” (The seventh, burying the dead, is based on the Book of Tobit.) The seven works of mercy drifted away from the six precepts a little, and “visit the imprisoned” became “ransom captives.” And to understand how the Church’s teaching on hospitality changed over the ages, it helps to see how Ambrose and others thought about the six precepts.
In 379, amidst a growing civil war in the Roman Empire, an army of Goths marched across northern Italy, and took thousands of captives. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, decided to free them; so he broke up consecrated vessels, and melted the gold and silver. This was controversial, but St. Ambrose defended his decision firmly. (The Duties of the Clergy, Book II, chapter 28)
Mercy requires that we share in others’ misfortunes, and help them in their needs as far as our means allow – and sometimes even beyond that. It is better, for the sake of mercy, to take up a cause, and to suffer hatred, rather than to harden ourselves. Once, I provoked hatred of myself because I broke up the sacred vessels to redeem captives – an act that could displease my opponents the Arians. It was not the act itself that provoked them; it provided them with an excuse to blame me for something. Who can be so hard, cruel, iron-hearted, as to be displeased because a man is redeemed from death, or a woman from barbarian sexual assaults that are worse than death, or boys and girls and infants from the pollution of idols, whereby – through fear of death – they were defiled?
I have never let go of it, and have stated over and over: it was far better to preserve souls than to preserve gold for the Lord. He who sent out the apostles without gold also brought the churches together without gold. The Church has gold – not to store up, but to lay out, to spend on those who need. Why is it necessary to guard something that’s worthless? Do you know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord when they attacked Jerusalem? Isn’t it much better that the priests should melt it down to help the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord himself ask: Why didst you let so many needy people die of hunger? Surely you had gold? You should have given them something! Why are so many captives sold as slaves? Why are so many captives – who could be ransomed – abandoned, left to be slain by the enemy? It would be better to preserve living vessels than gold ones!
There was no answer to this. What would you say? I was afraid that that the temple of God would need its ornaments? The sacraments don’t need gold. It’s not improper to use something other than gold. They aren’t bought with gold. The glory of the sacraments is the redemption of captives! Truly, these are precious vessels, because they redeem men from death. That, indeed, is the true treasure of the Lord, which effects what his blood effected. Then, indeed, is the vessel of the Lord’s blood recognized, when you see redemption in the vessel and in the blood both: the chalice redeems people from the enemy, people whom the Lord’s blood has redeemed from sin. How beautifully it is said, when long lines of captives are redeemed by the Church: these Christ has redeemed. Behold the gold that can be tested and tried, behold the gold found useful, behold the gold of Christ which frees from death, behold the gold whereby modesty is redeemed and chastity is preserved.
I preferred to hand these people over to you as free men, rather than to store up the gold. This crowd of captives: surely this company is more glorious than the sight of cups. The gold of the Redeemer ought to contribute to this work so as to redeem those in danger. I recognize the fact that the blood of Christ not only glows in cups of gold, but also the work of redemption has displayed the power of God’s work.
The holy martyr Lawrence preserved the same gold for the Lord. When the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. Then on the following day, he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: “These are the treasures of the Church.” And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in him. So, too, the Apostle Paul says: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels.” What greater treasures does Christ have, than those in whom he says that he himself lives? For thus it is written: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in.” And again: “What you did to one of these, you did to me.” What better treasures has Jesus than those in whom he loves to be seen?
These treasures Lawrence pointed out, and he prevailed, for the persecutors could not take them away. Jehoiachim, who preserved his gold during the siege of Jerusalem and refused to spend it providing food, saw his gold carried off, and himself led into captivity. Lawrence, who preferred to spend the gold of the Church on the poor, rather than to keep it in hand for the persecutor, received the sacred crown of martyrdom for the unique and far-sighted vigor of his message. Did anyone say to holy Lawrence: “You should not spend the treasures of the Church, or sell the sacred vessels!”
The pagan immigrants in time of famine
We can’t support leaders who would expel strangers in the middle of a crisis, says St. Ambrose. “Wild beasts and animals consider the food which the earth supplies to be owned by all; they all give assistance to those like themselves. But man, who ought not to consider anything human to be foreign to himself, fights against his own.” (Duties of the Clergy, Book III, chapter 7)
In the decades after the Edict of Milan, which ended the era of persecution and opened the way to a Christian empire, some struggles continued over remnants of ancient Roman religious practices. One such practice was about the Altar of Victory outside the Roman Senate. There was a statue at this altar, and it was custom for several centuries to burn incense to Nike, the god of Victory, when Senators were on their way in for a vote. The Senators would pass through a cloud of smoke, an offering to the Nike. Christians objected, and the altar was removed by one emperor, then replaced by another, then removed by a third. Then there was a famine, and some devotees of the Roman gods – pagans, from a Christian perspective – said the famine was due to the disrespect shown to Nike.
St. Ambrose was prominent in the debate about restoring the Altar of Victory. He opposed it strenuously. But his arguments about pagan worship did not lead him to treat non-Christians with disrespect.
Some of the pagans who wanted the Altar of Victory restored were from villages outside Rome that had been subjected by Rome. The inhabitants were not Roman citizens; in fact, they were often treated as slaves. They raised food for the Romans, and sometimes came into Rome as laborers. In the city, they were regarded as immigrant labor.
At the time of the famine, there was a debate about whether to expel the outsiders. The arguments included questions of citizenship, kinship, religion. The outsiders were pagans, migrants, laborers, outsiders, and strangers. So in a time of famine, should they be expelled?
Those who would close the city to strangers cannot have our support! They would expel strangers at the very time when they ought to help. They would refuse them a share in the food that is meant for all, and close down human contacts that have already begun. They are unwilling, even in a time of necessity, to give anything to people who have enjoyed their rights in common. They refuse to share what they have. Beasts don’t drive out beasts, but man shuts out man. Wild beasts and animals consider the food which the earth supplies to be owned by all; they all give assistance to those like themselves. But man, who ought not to consider anything human to be foreign to himself, fights against his own.
Recall the great elder of the city, who responded when the city was suffering from famine. As is common in such cases, some people demanded that foreigners should be kept out of the city. This elder, prefect at the time, summoned the city officials and other wealthy and influential men, and demanded that they take counsel for the public welfare. He said that it was as cruel a thing for the foreigners to be expelled as for one man to be cast off by another, and to be refused food when dying. We don’t allow our dogs to come to our table and then leave unfed – and yet we shut out a man.
It’s bad business for the world that so many people perish. It’s unprofitable for their city that so many people die, who were long accustomed to helping the city, either by paying contributions or by carrying on business. Another man’s hunger is not profitable to anyone! Nor does it help to delay the day when we help for as long as possible, doing nothing to alleviate the need. When so many of the people who work the soil are gone, or dying, our own future corn supplies will fail. When that happens, shall we expel those who are have always supplied us with food? Are we unwilling, in a time of need, to feed those who have fed us all along? How great is the assistance which they supply even at this time!
Remember: “Not by bread alone does man live.” These people are our own family, our own kindred. Let us make some return for what we have received from them!
But perhaps we afraid that our troubles will get worse. First of all, I answer, mercy never fails, but always finds means of help. Next, let us make up for the corn supplies which are to be granted to them, by a subscription. Let’s make that right with our gold.
If we lose these workers, will we buy new servants to cultivate our soil? It’s much cheaper to feed than to buy a servant. And where will we find new workers? And even if we find one, an ignorant man accustomed to other ways may fill the job, but may not understand the work.
Need I make arguments more impressive than those offered by that great man? The city found the money, and obtained the corn they needed. The city’s wealth was not diminished, and yet they were able to help strangers. What praise this act won that holy man from God! What glory among men! Indeed, he had won an honored name. He could point to the people of a whole province, and say accurately to the emperor: All these I have preserved for you. These people live because of the kindness of the senate; your council snatched them from death!
That was far more practical than the recent decision in Rome. That broad and extensive city expelled people who had spent most of their lives there. They went forth in tears, with their children, into exile, which could have been averted. They grieved over the broken bonds of unity, the severed ties of relationship. And yet a fruitful year had smiled upon us. Only the city needed to import corn. It could have got help – simply by asking their neighbors, the Italians whose children they were driving out. Nothing can be more shameful than to expel a man as a foreigner, and yet to claim his services as though he belonged to us. How can you expel a man who lives on what he produces himself? How can you the man who supplies you with food? You want to keep the worker, and throw out your kindred! You take the food by force, without showing any gratitude!
How wretched this is, and how useless! How can something be expedient if it is not seemly? The previously mentioned city management was able to choose both virtue and expedience! What can be more appropriate and virtuous than when the rich help the needy, when the hungry receive food, and not one man goes without his daily bread? And what can be more profitable than when the people who cultivate the soil stay on the land, and the people in the countryside do not perish?
What is virtuous is also expedient, and what is expedient is virtuous. On the other hand, what is not expedient is unseemly, and what is unseemly is also not expedient.
Ambrose was not a 20th century champion of ecumenism. He fought against the Arians, against Jews, against pagans. But in a time of crisis, faced with refugees, he defended the lives and rights of “strangers,” without asking whether they were Christians.
The duties of hospitality: worth dying for
In Duties of the Clergy, St. Ambrose writes about several models of virtue even in the face of death. He describes Esther’s loyalty to her family and her people, and Jonathan’s loyal defense of his friend when Saul sought to kill David. In this list, he includes Ahimelech, “who, to preserve the duties of hospitality, thought he must endure death rather than betray his friend when fleeing.” (The story of Ahimelech is recounted in 1 Samuel 21-22.) When David with a group of followers was fleeing from Saul, he went to ask for food from Ahimelech, a priest in the town of Nob. Ahimelech had nothing to give him, except bread that had been consecrated to the service of the Lord. But because David and his men were in dire need, Ahimelech gave them this holy bread, an incident that Jesus recalls when he is explaining that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” But St. Ambrose recalls the incident to make a different point. Ahimelech was risking his life when he helped fugitives from King Saul. And in fact, Saul did hear about the incident, and ordered that Ahimelech be killed for it. Why did Ahimelech take the risk? He was loyal to a friend; that is part of the explanation. But also, says Ambrose, he judged that the duties of hospitality were sufficiently grave that it made sense to die rather than fail to meet this obligation. (Duties of the Clergy, Book III, chapter 23)
Hospitality includes washing feet – of course
In his study On the Holy Spirit, St. Ambrose offers an insight on hospitality, found in his fascinating struggle to make the story of Gideon fit a pattern. I don’t think the story of Gideon fits his pattern; what’s fascinating is the fact that St. Ambrose has a pattern in his mind, and what’s in the pattern.
The pattern: St. Ambrose was interested in the similarities between Abraham’s hospitality at Mamre (the First Feast in Scripture) and the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper – specifically, the meaning of the gesture of washing feet. Abraham was being hospitable. Jesus was clearly imitating Abraham in some ways, but the foot-washing seemed to be about forgiveness and salvation – which is related to hospitality, but isn’t the same thing. The story of Gideon doesn’t have any foot-washing – but St. Ambrose seems determined to find it there. There’s mention of a basin with water in it, so … so … so what? (On the Holy Spirit, Book I, par 12-15 in Philip Schaff’s translation)
Let us come now to the Gospel of God. I find the Lord stripping himself of his garments, wrapping a towel around his waist, pouring water into a basin, and washing the disciples’ feet. The water was a heavenly dew; it had been foretold that the Lord Jesus Christ would wash the feet of his disciples in that heavenly dew. Now, in your minds, let your feet be stretched out. The Lord Jesus would like to wash your feet as well; for he says, not to Peter alone, but to each of the faithful: “If I do not wash your feet, you will have no part with me.”
Come, then, Lord Jesus, put off your garments, which you put on for my sake. Let yourself be stripped, so that you may clothe us with your mercy. Gird yourself for our sakes with a towel, so that you may gird us with your gift of immortality. Pour water into the basin, and wash not only our feet but also our heads, and not only the feet of the body, but also the footsteps of the soul. I wish to put off all the filth of our frailty, so that I also may say [with the Bride in the Song of Songs]: “By night I have put off my coat, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?”
How great is this excellence! As a servant, you wash the feet of your disciples; as God, you send dew from heaven. Not only do you just wash our feet, but also you invite us to sit down with you. And by this example of your dignity, you challenge us, saying: “You call me Master and Lord; and it is good that you do, for so I am. If I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
So then, I too want to wash the feet of my brothers. I want to fulfill the commandment of my Lord. I will not be ashamed of myself, nor will I disdain to do what he himself did first. Notice the good in the mystery of humility: while washing away the dirt and filth of others, I wash away my own.
But all the help and insights from others that we can find is not enough to exhaust this mystery. Abraham was indeed willing to wash feet, because of a feeling of hospitality. Gideon too was willing to wash the feet of the angel of the Lord who appeared to him, but his willingness was confined to one; he was willing as a service, not as an offer of fellowship with himself. This is a great mystery which no one has understood fully. Lastly, the Lord said to Peter: “What I am doing, you do not understand now; but you will understand later.” This is, I say, a divine mystery, which even they who wash feet will work to understand. It is not the simple water of this heavenly mystery that lets us be found worthy of having part with Christ.
St. Ambrose is writing about the Holy Spirit, and connects the presence and action of the Holy Spirit with water, and with a variety of functions of water. So he collects a variety of passages about water. In the story of Gideon, God says he will use Gideon and a handful of followers to save Israel from oppression. Gideon asks for a sign, sets out a fleece for the Lord: soak it with dew while everything around it is dry, and I will know you are in fact asking me to act. God cooperates, and there is so much dew on the fleece that Gideon can squeeze out enough water to fill a bowl. But Gideon checks with the angel again; keep the fleece dry while everything around it is wet with dew. God cooperates again. St. Ambrose uses the passage as a figure of the Jews falling away from God, and God pouring out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles. Water, Spirit: so far, so good. But where does Ambrose get the idea that anyone did anything with the water squeezed out of the fleece into a bowl? It’s not in the text, not even a hint.
The story of Gideon includes many details of hospitality that resemble the First Feast at Mamre and the Last Supper in Jerusalem: the meeting in the shade of a terebinth, bread (and wine), meat, a sacrifice, some doubt about the identity of the angel, some bargaining, a call to fidelity, an invitation to a covenant relationship. There are many interesting comparisons. But the bowl of water? When St. Ambrose says that Gideon was willing to wash the feet of the angel, that idea is from his own pre-conceptions, not from the text. It’s just like St. Jerome stating firmly that Abraham went to get the fatted calf to serve his guests with his own hands and that Sarah cooked for them with her own hands: this emerges from Jerome’s picture of hospitality, which he projects onto Abraham. It’s not in the text. Similarly, St. Ambrose has a clear picture in his mind and heart of what hospitality is supposed to look like, and projects it onto the story of Gideon.
“Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet,” said Augustine. A petty thief in his childhood, an irrepressible rake in his adolescence, the beloved child of an obsessive mother, a professional speaker, Augustine doesn’t need to be knocked off a pedestal – even if he was a sophisticated philosopher and canonized saint.
He was a giant among philosophers and theologians. He was prolific; among early Christian writers, only St. John of Chrysostom wrote a comparable amount. He was and remains immensely influential, like his follower centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas. His views on numerous questions – including, for example, war, freedom, Church and State – were foundational, and are still easy to find in Christian thinking today.
He lived from 354 to 430, in modern-day Algeria, with some immensely important years in Milan, where St. Ambrose brought him into the Church. His generation of Christians was not subject to persecution by the Roman Empire; that was two generations back. But in his lifetime, Rome fell, sacked by barbarians. So when he was bishop of Hippo, he received floods of fugitives who braved the waters of the Mediterranean – going south from Italy, perhaps from Lampedusa – to safety in Africa.
Augustine can be accused, plausibly, of inventing autobiography. A few writers before him had written out their life stories, but they were (1) relatively obscure, and (2) purposely self-congratulatory. Augustine was convinced that God reveals himself to us throughout reality – that is, in sciences and in all history – but also in the lives of real people, such as, to take an example he knew reasonably well, himself. He looked for evidence of God’s work in his early life, a search that made the details of his life acutely significant. He’s an interesting man.
The early Church grew up around the Mediterranean – in the Middle East, of course, and in modern-day Turkey straddling Europe and Asia, in Greece and Italy in Europe, and all along the African coast. It’s an oddity (at best, or flat racism at worst) that the strength of Christianity in Africa is so often obscured. France was not the “first daughter of the Church”; Ethiopia was. Anyway, Augustine was an African – with some Roman blood, but also, likely, some Berber. Nobody knows the color of his skin; it wasn’t a significant issue in his day.
It’s odd but true that some of his views about what’s central in Christianity are not well known. A great Australian Scripture scholar, Raymond Canning, notes that Augustine used two passages in Scripture as windows into the rest. The two passages are the Lord’s description of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:30-46) and the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. In both, the Lord identifies himself with people in need. “Whatsoever you do to the least, you do to ME,” says the Lord. And, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME.” But if you look for Patristic commentary on Matthew 25, it’s easy to find extensive material from many other Fathers – but, inexplicably, not Augustine. It’s a huge body of material to set aside or marginalize! His writing refers to Matthew 25 almost 300 times, but it’s generally overlooked (says Canning).
Excerpts from St. Augustine
Welcoming refugees from across the sea
When St. Augustine responded to the flood of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to escape danger, he urged his congregation to reach out to them. I note two details. First, he saw the refugees, not as a burden, but as a gift. That doesn’t mean that their fear and suffering was a good thing; but having them come to us is good for us. Having a stranger come to us and accept our hospitality is a great blessing, like what happened to Zacchaeus. Second, I note that while the general pattern of response to strangers at that time was a church response, with monks serving the needy in the name of the whole church, there was also some personal response. The three patterns of response from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the life of the Church for over a millennium – that is, national, personal, and ecclesial responses – could and did overlap.
We can have Jesus as a guest in our homes, just like Zacchaeus.
Look, as God is kind, it’s winter. So think about the poor, and about how the naked Christ will be clothed.
When the gospel is read, don’t we all think that Zacchaeus was extraordinarily fortunate when he climbed up into a tree, eager to see Jesus, and Jesus saw him there? Zacchaeus just wanted to see him; how could he think for a second that he might have the Christ staying in his house? Don’t we all think Zacchaeus was extraordinarily fortunate when Jesus said to him, “Come down, Zacchaeus! I have to say in your house today!”
I heard your reactions to this reading. You are all pleased! You can imagine it: it’s as if you were all right there with Zacchaeus, and you welcomed Christ into the house. Every one of you, in his heart, was saying: Wow! Zacchaeus was lucky! Zacchaeus has got to be happy about that, having the Lord come right into his house!
This can’t happen to us, can it? Because Christ is already in heaven?
Dear Lord, Christ, pronounce aloud the words of the New Testament. Bless me with your law, your words.
Let’s all participate in this, reciting and hearing the words, so that you know you are not cheated of the presence of Christ. Listen to his words, listen to him, coming to judge: “When you do this to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me.” Each one of you should look forward to receiving Christ – now, even now, when he is already sitting in heaven! Still, now: attend to him, lying by the porch where he was flung aside. Pay attention to him when he’s hungry, when he’s suffering from the cold, when he’s poor, and when he’s a stranger. If you have done this before and you’re accustomed to it, do it again, with fresh attention! If you’ve never done this before and you aren’t accustomed to it, do it anyway!
Our grasp of right teaching grows stronger, so let our good works grow stronger. You praise the person who sows the seed; display the harvest! Amen.
Excerpt from the end of Sermon 25, chapter 8.
Caution: this is a relaxed translation!
Martha and Mary
Augustine’s approach reveals a brilliant theologian, but also a pastor with insight. Enjoy!
When the holy Gospel was read, we heard that a pious woman, Martha, received the Lord into her house. And while she was occupied in the tasks of hospitality, her sister Mary sat at the Lord’s feet, and listened. One was busy, and the other was sitting still; one was giving, and the other was receiving.
Martha – busy, toiling away, serving – appealed to the Lord, and complained that her sister wasn’t helping in the work. The Lord, asked to be a judge, responded as an advocate for Mary. “Martha,” he said, “you are working away on many things, when only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.”
We heard the complaint, and we heard the decision of the Judge, answering the complaint and defending the other. The point is, Mary was intent on the sweetness of the Lord’s word. Martha was intent on how to feed the Lord, while Mary intent on how she might be fed by the Lord. Martha was preparing a feast for the Lord; Mary was already delighting in a feast prepared by that same Lord.
Mary was listening with sweet pleasure to the Lord’s sweet word, with earnest affection. So when her sister appealed to the Lord, was she afraid that the Lord would say, “Get up and help your sister”? She was held in place by a wonderful sweetness, a sweetness of the mind that is undoubtedly superior to any sweetness of the senses. She was excused, and sat there confidently. But why? Let’s look at this carefully, so we can be fed too.
Did the Lord criticize Martha? How can you blame someone for working diligently to make you welcome in her house? How can you fuss at someone who is so pleased to see you, and who works away to please you? If that’s the way things work, let’s all just forget about serving the poor! Let’s all “choose the better part that won’t be taken away”! Let’s all focus on listening to the Word, enjoying the sweetness of doctrine, learning all about salvation! We don’t have to worry ourselves about the stranger on the road, or the people who need a little bread or some warm clothing! We don’t have to visit the sick or check out the folks in jail or bury the dead! All those works of mercy: just let them go! Focus on learning how to know what the Lord would like to teach us! If that’s the “better part,” why shouldn’t we all do it, when we have the Lord himself to defend our decision? We don’t have to worry about justice; we heard his decision in the Martha vs. Mary case.
That’s really not quite right. Let’s look again.
The Lord didn’t say that Martha’s choice was bad; he said that Mary’s was better. What makes it better? Well, Martha was trying to do many things, and Mary was focused on one thing. But that “one” thing leads to “many” things, and the “many” things don’t necessarily lead to the “one.” There are many things in the universe, but there is only one Creator.
The things which were made in the universe are many; he who made them is One. The heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that in them are: how many they are! Who could count them, or even imagine such a number? Who made all these? God made them all. And behold, “they are very good.” The many, many things that he made are good; but how much better is he who made them!
Let’s look again at Martha’s concern about many things. It takes a great deal of generous service to prepare refreshment for our bodies. Why do we do it? Because people get hungry and thirsty. For miserable human beings, these works of mercy are completely necessary.
But consider: you give bread to the hungry, because you found a hungry man. But if you take that hunger away, who needs your bread?
If there are no homeless wanderers, who needs your hospitality?
If no one is naked or badly dressed, who needs your clothes?
If no one is sick, who needs your visits?
If no one is in prison, who needs you to pay the fine?
If no one is quarrelling, who needs you to make peace?
If no one dies, who needs you to bury the body?
In the world to come, these evils won’t exist, and there will not be any need for these services either.
Martha did well ministering to the Lord’s mortal flesh. But on the other hand, who was he, this Lord in mortal flesh? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Mary was ministering to this Word! That explains why “Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken from her.” She chose that which shall abide forever, and “it shall not be taken from her.”
Mary wanted to be occupied about “one thing.” She understood already that “it is good for me to cleave to the Lord.” She sat at the feet of our Head. The lower she sat, the more she received. Water flows down to the low hollows of the valley, runs down away from the risings of the hill.
The Lord was not critical of Martha’s work, but he distinguished between their services when he spoke to Martha: “You are occupied about many things, yet only one thing is necessary.” And Mary chose that one thing for herself. The labor of many services passes away, while the love of unity remains. What Mary chose “shall not be taken from her.” The Lord didn’t say this to Martha, but it’s implied and it follows logically: what you have chosen shall be taken away. This will be a blessing, because that which is better will then be given to you. Your labor will be taken away from you, so that rest may be given to you. You are still on the sea, Mary is already in port.
You see, then, dearly beloved – and I hope you understand – that these two women were both pleasing to the Lord, both objects of his love, both disciples. I hope you understand this; if you don’t, listen, because it’s important! In these two women we see a figure of our own two lives – present life, and the life to come. In them, we see the life of labor, and the life of quiet; we see the life of sorrow, and the life of blessedness; we see temporal life, and eternal life.
Let me say this carefully. I am not talking about a good life versus an evil life. When I talk about temporal life, I’m not talking about evil, or iniquity, or wickedness, or luxuriousness, or ungodliness. No! I’m talking about a life of labor, full of sorrows, subdued by fear, interrupted by temptations – an innocent life. This was Martha’s life.
Evil was not a part of either life – not part of Martha’s life, not Mary’s. In that house, which received the Lord, lived two women living two lives, both innocent, both praiseworthy. One was a life of work, the other a life of leisure; but neither was a life of vice, nor of laziness. Hard work can lead to vice, and leisure can lead to laziness; but in this house, neither of these things happened. In that house, there were two lives, and the Lord, the Fountain of life. In Martha was the image of things present; in Mary was the image of things to come.
What Martha was doing: that’s where we are now. What Mary was doing: that’s what we hope for. So let’s do the first well, so that we may have the second fully.
(from Sermon LIV, on Luke 10:38-42)
About heaven: not an insight, but an inroad
In a sermon about how many people are saved, and how many are damned, Augustine doesn’t resolve the matter. Few? Many? Is that helpful? He recalls the story of the woman who “touched” Jesus when a whole crowd was “pressing” in on him; he turned around and asked who “touched” him, and his disciples thought the question was crazy. The difference between touching and pressing isn’t easy to measure; the difference may be something in the heart, may be simply invisible.
The first half the sermon is inconclusive speculation. But the second half is practical advice on long-term investments, and it’s fascinating. Take a look:
If you are interested in this question of who will go on to eternal life, not eternal punishment, then speak by your works, not your voices. I feel pressured to say something, although this admonition shouldn’t be necessary. I want to praise you, not fuss at you! I’ll say a few words, and not dwell on it.
Acknowledge the duty of hospitality; some people have met God this way.
Take in a stranger! Strangers are in fact your companions on the way through life, because we are all strangers!
A Christian acknowledges that he is a stranger, even in his own house and in his own country. This isn’t optional: if you recognize that you’re a stranger, this is Christian; if you don’t recognize you’re a stranger, you’re not Christian.
Our country is above: there, we won’t be strangers. Everyone on earth, even in his own house, is a stranger. Look, if you aren’t a stranger here on earth, then don’t leave, don’t pass on. If you have to leave, then you must be a stranger here. So don’t deceive yourself! You’re a stranger! Like it or not, you are a stranger!
You leave your house to your children – one stranger to other strangers. Why do I say that? Because if you were at an inn, wouldn’t you leave when another person comes to take your place? You do the same thing with the house that you call your own! Your father left a place for you, and some day you will leave it to your children. You don’t live in that house, planning to stay there forever, and neither will your heirs. You will leave, and so will they.
If we are all passing away, then let’s do something which can’t pass away, so that when we have departed, and we reach the place where we will stay and not pass on again, we can find something there that’s permanent, that will not pass away. And what’s that? The good things we did.
There, where we will remain and not pass on again, Christ is the keeper. So why are you afraid that you will lose what you spend on the poor?
(Sermon LXI, in Augustine’s study of the Sermon on the Mount)
We are ALL strangers
In his study of John’s Gospel, Augustine uses the story of the woman at the well to make a point about the Church. His comments about the woman as a stranger are not central to his argument, but they are interesting. He sees the woman as an image or “figure” of the Church at a specific point. And to be an appropriate image of the Church, it matters that she is a stranger.
There came a woman. She is a figure of the Church not yet justified, but now about to be justified … She comes ignorant, and finds Jesus at the well where she intends to draw water.
The Samaritans did not belong to the nation of the Jews: they were foreigners, although they lived close by. … We regard the Samaritans as aliens. … It is pertinent that this woman comes of strangers, because the Church was to come of the Gentiles, aliens from the Jews. In her, then, let’s hear the story speak of ourselves, and in her let’s acknowledge ourselves, and in her let’s give thanks to God for ourselves.
This chapter is about angels: does the command to love our neighbors include loving angels? We’re not going to get to the angels right now. But note: before turning his attention to angels, Augustine says that the commandment to love our neighbor doesn’t have any exceptions. None.
He who commanded us to love our neighbor made no exception, as far as men are concerned, is shown both by our Lord Himself in the Gospel, and by the Apostle Paul. The Lord had a conversation with a man about the two commandments “on which hang all the Law and the Prophets.” The man asked the Lord, “And who is my neighbor?” The Lord responded with a story. There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell among thieves, and was severely injured by them. They left him naked and half dead. What the Lord wanted to explain was that nobody was a neighbor to this victim except the person who took pity on him and came forward to help him and care for him.
The man who had asked the question admitted the truth of what the Lord said. Then the Lord applied the story firmly: “Go and do likewise.” The Lord taught that a neighbor is someone we’re supposed to help when there’s trouble, and someone who’s supposed to help us when we’re in need. In other words, logically, a neighbor is someone who has a duty to help us when we are in need.
The word “neighbor” is relative. [That is, you can’t be a “neighbor” when you’re alone in the wilderness.] You can’t be a neighbor except to a neighbor. And who doesn’t see that there are no exceptions, that you can’t deny mercy to anyone at all, since our Lord extends the rule even to our enemies? “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
(Excerpt from Christian Doctrine, chapter 30)
Dates of the Eight Great Fathers
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The last of the eight Great Fathers of the Church is Gregory the Great (540-604). Born in 540! (Four the eight great were born in 4th century, between 373 and 397; three were born in the 5th century, in 407, 420, and 430; but Gregory was born a full century later, a mere shmear 1500 years ago!) He’s the only pope among the eight great Fathers. He is admired by Catholics and Orthodox both, plus Anglicans and Lutherans; in fact, he has the somewhat dubious distinction of being found praiseworthy by John Calvin, who – in a back-handed compliment – called him the last good pope.
He’s credited with revising the Church’s communal prayer, beautifying it (and beatifying it, if that’s not redundant). The simple plain chant that you hear in ancient and/or monastic liturgies, music that’s designed to pull you into the words instead of away from them, is called “Gregorian” chant out of respect for him. He didn’t actually invent it; calling it Gregorian is a tribute to him.
One of his greatest works was a leader’s decision: he sent missionaries to England. He did not go himself, but he selected about 40 remarkable men and launched one of the most significant projects in European history, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. The leader of the expedition was St. Augustine (not the brilliant African saint – the other one), who is oft-times saddled with the epithet “Apostle to the English.” He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Gregory did not deliver eloquent sermons on hospitality that have been treasured through the ages. But look at his administrative decisions. Early in the mission to “transmarine Saxony,” Augustine wrote to Gregory with a list of questions, including two that are pertinent here.
The first question was about money. Like most money questions, it’s a little scrambled, with fascinating issues entangled; but mostly it’s about money. Augustine: “I ask, most blessed father, about bishops: how they should live with their clergy? And about the offerings of the faithful which are received at the altars: how should they be divided up? …”
Gregory’s response: “It is the custom of the Apostolic See to instruct bishops, when they are ordained, that all donations or emoluments that come in should be divided in four:
· one for the bishop and his household on account of hospitality and entertainment;
· another for the clergy;
· a third for the poor; and
· a fourth for the upkeep of churches.”
A full quarter of the income goes to the poor; that’s direct and simple. And a quarter of the budget is for building and maintenance: that’s also pretty simple. But the quarters for the bishop and for the clergy are worth discussion.
The bishop gets a quarter because he’s responsible for hospitality. Emphatically, that does not mean parties for kings and queens and nobles. It refers to the work of St. Jerome and St. Basil and St. Benedict, who built guest houses in all monasteries, offering hospitality to all in need. Gregory was a monk when he was elected pope; his life training included hospitality to all who knock. Gregory, as pope, makes explicit that this work of monks, fulfilling the Lord’s command to welcome strangers, is also the responsibility of bishops.
But look also at Gregory’s decision about money for the clergy. It’s clarified in the response to Augustine’s second question: “I would like to know whether clerics who are not celibate may marry, and whether they should return to the world if they do get married.”
The Pope responded carefully. “Clerics who are not in sacred orders [that is, for example, lectors – but not deacons and priests] who cannot make a commitment to a celibate life should get married, and should receive their stipends separately … distribution should be made to every person according to need. Be thoughtful about their stipends, and plan ahead. They should remain under ecclesiastical rule, lead good lives, be attentive about singing the psalms, and – by the help of God – preserve their hearts and tongues and bodies from all that is unlawful.”
That answered the question, but the Pope continued regarding those who live in community, as in a monastery. “What more should I say about assigning portions, or showing hospitality, or carrying out the works of mercy? Whatever remains over and above their needs is to be expended for pious and religious uses, as the Lord and Master of us all says, “Of what is over give alms, and behold all things are clean for you.”
That is, the quarter of the donations that is given to the clergy includes an undetermined portion for hospitality. Take care of the clergy with wives first. Then meet the needs of the celibate community. What’s left over is religious activities including hospitality.
The passage that Gregory alludes to is from the Gospel according to St. Luke. “After he [Jesus] had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:37-41). The Pope does not offer advice about how much to fast, or whether to avoid meat or butter, or any other ascetic practices. Following Jesus, he says that there’s only one detail about your budget and your cuisine that really matters deeply: serve the poor with generosity and hospitality.
The rough budget that Gregory outlines has a quarter for the poor – plus a large part of the bishop’s quarter for hospitality to the poor, plus another smaller portion of the clergy’s quarter for hospitality and other works of mercy. It’s possible that even the buildings and grounds quarter of the budget includes the guest house, but that’s just speculation. What’s clear and explicit about hospitality is in the bishop’s quarter: he is responsible for hospitality.
One secondary but noteworthy detail about this letter: Augustine asked a question about sex – about celibacy. Gregory answered that question, but then slid from that right into a Scripture-based plea for hospitality. This odd linkage appears in the story of Sodom, in the story of the woman at the well, and in the story of Jerome and Fabiola. I just note the link, because it seems to convulse the Church today.
Protecting the guesthouses
In a stiff letter to the “abbot of a guest-house,” Gregory sought to defend whatever emoluments of wealth might accumulate in service of strangers and the poor.
We decree that in the future, none of those who have been ordained as abbot or presbyter to the same guest-house and monastery shall dare by any secret scheming whatever to take the office of bishop, unless that individual has been first relieved of the office of abbot, and another has been substituted in his place. The danger is that by consuming the property of the guest-house or monastery with unjustifiable expenditures, he should inflict the serious pressure of unrelieved poverty on the poor and strangers, or on others who depend on the resources of the guest-house. Moreover, we forbid that the bishop claim authority, without the consent of the abbot and presbyter, to remove any monk from this place, for promotion or for any reason whatever. The danger is that usurpation like this might be so extensive that depend on recruiting men will be destroyed by their removal.
(from the letter to “Senator” about guest-houses in Book XIII of the epistles of Gregory)
Protect the hospitals from being plundered
Pope Gregory received a list of complaints from Vitalis, the “Guardian of Sardinia.” The bishop was old and frail, and he had failed to protect people who depended on him. There were churches without priests to serve. Unscrupulous men had been able to seize goods and properties that belonged to the Church. There were monasteries where the newly appointed abbots were corrupt, and had been appointed abbot even though they already had a reputation for corruption. There was a convent where the nuns’ lives had been re-arranged against their will, and against the will of the convent’s founder. And there were guest-houses (at least three which were named specifically) that were in disarray.
Gregory responded, and the first item to address was the state of the guest-houses. “We find that the hospitals [or guest-houses, xenodochia] in Sardinia are suffering from grievous neglect. Our most reverend brother and fellow-bishop Januarius deserves to be corrected severely, but we will not do so, because of his old age and simplicity and sickness.” Still, he authorized Vitalis to speak with the Pope’s authority and to warn those in positions of authority in Sardinia that they must put the guest-houses in order. “If there should be any neglect there in the future, let them know that they will not be able in any manner, or to any extent, to excuse themselves before us.”
With regard to the corrupt abbots, he left them in place, but on probation. If their conduct and attention to duty is consistent with their office in the future, let them persevere; otherwise, they will be replaced.
With regard to the wealth plundered from the monasteries, he authorized Vitalis to do all that he could recover it without dragging anyone into court. Avoid court, he said, but pay attention to the order of the Emperor. The nuns should be left undisturbed, and should be protected from unscrupulous men who seek to plunder them. Seek help if necessary, and restore whatever has been taken from them.
Gregory’s letter reveals some degree of cooperation between Church and State. He authorized Vitalis to go to Constantinople to seek redress for a list of wrongs. This seems to suggest that the guest-houses (hostels, hospitals, xenodochia) served the poor and needy in the name of the Lord, and in the name of the community that followed the Lord’s command to serve – but also on behalf of the political community, the empire. The emperor was aware of the services offered by the monasteries and guest-houses, and was supportive.
(from the letter to Vitalis, Guardian (Defensorem) of Sardinia, in Book XIV of the epistles of Gregory)
Pope Gregory did not write passionately about the need for houses of hospitality, like St. Jerome. He didn’t need to; St. Benedict and St. Basil and others had already made institutional hospitality central to the life of the Church. But Gregory’s actions and decisions and advice are extraordinarily valuable to us today, because they all take it for granted that hospitality is the Church’s responsibility – and, indeed, the responsibility of the clergy.
The eight “Great Fathers of the Church”
Gregory the Great
St. Athanasius was earliest of the eight men who have been called the “Great Fathers” of the Church. He is remembered (when he is remembered) for two things: he fought to protect the teaching of the Council of Nicea about the humanity and divinity of Christ, and he wrote “The Life of Anthony.”
The Desert Fathers – including the great mentor of Athanasius, Anthony – were involved in a paradox. They did not teach extensively about hospitality; they fled from the distractions of community. However, they were careful to accept guests to their hide-aways – with grace and joy. For the most part, they did not preach a great deal about hospitality; rather, like Christ, they became the stranger. Athanasius learned from them, and from martyrs. And these roots are strong and visible in his writing about Jesus Christ.
For example, look at an abstruse argument about Christology that Athanasius makes – and look carefully at the details that fill his imagination. He said that Jesus was true God, true man; and that argument shaped his life, but I’m going to skip past it to focus on hospitality. Athanasius said that God is unchanging, but different people see different manifestations of the unchanging God at different times, in different circumstances. His point is that God can be unchanging and still be seen in different ways. is HBut focus for a moment on his examples. He argues that God is always one and the same, but when we are in need, he shines forth according to our need. “To the weak he becomes health, to the persecuted he is a refuge and a well-defended house, and to the injured he says, Here I am.”
At this point in his argument, Athanasius has said that the unchanging God can appear to us as health or as a refuge or as a faithful friend. So the theme of hospitality – God is our refuge – is there, as one item in a list. But watch what happens when Athanasius reaches for examples from Scripture. He uses four examples from Scripture. First: One person has helped the injured – like Abraham helping Lot. Second: Another has opened his home to the persecuted, like Obadiah protecting the sons of the prophets. Third: Another has offered hospitality to a stranger, like Lot and the angels. And fourth: Another has cared for the needy, like Job and those who begged from him.
Athanasius does not write about hospitality. But look at the examples that flood his imagination! Abraham, Obadiah, Lot, and Job!
Abraham is the prototype of hospitality. The story of Abraham at Mamre, welcoming three strangers who turn out to be God and two angels, is a pre-figuring of the Eucharist. The story of Abraham explains the immense urgency of hospitality, shows why hospitality is tightly linked to true worship.
Obadiah is not a familiar figure; when people explain hospitality in Scripture, they don’t usually reach for Obadiah. Actually, there are two Obadiahs in Scripture, a minor character in the story of Elijah, and one of the twelve minor prophets; some Jewish scholars assert that they are the same person. Athanasius refers to Obadiah in the story of Elijah. When Jezebel was trying to establish a pagan cult in Jerusalem, she slaughtered the leaders and prophets who led the worship of the God of Abraham. Obadiah protected as many as he could, hiding them in caves. He risked his life in the middle of a pogrom to save a hundred lives.
Lot welcomed the angels who had visited his uncle Abraham. He was not particularly effective, but he tried to shelter his guests from a murderous mob at the door, intent on gang-rape. The angels, of course, could take care of themselves. But Lot remains a figure of hospitality, imitating Abraham.
Today, Job is generally held up as the great example of patience, not hospitality. But when Job was explaining why it didn’t make sense to see his long suffering as a punishment for his sins, he claimed to be a just man. And to prove it, he said that he took care of the Biblical trio – widows and orphans and strangers. One detail: no strangers ever had to spend the night sleeping in the street near Job’s home, because he always took them in.
Athanasius spent his life defending the teaching of the Council of Nicea, the extraordinary assertion that with its teaching that Catholics repeat at most Masses: “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Athanasius attended that Council as a young man, and spent the rest of his life defending its teaching. Shortly after the Council, Athanasius was drafted to be the bishop (his title was “Patriarch”) of Alexandria. But a decade later, the opponents of the Nicene Creed organized another council, scrapped the teaching from Nicea, and sent Athanasius into exile. He went off to Gaul for two years – which wasn’t awful, but it was exile.
He returned for a year, and then was banished again. But in 338, he was banished a second time. In and out, as the politics of the Roman Empire trended Orthodox, then Arian, back and forth. He was banished a total of five times, by four emperors. He was bishop for 45 years – 17 years in exile. In addition, there were six times when he was not legally banished, but he was on the run from violent mobs.
When Athanasius was arguing about Christology (a fancy name for the argument about whether Jesus was really God and also really a man), he did not base anything of what he said on personal experience; that kind of argumentation became popular later. Instead, he based his arguments on Scripture, the teaching and stories in the Bible. His biography is not relevant to his debate. Nonetheless, when he reached for Scripture, the figures who came to mind were the giants of hospitality, who had – one surmises – been a source of strength to him when he fled, and fled again, and again and again and again.
The Council of Nicea stated truths about the life of the Trinity, without any reference to ways in which we can live that life. Today, people might talk about marriage as a way to experience the life of the Trinity: in marriage, two become one, and the relationship which unites them becomes – by well-known incremental steps – another distinct person. Or: today, people look for insights into the life of the Trinity by exploring the passion of a father. A third example: people today might explore the relationship revealed in the life of Abraham, the invitation to unity in the host/guest relationship exemplified at Mamre. The debate during and after Nicea didn’t touch anything like that. Instead, Athanasius and his friends found their way forward via the tools of Greek philosophers or Talmudic scholars, embracing several clearly stated truths that seemed at first glance to be mutually exclusive, and working to find a clear assertion protecting each truth without undercutting other true assertions.
Athanasius defended the teaching of the Council, with the tools of the Council. There doesn’t seem to be any record of him making any connections between the pronouncements of Nicea and his own life – viz., his experience as an exile. And there’s no particular reason why he should have made such a connection; he wasn’t a 20th century charismatic fascinated by serendipity. Augustine, whose revolutionary Confession showed that autobiographical study could open a route toward amazing insights into the work of God, was still a young man chasing girls when Athanasius died. Nonetheless, when we look to Athanasius for insight into hospitality, we should remember that he was exiled five times. With that in mind, look at the details in his argument about who Jesus was. Note that in the back of his mind, Athanasius thinks of God as a refuge. (See “Four Discourses against the Arians,” chapter XIII, #63)
The treasures that last into eternal life
Athanasius explained some of the ascetic practices of St. Anthony as a kind of paradoxical cosmic greed: we should give up what we have here in order to accumulate treasures that last forever. Echoing the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (8:18), he says that “the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Forget about money and gold! Instead, Anthony asks (and Athanasius reports), why not get those things which we can take with into the grave – such as the great Roman virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, courage – and the gifts of the Holy Spirit – including understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath. In Anthony’s list of treasures to carry into eternal life, the last is hospitality. If we possess these treasures, he says, we shall find a welcome in the land of the meek-hearted.
(The Life of Anthony, 17)
On Washing a Hermit
There’s a tantalizing detail about the relationship between Athanasius and Anthony. It may be close to meaningless, or the meaning may be lost in the mists of time, or it may be … well, judge for yourself.
Athanasius says that after Anthony died, some of his followers asked Athanasius to write the great man’s biography. So he wrote fast, with a letter-carrier standing by, hoping to catch the last sailing ship of the season; and under time pressure, he produced a literary marvel. And in the opening paragraph, Athanasius stated that he was writing “what I know firsthand, having seen him many times.” In fact, Athanasius learned a lot from Anthony, because “I waited on him for a long time, and poured water on his hands.”
“Poured water on his hands.” What in the world does that mean? What kind of credential is that?
In 2 Kings 3, there’s an unexplained remark that Elisha used to pour water on the hands of Elijah. Presumably, it means that Elisha waited on Elijah as a personal servant or something like that. It reveals a close personal connection between the two. When Elijah was carried off into heaven by a fiery chariot, he dropped his mantle, and Elisha picked it up – literally, assumed his mantle. And when Anthony died, he too left his cloak to his friend, the bishop – Athanasius. So the remark about Athanasius pouring water on the hands of Anthony may be another detail, like the mantle stories, that suggests a close relationship: a teacher and his disciple, or a hero and his protégé, or an old man and his servant, or a prophet and his successor. It was a close relationship; that’s clear enough. But still, is there more here to understand?
Washing feet is enormously evocative. At Mamre, at the First Feast in Scripture, Abraham washes the feet of his guests, who turn out to be celestial visitors. Washing the dust of the desert off the feet of travelers is a fundamental detail of hospitality. Jesus repeats the gesture at the Last Supper, and expands its meaning, washing the feet of his disciples. Peter balks, but Jesus is insistent: “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.” Oh, says Peter, then wash my feet and hands and head and everything. Then Jesus balks. Explaining the gesture, Jesus says that he has set an example they should follow: they should wash each other’s feet. That’s pretty clear: welcome each other, serve each other, love each other, forgive each other, and never lord it over each other. But all of that is about washing feet, and Athanasius washed Anthony’s hands. What does that mean? At the Last Supper, washing anything other than feet does not intensify the experience; it’s just a good joke.
Pilate washed his hands after he condemned Jesus to death. The gesture said that he refused to take responsibility for what he had decided. But he washed his own hands. And anyway … skip it. Athanasius wasn’t imitating Pilate.
At Mass, in centuries long after Anthony and Athanasius, washing hands after the Offertory may have had an echo of practicality: some of the gifts arriving at the altar might have been a little grimy, and the priest who accepted the gifts had to clean up. Later still, the “Lavabo” became a preparatory penitential prayer: “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins.” In that short ritual, an acolyte pours the water for the priest to wash his hands. But that doesn’t explain what was happening in the fourth century. Anachronisms aside, Athanasius was a priest – in fact, a bishop – and Anthony was not. It’s upside down.
It is plausible that when Athanasius washed the old man’s hands, it was another hermit joke, an ancient joke recalling Jesus poking fun at Peter at the Last Supper. The early hermits and monks fled from society to pray – but having found precious solitude, they then cared for their guests with religious zeal. The paradoxes involved in welcoming the people from whom you fled gave rise to a collection of jokes about hospitality, a whole genre of humorous tales. Most of the stories are about food, but it’s plausible that Athanasius records a non-edible gleam of desert-dry humor, delight about the topsy-turvy nature of hospitality.
Perhaps the gesture was indeed about hospitality, a slightly altered foot-washing. Athanasius recorded that one of Anthony’s ascetic practices was that he refused to wash his feet, for decades. (I’m not confident that it’s possible to explain that to anyone, especially not Anthony’s mother. But there it is, a stray scrap of an ascetic practice as weird as the solemn and unexplained record in the Acts of the Apostles that St. Paul got a haircut in Cenchreae. Peter preached one afternoon, with miracles abounding, and 5,000 people had their lives totally transformed. And Paul: he got a haircut. It’s just one of those mysteries.) Whatever you want to do with Anthony, you gotta work around his dirty feet. So one can imagine a conversation in which Anthony’s devoted but argumentative followers point out that Jesus wanted us all to wash each other’s feet, including even the Pope, for Pete’s sake. And one can imagine Anthony sticking to his self-imposed penitential practice, but admitting he was a sinner like Peter, and compromising a little, submitting to a ritual of cleansing and forgiveness and hospitality. So he agreed to let his insistent servant wash him – but not his grimy, gnarled, sand-scuffed feet, just his hands.
Perhaps it was just standard desert hospitality, as tender as foot-washing, with a smidgin of weird added. Perhaps.
When St. Athanasius was in exile, he wrote several “Festal Letters,” explaining to the people in Alexandria how to prepare to celebrate Easter. The first Festal Letter closes with a simple call to love God and neighbor. It includes hospitality.
Let us remember the poor, and not forget kindness to strangers. Above all, let us love God with all our soul, and might, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. That way, we can be ready to receive those things which ‘the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man, which God has prepared for those that love Him,’ through His only Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; through Whom, to the Father alone, by the Holy Ghost, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
An apology for being a refugee
In his tumultuous life, Athanasius spent years in exile, not including the times when he fled from town to escape mobs. On one occasion (at least), he was accused of cowardice, and he wrote a lengthy response, his “Apologia de Fuga.” It’s not Saturday Night Live comical, but it’s fun. He buzzes through Scripture, finding example after example of prophets and patriarchs and saints and the Lord himself, on the run.
For reasons that escape me, many anti-immigration activists resist the idea that refugees in our time are in any way similar to the Flight to Egypt. Consider Athanasius. He says that you can fuss about flight and call it wrong, but it’s definitely worse to persecute. And he argues that his critics aren’t sincere in their charge of cowardice; their real complaint is that he’s alive.
Here’s his “Apologia de Fuga” (abridged).
I hear that several people, including some Arians, are slandering me, accusing me of cowardice, because I didn’t turn myself in when they were looking for me. I’m not going to answer all the nonsense they have spread around, except to say that that, except to say that lying is from the devil.
But cowardice: I have to say something about that. They are ignorant and evil people, and they hope that if they charge me with being a coward, I’ll turn myself in to prove that I’m a man. This is malice and madness.
When they set out to persecute people, they insult them, and injure them, and torture them, and kill them. Can you find a place where no one remembers anything about their malice? Churches everywhere lament the success of their violent plots. The list of bishops they have killed or banished is long.
Are they satisfied with their past violence? No! Like the leaches in Proverbs, they want more and more blood – in Rome, in Gaul, in Italy, in Sardinia, everywhere – good people preaching the truth are seized and banished because they refuse to unite themselves to the heresies of the Arians.
They attacked Hosius in his old age, when he had earned the right to a time of peace and happiness. In every council, he took a leading role. Every church in the area remembers some time when he helped them. He has helped person ion need who came to him. And yet they assaulted him, and scourged him, and threatened his family.
Now this man George has focused their attention on Alexandria, and they want to execute us. In the week after Easter, they launched their attacks. They imprisoned virgins. They led bishops away in chains. They plundered the houses orphans and widows and took away their bread. They have attacked the homes of Christians in the middle of the night. Whole families are in danger because one family member is identified as a Christian.
The week after Pentecost was worse. Soldiers, armed with bows and swords and spears, attacked. They rounded up virgins, and built a fire to frighten them. When it seemed that the women were able to master their fear of the fire, the soldiers stripped them naked and smashed their faces until they were unrecognizable. They collected 40 men and scourged them , using freshly cut sticks with thorns, killing some and leaving the rest disabled for weeks. They scattered the bodies of their victims. The relatives of the dead reacted in two ways at the same time: they rejoiced over the courage faith they had seen, and grieved over their bodies. The attackers rounded up another group of bishops and leaders, killing them or driving them, wounded, into exile. They did all this to stamp out the truth. That’s what kind of men they were.
And these are the people who accuse me of cowardice because I escaped from them, and declined to turn myself in to them.
It may be bad to flee, but it is much worse to persecute. Men don’t flee from gentle and humane rulers; they flee from cruel men with evil minds.
Consider the story of David and Saul. When Saul became evil-minded, those who were in distress or in debt fled from Saul and took refuge with David (1 Samuel 22:2).
Our Father in heaven cares for us. He does not overlook even a sparrow who is trapped in a snare. But when these enemies accuse me of cowardice for fleeing from them, they are not concerned about virtue; they are after my blood. And their words about me are criticisms not just of me, but of Scripture and of the virtues of holy men.
If you reproach everyone who hides from enemies who seek to kill and destroy, what do you say about Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau, or about Moses going off to Midian because he was in fear of the Pharaoh?
What about David fleeing from Saul, disguising himself and hiding in a cave?
What about Jotham, escaping from Abimelech?
What do they say about Elijah, who called on God and raised men from the dead – and then hid himself from Ahab, and fled from the threats of Jezebel? And what about the 100 prophets who fled at the same time, with the help of Obadiah, and hid in caves?
Do these critics remember that the disciples hid for fear of the Jewish leaders? Or Paul, who was wanted by the authorities in Damascus, who was lowered down the wall in a basket and escaped?
The Law includes a command that there be cities of refuge, so that a man who is in danger of being put to death may have a way to save himself (Exodus 21:13).
The Lord, the Word of the Father, speaking of the coming persecutions, commanded: “When they persecute you in one city, flee into another” (Matthew 10:23).
The Lord also said that when you see the desolation described by the prophet Daniel, those in Judea should flee into the mountains, those on the housetops should not retrieve anything out of the house, and those out in the fields should not go home to get their clothes (Matthew 24:15-18).
The Lord himself fled when he was persecuted. When he was a little child, his angel commanded Joseph to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13).
When the Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath and the Pharisees met to consider how to destroy him, he withdrew from there (Matthew 12:15).
After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, his enemies took counsel to discuss how to put him to death, and so he stopped walking about in public. He went out into the country near the wilderness. (John 11:54)
When you Savior declared, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” the people got ready to stone him, but he hid himself and went out of the temple (John 58-59).
When he told the people of Nazareth that the words of the prophet Isaiah were fulfilled, they prepared to kill him, but he walked through their midst and went away (Luke 4:30).
When the Lord heard that John the Baptist had been martyred, he got in a boat and went off to a deserted place (Matthew 14:13).
Men should be ashamed of such rashness and madness, charging the Lord with cowardice!
Recall that John wrote, “They came to arrest him, but no one even touched him, because his hour was not yet come” (John 7:30). Jesus spoke like this on other occasions. Then when the his time had come, he declared, “The hour is at hand” (Matthew 26:45).
What time is allotted to each of us is hidden, and yet we know that just as there are seasons in the year, so also there is a time to live and a time to die (Ecclesiastes 3:2). We do not know when our time is, but we know that there is an appointed time. The Lord knows the time, and sometimes the saints learn of it. So when Elijah was commanded by the Spirit to do so, he showed himself to Ahab (1 Kings 21:18).
Consider Paul’s appeal to Caesar. Was this cowardice? God forbid!
There’s a time to die, and a time to fly.
General Syrianus came after me with thousands of soldiers. We were holding a vigil, preparing for communion the next day. They surrounded the church, armed with swords, bows, spears, and clubs, to make sure no one escaped. I thought I should not desert the people during such uproar. I took my chair, and had the deacon read a psalm, with the people responding, “For his mercy endures forever.” When the soldiers broke in, I asked the congregation to leave, but I stayed, even though soldiers surrounded the sanctuary to capture me. I refused to leave until the people had all gotten out. When most of the people were out and the rest were on their way, some monks seized me and took me out forcibly. And I declare, with Truth as my witness, that although there were soldiers in the sanctuary and all over the church, we went right through them without being observed. We give glory to God, that the people escaped, and then we were able to save ourselves also.
When God has delivered us in such an extraordinary way, can anyone lay blame on us justly because we refuse to turn ourselves over to the men who pursue us?
Glory and power to the Father, through Christ Jesus our Lord, in the Holy Spirit, forever and ever! Amen!
Four Great Greek Fathers
loving and effective leaders, true abbas, of the Lord’s Church
· St. Athanasius
· St. Basil the Great (Basil of Caesarea)
· St. Gregory of Nazianzus
· St. John Chrysostom
The Three Cappadocians
brilliant and holy friends from the mountains of Turkey
· Basil of Caesarea
· Gregory of Nyssa
· Gregory of Nazianzus
The Three Hierarchs
Models of leadership
· Basil of Caesarea
· Gregory of Nazianzus
· John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople
St. Basil: Father of Monasticism and Hospitality
When I first began to understand the life and work of St. Basil (c 329-379), I thought that he had done for the Greek world what Jerome did for the Latin world. That’s backwards: much of the brilliance of Jerome followed in the steps of Basil.
Basil was wealthy, and he poured out his wealth to build a community – a whole town, actually, called the Basiliad – of monks and nuns and other Catholic-Worker types who devoted their lives to prayer and service. They served the needy in thoughtful and deliberate and conscientious obedience to the precepts of the Lord in Matthew 25. They fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the ill-clad, and visited the sick. The Basiliad was the first hospital in the Christian world, an institution devoted to caring for the sick. His establishment was free, and it served the public without discrimination. The “public”: that’s emphatically not the way Basil and his community thought of their guests; they served Christ, whom they met in those in need.
St. Basil is better known in Eastern Orthodox churches than in Western Catholic and Protestant churches. In Greece, children may celebrate his feastday with a cake with a coin hidden in it. Other families set an extra place at the table on his feastday, because he – like Santa Claus in the West – distributes gifts at night, and might need to take a break. But he was an impressive figure, loaded with honors. He is named one of the Three Holy Hierarchs (along with St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John Chrysostom), because he was among the great theologians who carved out the understanding of the Trinity that shapes Christian thought today. He is one of the Three Cappadocians, three influential theologians from a section of Turkey with a completely cool name. And he’s one of the Four Great Greek Fathers of the Church. Sounds like a high school graduation.
He is the person most responsible for the pattern of Eastern monastic life; his role was comparable to that of St. Benedict in the West. (Again, I state that as a creature of the West; Basil preceded Benedict by 150 years.) And before Benedict, Basil made hospitality central to the life of the Church, especially in monasteries. He built a whole town that was a combination monastery, nunnery, hospital for the sick, hostel for pilgrims and travelers and the homeless, soup kitchen and clothing exchange – one-stop shopping for the poor and needy.
When he was young and brash, he went off to Athens to learn rhetoric – debating, speech-making, persuasion, politics. When he came home, loaded with honors and planning to be important, his older sister (St. Macrina) was not completely impressed. She helped him see that following Christ could include teaching and preaching, but faith is empty unless it’s lived out. So he set out again, to learn prayer and community life from all the great hermits and monks of that era. This time, he came home prayerful as well as brilliant. His brilliance mattered in his work as a theologian, and that is the contribution that we remember first about him; but his commitment to prayer and service mattered more in the monasteries that he founded and inspired.
In time, he combined his rhetorical skills with his commitment to serving the poor. He was an amazingly fiery orator, passionate about serving the poor. He argued, for example, that if you know someone in need, and you can help, and you don't, you're a thief.
St. Basil’s family
To understand St. Basil properly, it’s necessary to see him as a member of a family. His grandparents, parents, and siblings were remarkable. Some details are somewhat blurred in the mists of time: for example, he was the oldest of nine, or maybe ten. Theodosia, who is recognized by the Orthodox as a saint, was his sister, or maybe sister-in-law. But the confirmed details are amazing. His mother’s father was a martyr in the persecution under Maximinus II. His father’s mother, Saint Macrina the Elder, studied under St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, who in turn had studied under Origen, and she passed on their ideas to her children and grandchildren. Basil’s father, St. Basil the Elder, fled from persecution and survived, then became an influential teacher and speaker, then married a wealthy and determined woman, St. Emmelia. The two of them raised nine (or ten) children, including five recognized as saints: Basil the Great, Macrina the Younger, St. Naucratius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. Three of the siblings – Basil, Gregory, and Peter – became bishops. Naucratius was a hermit, and Macrina founded a religious community. And of course, two of them – Basil and Gregory of Nyssa – taught and wrote with such insight and eloquence that they are recognized as Fathers of the Church. All of them, at different points in their writing, referred to the influence of the others.
The power of Basil’s writing is a product of his family life. His courage in confronting challenges to the Church is a product of his family life. His role in the transformation of religious life from hermits to communities is a product of his family life. And the pattern of service to the poor that he established in monastic life is a product of his family life.
Basil was a prolific writer. He was born just four years after the Council of Nicea, where the Church labored to explain the unimaginable, that Jesus Christ was truly God and was truly man. His generation continued this task, and to this day Christians around the world rely on his insights – along with those of his brother Gregory and of his friend the-other-Gregory and of St. Athanasius and of others – to grasp the teaching that we proclaim in the Nicene Creed. His writing about the Holy Spirit was especially important. But in his writing, he drew on the teaching and inspiration of his grandmother Macrina, and he was prodded and encouraged repeatedly by his brothers.
His writing was not confined to intriguing intellectual questions about Christology. His parents and grandparents struggled under the persecutions of Diocletian and others; they knew what it was like to run for your life. Basil did not see Jesus just as a philosopher; he took to heart the Lord’s precepts about feeding the hungry and welcoming strangers. His writing about the Last Judgment is blistering.
For at least two generations, Basil’s family suffered persecution for following Jesus Christ openly. The persecution was not a matter of fines and insults; some of his relatives were killed, and others fled into the mountains to hide, leaving their wealth behind. But Basil was born in 329, after the end of the Roman persecution of Christians, but still a time of immense political and religious turmoil.
Under Diocletian, the Roman empire started to break up, and it was ruled for a short period by a tetrarchy, two emperors and two “caesars” (kaisers, czars, junior emperors). From 306 to 312, Constantine fought to re-unite the pieces under a single emperor, and his success had a huge and lasting impact on Christianity. Constantine ended the era of persecutions, and legalized Christianity. But his protection had a price: he exerted immense power within the church. It was a pagan emperor – Constantine was pro-Christian but not yet baptized – who convened the Council of Nicea. Catholic Mass today is loaded with bits tied to Constantine, not just the “Nicene” Creed from his council, but also the “chi ro” symbol and the “IHS” letters on many altars and vestments, which recall his battle to seize imperial power. The priest’s chasuble is a modified Roman toga. The preface in the middle of Mass, declaring that it is “right and just” to give praise to God is a Roman military phrase. The boundaries between Church and State have been a source of great tension since Constantine. The power of the emperor loomed in the background of the great theological struggles of the era.
Basil’s grew up among people who defied imperial power to assert their faith, and they did not back down meekly when politicians sided with heretics. When emperors or governors sided with the Arians and sent the orthodox Trinitarians into exile, it took clear thought and – and, and, and! – courage to respond, to push back, to hold fast to the truth. For Basil, intellectual courage in the middle of controversy was a family trait, taught and refined and confirmed by generations under persecution.
From hermits to monks
In the third century, men and women trying to live holy lives left the cities and went into wilderness to pray and fast. Initially, many of them set out alone. The best known of these early hermits was St. Anthony, who taught St. Athanasius. Many of them lived near other hermits, aware of each other and supportive of each other. Some moved toward loose forms of community life; St. Macarius, for example, founded a loose-knit community in 328 in northern Egypt, which brought hermits together for communal prayer on Saturdays and Sundays. St. Pachomius – also in Egypt, in 346 – took another step, building a community in which men lived in separate huts but came together for prayer, work, and meals. So the work of St. Basil did not spring fully formed out of a void, but he was a major figure leading the way to new pattern of life, monastic life.
Cappadocia is more than a thousand miles from the deserts of Egypt. It’s across the Mediterranean, then halfway through the mountains toward the Black Sea. But as a young man, Basil studied in Constantinople, Athens, and Egypt. After he was baptized back home in Cappadocia, he went traveling again, to learn from hermits and monks – in Egypt again, plus Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Then he went back home to Cappadocia and founded a monastery.
His work was based in large part on what he saw in Egypt. But Basil’s ideas were not simply an extension of what he had seen elsewhere; he was also influenced by his family. He learned from his brother Naucratius, who was a hermit in the mountains nearby. And he exchanged ideas with his sister Macrina, who founded a religious community for women at the same time, close by.
When he founded a monastery, he brought men together to live a communal life of prayer. He was respectful of hermits, but did not set out to imitate them; his community was like his family. He grew up in a community committed to growth in learning and prayer, and didn’t feel the need to go into the wilderness alone in order to thrive.
Basil was a genius, with a fertile mind and determined spirit. But throughout his life, he was surrounded by saints. He was one of the great theologians of his age and indeed in the history of the Church – but so was his little brother Gregory of Nyssa. So was his friend, fellow student and companion in his travels, Gregory of Nazianzus. And the women in his life included his grandmother Macrina (the Elder), who taught him and the rest of the family about the life and work of Gregory Thaumaturgus and Origen. According to his brother Gregory, when Basil returned home from his studies in Athens, he had a swelled head – and his sister Macrina went to work on him and re-oriented him toward a life a prayer and service, following Jesus’ way of love. When Basil returned from his years of exploring the lives of hermits and monks, he found Macrina and their mother Emmelia working out a community life. In every significant aspect of his life, his family shaped him; it’s hard and perhaps impossible (and pointless) to try to figure out which ideas were his alone, and which ideas originated with someone else in the family. So when he built a community, he drew in part on what he had seen in Africa, especially in the communities following St. Pachomius, but most of his ideas about community were from his amazing family life.
Father among women
Most histories of the Church focus on the work of men, are written by men and for men and about men. But Gregory of Nyssa wrote a remarkable biography of Basil’s sister Macrina. To understand Basil’s community of hospitality, it’s worthwhile to take note of some details from the biography. Gregory wrote a great deal about deaths, the triumphant end of lives of intelligent love and service, and in his eulogies he included rich emotional details about the lives and deaths of Naucratius, Emmelia, and Macrina.
Emmelia (the mother) worked hard to care for the people around her, especially after her husband’s death. She poured out her fortune caring for five daughters, four sons, “and three governors.” (That family can write. Paying taxes, even when your property is scattered in three provinces, is perhaps preferable to martyrdom.) But the primary project of Emmelia’s life was raising her eldest child, Macrina.
Emmelia raised Macrina; but when Macrina turned the family estate into a convent, their roles were switched, and the daughter made the rules. One of the remarkable details of this religious community was its commitment to equality: the former servants of the family joined, as equals. Macrina deliberately eliminated every difference of rank from their lives in the community. It is plausible that when the mother superior in a convent is in authority over her own beloved mother, the role reversal will have a deep and lasting impact on the way everyone nearby thinks about authority.
Macrina loved her mother, and tended her in her old age, with her own hands – and with her own bread. One important vehicle of communication between these two brilliant women was bread. There’s no record of Macrina saying, “I love you, Mom”; but there is a record of their exchange, their daily gift, their daily bread.
Gregory records a time when Macrina corrected him firmly. He was telling her stories about his struggles with the emperor, and his hopes for bringing order out of worldwide confusion, and other such weighty matters. Macrina listened for a while, but then interrupted. When was he going to recognize the gifts of God, and more specifically the gifts from God in response to the prayers of their parents? Their father (St. Basil the Elder) was known throughout a part of Cappadocia for his brilliance, but Gregory is known in all the great cities of the world. “Don’t you realize where these great blessings come from – that it’s the prayers of our parents that lift you on high?”
Gregory referred to Socrates and his wife Xanthippe to underline a simple point: Basil and his brothers held Macrina in high regard, in contrast to Socrates, who was generally condescending toward Xanthippe. Gregory also compares Macrina to Thecla, from a story that was apocryphal but popular. The story, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” is not in the accepted canon of the Bible. It’s about a woman to whom Paul entrusted his mission in the regions he visited along the Mediterranean coast – not far from Cappadocia. According to the story, Thecla was Paul’s trusted companion and co-worker. Whether the story of Thecla was fact or fiction, the point of the comparison is clear.
Outside the life of Basil and his family, it is also worth noting that women helped shape the work of other major figures in the history of hospitality. Pachomius depended on his sister to run some of his communities. Anthony’s sister was in charge of a convent in Egypt. Jerome worked with Marcella and Fabiola to open houses of hospitality. Benedict collaborated with St. Scholastica.
It is also worth noting that Gregory wrote an anti-slavery tract, perhaps the world’s oldest, unmatched in the next 15 centuries. It is plausible that when he wrote it, he was inspired in part by Macrina’s commitment to equality. For sure, he was deeply aware of his sister’s influence on her famous brothers.
The Church remembers St. Basil primarily as a theologian, explaining and defending our understanding of the Trinity. But he was also a giant in the history of hospitality. He built a community of monks and nuns who provided comprehensive social services, including food, shelter, and medical care. This community, the “Basiliad,” was a “hostel” or “hospice” in every sense of the word. It was a resting place for pilgrims, and also a hospital for the sick, and also a shelter for the poor, and also a guest house for visitors.
Centuries before Basil, there were examples of institutions offering medical to entire communities. In ancient Greece, in the fourth century BC, there were temples dedicated to the god Asclepius where people went for healing. This devotion to Asclepius carried over to Rome, and the Romans added “valetudinaria” for sick soldiers and gladiators by the first century BC. There is evidence of medical care offered by the king in Sri Lanka in the fifth century BC. So there were precursors of various kinds. Nonetheless, Basil’s work began something new in the Christian world, if not the entire world. He was committed to treating the sick and dying as Christ in our midst. He was committed to welcoming strangers as Christ in our midst.
The preaching of St. John the Baptist (and others, but John as the greatest) made a connection that is so familiar to Christians today that we don’t even notice it. He preached about a “baptism of repentance,” tying repentance to our ability to hear the good news of the coming kingdom. We don’t even hear that as two ideas: to us today, repent-and-believe-the-good-news is a single idea and almost a single word. But the connection isn’t automatic: why should the creator of the universe care whether I call my neighbor a fool? Why can’t I kill some awful people and then go off to think about celestial things in peace?
Basil’s work was similar in making a connection that we can easily overlook. Again, like John the Baptist, he wasn’t alone in this, by any means; but he too was a giant. He taught by word and example that our love for the Lord automatically pours into service of our neighbors. The precepts of the Lord in his sermon on the Last Judgment (Matthew 25) – that we should feed the hungry and welcome strangers – were fundamental to Basil’s understanding of reality. Basil did not in any way criticize the hermits from whom he learned to pray. But he was convinced that prayer should lead to service. And for him, it wasn’t good enough to wait passively, to serve those who show up and ask. He leaned forward into the tasks; he build a community in which prayer and service were intermingled. Hermits went out into the desert to pray, and they accepted interruptions promptly and graciously as gifts. But for hermits, visitors were interruptions – gifts from God, occasions of joy, but still interruptions. The Basiliad was radically different from that! Monks got up to talk to God, and then went out to make breakfast for God, and to wash God’s feet. They met to sing psalms to God, and then went out to the gate to greet him with joy and to make sure he was warm enough. They celebrated the Eucharist together, but then went out to hold a bowl under God’s chin when he vomited, and they cleaned him up when he had diarrhea. Perhaps I overstate a bit; these are my words, not Basil’s. The point I want to make is that the prayer of the hermits was not same as the life of the Basiliad. Jesus said that when you feed the poor, you feed me. Who can ever understand exactly and completely what that means? But without perfect celestial understanding of this mystery, they just lived it.
Tying monastic life to service was a revolution. Linking prayer to the precepts in Matthew 25 was and still is a revolution. Basil established an institutional pattern: monasteries following the example of St. Basil include guest houses or hospices. This revolution in action poured out of the heart of a man whose mind was engaged in trying to understand the life of the Trinity and the meaning of the incarnation.
Excerpts from St. Basil
Who will live in his own body as a guest?
Basil wrote a fascinating commentary on Psalm 14 (or 15, depending on how you number them). There are several points worth noting about his comments on the first verse: “LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?”
First, the text itself. The word “abide” in Hebrew is a form of “guwr”, a verb that has a matching noun, “ger.” “Ger” refers to a person from another land who now dwells in your land for some period of time, maybe days or maybe centuries. “Guwr” means “be a ger.” These are the words that are at the heart of the Exodus story: the Hebrews were “ger” in Egypt; they “guwr-ed” in Egypt. They are among the most pregnant and evocative words in the history of language.
The word “tent” is also a word of immense significance. It refers to a portable dwelling made of cloth or fur – but in context it can also mean the tent for the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai was treasured, the place where the Lord lived among his people from the time of the Exodus until the time of Solomon. So this Hebrew word for “tent” can be translated “sanctuary.”
The beginning of John’s Gospel declares that that the Word became flesh and lived among us. The word in the Greek text for “lived” refers to nomadic life: it means, more literally, “pitched his tent.” That is, John’s Gospel is a colorful metaphor: God “pitched his tent among us.” This sentence contains an allusion to the Exodus, when God’s presence among his people was awesome and scary, for sure, but also immediate and tangible: God’s glory is in that tent over there by those palm trees.
So, “who may live in the Lord’s tent?” That’s a shocking question, perhaps; but the answer in the psalm seems reassuringly calm and predictable: the person who is blameless, just, honest, respectful.
Basil’s exploration of this verse is complex, startling, insightful, delightful.
To begin, he focuses promptly on the tabernacle that matters to Christians. Starting from the rhetorical question in the psalm – “Who shall sojourn in your tabernacle?” – he explores the post-resurrection meaning of tabernacle: “The flesh of the body that is given to man’s soul for the soul to dwell in is called God’s tabernacle.” That’s interesting, but not breaking any new ground. Then he goes on, exploring the word “sojourner” a little. (The original Hebrew had a verb, not a noun; but the verb “to be a stranger” or “to act as a stranger” implies a noun, the stranger. The Greek translation, the Septuagint, used a noun. Basil’s commentary is precise: the word refers to someone from a different land, now living in a new land not his or her own. The word implies that the person is not an owner, only a visitor. So he asks: “Who is found who will live in his own body as a stranger?”
Our bodies, says Basil, are not our own. They were given to us to be used diligently for the good of the original owner, the creator. If we use our bodies to produce fruit that the proper owner finds useful, then our bodies can become “tabernacles” of the Lord.
This is a paradox that G. K. Chesterton would enjoy. The psalm asks, who is worthy to be a guest in the Lord’s tent? Basil responds talking about how we can become tents where we can welcome the Lord. In the psalm, the Lord is host and we are guests; in Basil’s response, we are hosts and the Lord is the guest.
In our culture today, we distinguish sharply between the host and the guest. In Scripture, the host and the guest are often interchangeable. When God comes into the world and “his own receive him not,” who’s host and who’s guest? When Mary visited Elizabeth, who was host and who was guest? Mary took the initiative, which suggests she was the host; they met at Elizabeth’s home, which suggests Elizabeth was host. Which? Well, both, or neither, or who cares? In the middle of a Catholic Mass, at communion, the priest invites the people to rejoice that we “are called to this supper” – as guests. The response is, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” – which makes us the hosts. Is this confusion? No! It’s unity!
And Basil does the same with this psalm. He switches the host and the guest midstream – apparently unconsciously. We make a sharp distinction that Basil does not acknowledge. To be sure, this is not because he’s sloppy! His assumptions are very different from ours! He doesn’t agree that our bodies are our own – let alone our land! And he expects hosts and guests to aim for unity, like the unity of the Trinity or of marriage, when two become one, bound together by love.
St. Basil wrote a powerful call to repentance, to communal repentance, during a drought. The frame of his homily is not common in our time: he’s trying to figure out what God is communicating by sending a drought. But the insights powerful.
For most of human history, people have tried to figure out what was on God’s mind when the weather changed. Today, most educated people probably regard that effort as naïve, and think of weather as being a morally neutral background, like the moon and stars. Not quite everyone in our society today dismisses the moral import of cosmic and meteorological events; we still have astrologers as well as skeptics. But politics, on the other hand: that’s a huge force, about as predictable as the weather, that has a huge and traceable impact on our lives. And it’s subject to moral scrutiny. There are significant connections between personal attitudes and actions and omissions in one corner of a social fabric, and politics in a different corner of the same fabric. The connections may often be hidden in the murk, but they are there. So when we read a sermon by St. Basil about repentance during a drought, that might be a little puzzling, but it’s not completely outlandish. We don’t look at a flood or a drought or a famine, and then repent. But we do look at our divided nation and ask, “What’s wrong with me – or with them – or with us? What did we do wrong?” With a little adjustment, we can get onto the same page as Basil: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and so what do we do now?
In our time, there is a debate about whether social evils exist. Basil had a clear view on that. His view and our view today may diverge on issues of weather; but behind that, there’s a far more important question: can a society do wrong? Does it make sense to look for the sins of a community, of a nation? He doesn’t wrestle with that question; he takes it for granted. It’s obvious. Of course societies can do evil! He doesn’t question whether social sin exists; he asks what to do about it.
To begin, Basil says we should pray, and trust God. Amen. Then what?
Basil continues, be fervent in prayer: we sinned enthusiastically, so repent with equal or greater enthusiasm. Okay. But what does that look like?
Well, he says, repent the way the prophets of old taught us to repent. (Note: the prophets of old saw social evils too, and looked for social responses.) Take care of strangers and orphans and widows. Rip up unjust contracts, and cancel any debts that have high interest rates. Or, in more contemporary phraseology: repair the social safety net, expand the social safety net, and be careful about the poor.
He adds, find someone like Elijah the Tishbite to pray for you – someone skinny, broke, shoeless, and homeless – but prayerful and upright. If that person prays for you, that’s serious help, because God listens to people like that. That’s what repentance looks like.
Basil adds a little about care for strangers. What, specifically, should we do? Basil says we should wash their feet, rinsing away the dust of travel. That’s suggestive, not prescriptive. If you start washing people’s feet, you are likely to arrested for sexual harassment or something, and go to jail. It’s a gesture, and gestures change from one culture to another. But the point is clear: social repentance begins with real acts of service for people in real need – kids without dads, abandoned women, and immigrants or refugees whose homelands no longer sustain them.
Throughout the Old Testament, there’s a trio that shows up everywhere. There are dozens or references to widows; of them, 21 refer to a pair, widows and orphans. And of those 21, 18 refer to a trio: widows and orphans and strangers. This trio does not show up in the New Testament. The demand that we take care of strangers is still there, but it’s usually expressed in other terms – most often in teaching about loving “neighbors.” But whatever happened in the New Testament, the trio is back in Patristic teaching.
St. Basil’s teaching about repentance for social evils is clear. They exist, and we should repent. Repentance for social evils begins with prayer, fervent prayer. And then we should take care of people in need – the most obvious being strangers on the road.
(I did not find this sermon – or “oration” – in the Philip Schaff’s excellent collection. It’s from On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, translated by C. Paul Schroeder, from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in Yonkers, New York. It’s #38 in their “Popular Patristics Series.” St. Basil is insightful and eloquent, of course. But also, Schroeder’s translation is wonderful, accessible! It does not require that the reader be conversant in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or even Shakespearian (KJV) English.)
Homily VI in Schaff’s collection is St. Basil’s sermon on greed, expanding on what Jesus said in Luke 12:16-21. Basil was such a great man! His approach to justice has the fire and freshness of the prophets!
Here’s what the Gospel says, that Basil was talking about:
Then [Jesus] told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. / He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ / And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods / and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ / But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ / Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” – Luke 12: 16-21
And here are two excerpts from Basil’s sermon:
Ecclesiastes says: “Pay attention, or the fate of the fool forecasts your own fate!” He was writing to you, so you don’t make the same mistake! Imitate the humble earth. A man should be able to do better than the earth, which isn’t even alive. Bear fruit, as she does! She produces her fruits, not for herself, but for you. The fruit that you produce should be better than hers. You are invited to gather the fruit of your own good works; the grace of good works comes back to the giver. When you give to the poor, that gift becomes your own, and comes back to you bigger and better. A farmer plants grain in the earth, and it comes back at harvest time, in fat sheaves. In the same way, when you give a loaf of bread to a hungry man, it comes back to you abundantly in life hereafter.
The proper goal of your life’s labor is to be found in heaven. Remember the words of the prophet Hosea: “Sow for yourselves justice, and reap the reward of loyalty.” I can’t understand why you keep tying yourself in knots! Why do you whip yourself into a frenzy, struggling to lock up all your wealth inside bricks? Remember the Proverb: “A good name is a far better choice than great riches.” If you are attracted to wealth because it brings you some kind of respect, think! What brings you more honor: to have innumerable children and grandchildren, or to have innumerable gold coins? When you leave the earth, you will leave your money behind, whether you like it or not.
When you meet the Lord, your Maker, you bring the honor of your good deeds with you. Everyone standing around you in the presence of the Judge of the Universe praise you as someone who feeds the poor, as a generous benefactor! They will give you names and titles that recall your loving kindness! How can you possibly be tempted to throw all that away, like a fool at a circus flinging away treasures to watch cheap shows and stupid tricks? Are you really going to give up eternal honors just to get a few moments of fame, the cheap cheers and clapping of a silly crowd?
In times of trouble, when people are in need, resist the temptation to raise your prices. In fact, don’t wait for scarcity to become famine before you open your barns to distribute food. Remember the Proverb: “Whoever hoards grain, the people curse, / but blessings are on the head of one who distributes it!” (Prov 11:26). Don’t wait for a time when food is scarce and prices are high, when public scarcity leads to private profits, when you can make gold from the troubles of mankind. When God visits the world with wrath and punishment, don’t take that as an opportunity for to get rich. Don’t poke and prod the open sores of men who have been whipped. You’re keeping your eye fixed on gold, and won’t even look at your brother. You can see a good deal, but can’t see the difference between good and evil. You can’t pick out your own brother in the day of distress.
I make the argument, but some people listen and decide, “Words are all very fine, but gold is finer.” It’s like talking to people who are lost in lust. I say you should struggle to see women the right way, and avoid unchaste thoughts. But while I’m talking, I can see in their faces that the mere mention of girls stirs up their passions. How can I get you to focus on the sufferings of the poor man, so that you will understand that you are accumulating your “treasures” out of his deep groans?
How do I change the way you set value on things, so you can embrace the words of the Lord: “Come, you have been blessed by my Father! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you at the very foundation of the world! Because I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me!”
On the other hand, you can shudder and sweat with terror, as you hear the words of condemnation: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the darkness outside prepared for the devil and his angels! Because I was hungry and you did not give me food; I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink; I was naked and you did not clothe me!”
I have told you clearly how to make a real profit. It’s clear and plain what good thing are promised to you if you obey. And if you disobey, the threat is also written out clearly for you. I pray that you will change your mind and escape this danger! Your wealth should be your redemption! You may go forward to the blessings prepared for you at great cost – the death and burial of him who has called us into his own kingdom! To him be glory and might forever and ever! Amen!
The second excerpt from Basil’s sermon on greed refers to nakedness. But this nakedness is a metaphor; he could just as easily talked about hunger, thirst, poverty, homelessness, vulnerability, weakness, feeling trapped, or being a stranger. The Lord’s lessons about our dependence on him and on each other do not permit us to focus on one problem and ignore all others; they overlap.
Naked! Isn’t that how you dropped from your mother’s womb? And when you return to the dust of the earth, won’t you be naked again? So where did you get all the good things that you possess?
If you say that all these things just appeared spontaneously, doesn’t that make you an atheist, refusing to acknowledge the Creator, not responding to his generosity with gratitude?
On the other hand, if you admit that everything you have came from God, explain why you’re the lucky one who got all these things. Why are you wealthy while that man over there is poor? Is God unjust? Is that the explanation for the unequal distribution of wealth? Or is it so that you can work your way toward an appropriate reward for your generosity, or so you can earn just wages for being a faithful steward, caring intelligently for all these good things that always have belonged to God, and still belong to God? You earn wages for being a good steward, while he is honored with prizes for endurance. Does that make sense?
But no! What you do is hoard everything, clutching your precious treasures to your heart! Do you really think that’s not gravely wrong, not cheating many people?
What do we mean when we talk about greed? Aren’t we talking about someone who can’t be content with enough, who always needs more?
What do we mean when we call someone a cheater? Aren’t we talking about someone who maneuvers to get thigs for himself that belong to others?
Well, aren’t you a greedy cheater? Aren’t you bad steward, taking for your own all the things which your master placed in your hands to be used properly – that is, to be used for others?
If you find a man clothed properly, and you strip him naked because you want what he has, that’s easy: you’re a robber. Why is it any different if you find someone already naked, while you have the clothing that he needs – and you refuse to clothe him? Don’t you still deserve to be called a thief?
The bread that you keep for yourself belongs to the hungry! The warm coat hanging from a hook in your well-guarded room belongs to the naked! The shoes that are going moldy in your closet belong to the man limping past! All the silver you keep locked up in a safe belongs to the person in need!
Think of all the people you could have helped, but didn’t. That’s the measure, that’s the count, that’s the list of people whom you have wronged!
“… a man of profound interiority in a world full of conflicts. He is a man who makes us aware of God’s primacy and, hence, also speaks to us, to this world of ours: without God, man loses his grandeur; without God, there is no true humanism.” – Pope Benedict XVI, describing St. Gregory of Nazianzus
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) is often shown in icons as a venerable and holy elder, with the standard droopy beard – but dressed like a child’s doll with robes and stoles and marks of honor piled one on top of another. A teacher’s pet at a high school graduation comes to mind: all this stuff is just too much. All the cloth adds up to an odd and perhaps abusive way to portray him, because he, like Pope Benedict XVI, was indeed loaded down with honorifics – but he longed for a quiet and simple life.
He was the Archbishop of Constantinople for a tumultuous year, from 380 to 381. In 380, Theodosius – the last emperor to reign over both the east and the western halves of the Roman Empire, made Christianity the official religion of the empire, tying Church and State together in a tangle that still vexes great minds over 16 centuries later. Then the head of the State installed a head of the Church: Theodosius displaced a heretical archbishop of Constantinople and installed Gregory of Nazianzus. In 381, the emperor convoked the Second Ecumenical Council – or third, depending on how you count (do we include the meeting of the apostles in Jerusalem?) – which edited and adopted the creed that had been produced by the Council of Nicea in 325. The original Nicene Creed ended with a list of heresies that we reject; the new and improved version, still used by a billion people, dropped the references to ancient foes. The Council also asserted firmly that the Holy Spirit is indeed God, the Third Person of the Triune God, a proposition grounded firmly but not explicitly in Scripture.
Gregory was an extraordinary speaker and poet and theologian, and he cared deeply about the two ideas enunciated at the council. His writing about the Trinity and about the Holy Spirit remains powerful centuries later. But he was not interested in pomp and power, in robes and ruling. Amidst all his volumes of passionate writing, one of his most eloquent pieces is his resignation speech, when he escaped from Constantinople and fled home to the wilderness in Cappadocia.
Gregory was one of the three great theologians who put Cappadocia on the map; the “Cappadocians” are St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Basil, and Basil’s brother St. Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory and Basil were lifelong friends; they traveled together, studying and praying and learning from the holy hermits and monks of the age, in Athens and Alexandria and elsewhere. Their friendship was a source of joy and strength and insight for both, although it was nearly destroyed when Basil tried to enlist his friend to be a bishop. Like Benedict XVI of our time, Gregory longed to be a hermit, or at least (at most?) a monk.
Excerpts from St. Gregory of Nazianzus
It seems to me that St. Gregory of Nazianzus was very much like Pope Benedict XVI – pushed into a position of power, but longing to escape back to the life of a hermit or a monk where he could think and pray and write. His writing is lucid and delightful.
He wrote a piece on the Lord’s six precepts in Matthew 25 – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc. And he does it in a way that seems uncommon to me: he just goes right through the six, all of them, without adding any or leaving any out.
The context is fascinating. It’s a sermon on the baptism of the Lord, and he looks at our own baptism. One issue he addresses is, after we are baptized, how do we stay faithful to the race we have been given? He’s wrestling with people who think that some sins after baptism are unforgivable; he has no patience with that idea. But how do we stay faithful? And his answer is an exploration of the six precepts. He moves easily from one level of human experience to another: feed the hungry, because you remember the Eucharist, and clothe the naked because you recall the grace of Baptism.
When he speaks of welcoming strangers, he refers to:
1. the beginning of John’s Gospel, in which the Lord comes as a stranger – among his own people, who do not recognize him nor welcome him; and
2. the story of Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector one day and the model of hospitality the next.
But it’s his remarks about the sixth that interested me most: visit the imprisoned. I’m not sure I would have seen what he was doing if he had not gone straight through the six, because doesn’t mention prison explicitly. Rather, he talks about forgiving debt: “If you find a debtor falling at your feet, tear up every document, just or unjust. Remember the immense debt for which Christ forgave you, and don’t be harsh about a much smaller debt.” That’s a familiar passage, but attaching it to the Lord’s command to “visit the imprisoned” is not familiar (to me). Why does he do it?
It seems to me that the connection he makes is clear: he wants to keep people out of prison. It’s response to the Lord’s words about prison, but it’s not a slavish determination to do this thing exactly the right way: Jesus said visit, so go visit. No! The point is solidarity with those threatened by prison. Keeping them out of debtor’s jail is better than watching them fall in, and then going to visit with little gifts. Visiting is good; keeping people out is the same spirit, and is better. Visit the person, not the condition.
It seems obvious to me that Gregory was alert to what was happening in his time that fit what the Lord was asking. Prison was about debt; so free people from debt.
In our time, our country inflicts prison on people with great determination – more than any other nation, ever. So there are plenty of people to visit. But also, the most horrifying threat of imprisonment is what’s happening at our border: we’re locking up refugees, including women and children.
In the name of God, if your baptism meant anything to you, do not let this gravely evil thing happen. Stop it! They are hungry, thirsty, cold, sick, and strangers. If you ever think about the Last Judgment, do not lock them up!
The experience of an outsider
During his brief and unhappy time as the Archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus (not of Constantinople) was made to feel unwelcome. This persistent sense of rejection as an outsider led to some interesting insights.
Someone with limited experience and a superficial mind might say, “But our preacher is a stranger and a foreigner!”
Take the Apostles. Weren’t they strangers to the many cities and nations among whom they were scattered so that the Gospel might run fee everywhere, so that no one need miss the illumination of the Light of the Trinity or be unenlightened by the Truth, but that the night of ignorance might be dissolved for those who one sat in darkness and the shadow of death?
Judea is Peter’s home. But what did Paul have in common with the Gentiles, or Luke with Achaia, Andrew with Epirus, John with Ephesus, Thomas with India, Mark with Italy – or, without going through every detail – what did any of them have in common with the people to whom they went?
So you have to criticize them, or excuse me. You should admit that the ambassadors of the Gospel are being insulted by this trifling.
The issue here can be brushed aside with quickly. But let’s look at the larger picture, more thoughtfully.
My friend, everyone who is serious has one Nation, the heavenly Jerusalem, where we treasure our citizenship. If you look past a little insignificant dust, we all have one family; we breathe in the same air, and we have been commanded to keep the same spirit. I must stand my Judge to give an account of my heavenly nobility, of how I have protected the Divine Image in me. Not just I: everyone is noble – that is, everyone who guarded this Image by virtue, by accepting and embracing this Model.
On the other hand, everyone is ignoble who has mingled with evil and fashioned himself after another.
All these earthly nationalities and families are games, the toys of children, in this brief and passing life. Here, country is whatever place we first occupied, perhaps as a ruler, or perhaps in misfortune. And in this passing moment, we are all alike – all strangers and pilgrims, however much we might play with titles and labels and grand names. A family is considered “noble” which is either rich from olden days, or recently raised. A family is not noble if the parent were poor, because of misfortune or perhaps because they lacked ambition. But how can your “nobility” be granted in such a random fashion, appearing at one moment and disappearing in another moment, skipping some people, coming to others by some magic arrangement? It looks silly to me.
So I leave it to you to pride yourselves on tombs and myths, if you so choose. For myself, I intend to purify myself of such deceits, so that I can hold tight to genuine family pride and nobility – or, if necessary, so I can recover it.
(from Oration XXXIII, 380 AD)
The Hospitality of Egypt
During a time of bitter division between Arians and the Catholics who accepted the Nicene Creed, Gregory agreed to lead the Catholics in Constantinople. He set up a small church, which he called “Anastasia” – a rich word that means “rising up” or “standing firm” – or, his intended meaning, “a scene of the Resurrection.” The Catholic minority were pleased to have him there, but the Arian majority were not; in fact, a mob came over from Hagia Sophia (the Arian Church of Holy Wisdom) at Easter, and disrupted baptisms at the Anastasia.
Given such bitter tension, Gregory was pleased when an Egyptian commercial fleet docked, probably with a load of grain, and the sailors went past Arian churches on their way to his little chapel. So one of the greatest orators of history cut loose with good things to say about Egypt. He had studied under Athanasius in Alexandria, and had learned from the desert fathers there. He talked about the Nile River, which “rains out of the ground.” He quoted the prophet Hosea talking about the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” He talked about Egypt’s generosity, providing grain for the world as in the time of Jacob and Joseph. He connected Egypt’s generosity with grain to the Lord’s generosity in the Eucharist, the greatest gift of grain in history, bread from heaven which gives life to the world.
And, of course, he recalled that God’s great gift to Egypt, that Egypt provided a refuge for Christ the Lord, when he was a fugitive fleeing from Herod’s massacre of children.
(from Oration 34, in 379 AD)
Venerate Christ the baby in danger and Christ the refugee
There’s a detail connected with the birth of Christ that you should hate: Herod’s murder of the infants. Or rather, this too we should recall and venerate this sacrifice of babies who were the same age as Christ, slain in anticipation of the sacrifice of the New Victim. If Christ flees into Egypt, be a companion in his exile, joyfully. It’s wonderful to share the experience of exile and persecution with him!
(from Oration 38, about celebrating Christmas)
Christ shared his glory with the stranger
Marking the Epiphany, Gregory focused on the Lord’s revelation of himself emerging from the guise of a stranger.
Marking the day of his birth, we kept festival together – you and I and everything in the world and everything above the world! We ran with the star, we worshipped with the Magi, we were illuminated with the shepherds, we gave glory with the angels, we took him up in our arms with Simeon, we proclaimed our faith with Anna. Give thanks to him who came to his own in the guise of a stranger, and thereby glorified the stranger.
(from Oration 39, about celebrating Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord)
In at least three funeral orations, Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of hospitality to strangers. They are worth noting briefly.
The three orations were about a teacher he loved and imitated, a lifelong friend, and a beloved sister: Athanasius, Basil, and Gorgonia. Each of the orations is attractive and interesting in its own way. But all three end with something like a checklist. It’s as if Gregory wanted to finish his remarks about the dead by reviewing the words of the Lord on the Last Judgment, and think through one last time whether this person measured up. Jesus said, do these six things and enter heaven, or neglect them and depart to the regions of fire. So: did Athanasius, Basil, and Gorgonia do these six things? Yes, all six.
It’s like a public examination of conscience, except that it’s not about Gregory’s own conscience; it’s a public review of a saint’s life. The Lord asked carefully for these six things; a saint does these six things (and more). It is perhaps a little odd, but it’s oddly soothing.
Excerpt from the funeral oration for St. Basil, and for Athanasius:
Gregory used the same list of life lessons when speaking about the two men he admired – or at least it’s the same in the written record of his words.
Come here and surround me, all you who knew and admired him, both clergy and laity, from Cappadocia and from abroad: help me to give an account of his excellence!
Judges and lawyers: see the lawgiver!
Politicians: see the statesman!
Men of the people, see his orderly ways!
Men of letters, see the professor!
Virgins, see the leader of the bride!
You who are married, see the man of restraint!
Hermits, see the man who gave you wings!
Monks, see the judge!
Simple men, see the guide!
Contemplatives, see the divine theologian!
You who are in trouble, see the consoler!
Grizzled and grey, see the strong prop!
Youth, see the guide!
You who are in poverty, see relief!
You who live in wealth, see an honest steward!
Widows will praise their protector!
Orphans will praise their father!
Poor men will praise their friend!
Strangers will praise the one who welcomed them!
Brothers will praise the man of brotherly love!
The sick will praise their physician, whatever their sickness!
The healthy will praise the preserver of health!
And all men will praise him who made himself all things to all people so that that he might win over the majority, if not all!
Excerpt from Gregory’s funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia
Gregory spoke of her prudence and piety, her choice of models, her keen intellect, her wisdom, her silence, her knowledge and understanding of God, her care for priests, her children. Then he spoke of her hospitality.
Who opened her house to God’s people with a more graceful and bountiful welcome? More: who made them welcome with such modesty and devout greetings? Whose soul was more sympathetic to those in trouble? Whose hand more liberal to those in need?
I do not hesitate to honor her with the words of Job: Her door was opened to all comers; the stranger did not lodge in the street.
She was eyes to the blind, feet to the lame, a mother to the orphan.
Why should I say more of her compassion to widows, than that its fruit which she obtained was, never to be called a widow herself?
Her house was a common abode to all the needy of her family; she made her goods the shared property of all in need.
She was generous to all who came to her home, but not only to them. Outside her ome, she was still generous, giving to the poor. And in accord with the infallible truth of the Gospel, she laid up much treasure above. And often she offered hospitality to Christ in the person of anyone who asked her for help. …
But amid all these acts of incredible open-heartedness, she did not give herself over to luxury, pampering her body to luxury with unrestrained pleasures of the appetite, that raging and tearing dog. She didn’t assume, as many others do, that her acts of benevolence will somehow justify luxury. They seem to think they can make their luxury good by offering compassion to the poor; and instead of healing evil with good, they embrace evil as a payment for their good deeds.
Gregory continued, putting her generosity within a context of fasting and other ascetic practices, and fervent prayer.
Think of this, then, regarding Christ. He is wandering and a pilgrim, needing shelter; and you spend your time adorning the floor, the walls, and the capitals of the columns, and hanging lamps with golden chains. All of these treasures can be taken away! But what you do for your brother who is hungry, who is an immigrant, who is naked – that! what you do! – that, not even the devil himself can take from you.
– St. John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom (347-407) was a complex saint. One of the four “Great Greek Fathers of the Church,” he was a man of immense eloquence who knew the Lord well, and loved the Church.
“Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed.” John died in 407; the oldest clear record of anyone calling him that is 553, a century and a half after he died. But in his lifetime, he was known for his persuasive power.
He was a prolific writer, and left more written work than any of the other Fathers, except Augustine. He wrote extensively about Genesis, about the Psalms, about the Gospels of John and Matthew, about the Acts of the Apostles, about the Letters of Paul. He wrote treatises on the priesthood and on monastic life. He’s cited 18 times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
He was passionate about care for the poor. In his first year as the archbishop of Constantinople, he built a hospital. His denunciations of wealth and luxury flaunted in the face of the needy remain great treasures, highly quotable.
He navigated through the politics of the Church and the State, with perennial success. Nonetheless, he was exiled twice, and died in exile.
His stunningly beautiful Paschal Homily is read aloud and entire in the Easter Liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
His attacks on Judaism, in a series of eight homilies, were profoundly wrong. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church turned away from such attacks, permanently, and denounced them; but such views are a part of our history. He was not alone in his antisemitism, but his rhetorical flair made his views stand out.
His views on homosexuality, in his homilies on Romans, were similarly unrestrained.
And his understanding of the limits of hospitality, spelled out in his homilies on Matthew, were also challenging.
“The least of my brothers”
In the Patristic era, there was a disagreement about what Jesus meant when he said to love the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. At one end of the disagreement were Basil and Jerome, the great Fathers of Hospitality in the East and West, who established the pattern in monasteries of having a guest house attached. Jerome loved the teaching and example of Abraham at Mamre, the prototype of hospitality. And to explain the universality of the Lord’s command to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger (and four other commands), Jerome drew on Virgil’s passages about universal hospitality. But John Chrysostom was at the other end of the disagreement. He taught that the six precepts of the Lord were clarified and limited by the words at the end: “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brethren, you do for me.” The “brethren,” John Chrysostom said, were Christians. We are supposed to feed hungry Christians, welcome Christian strangers, etc. Few people in history have been more eloquent than John Chrysostom about obeying the six precepts in the Lord’s description of the Last Judgment – but in his eloquence, he established a clear boundary: care for the “brethren.”
Here’s the problem. In his “Homilies on Matthew,” #79, John Chrysostom writes:
He [Jesus] says that whoever fails to welcome strangers will suffer more grievous things that the people of Sodom experienced. But here [in Matthew 25] he says, whatever you failed to do for one of the least of my brothers, you failed to do for me. How do you explain this? They are your brothers, how do you call them “least”? For his reason: they are your brothers because they are lowly, because they are poor, because they are outcasts. These are the precisely the people that the Lord invites to brotherhood – the unknown, those who are often considered contemptible. That doesn’t mean just monks, or hermits alone in the mountains; it means every believer. Even if he is a layman, not a cleric, if he is hungry or thirsty or naked or a stranger, the Lord’s will is that this person should receive the benefit of all this care. Because baptism and participating in the divine mysteries makes this man a brother.
The words are somewhat shocking. Most Christians reading the Lord’s words about the Last Judgment understand the closing sentence to expand the precepts: feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and welcome the stranger and clothe the naked and visit the sick and visit the imprisoned – and, indeed, respond with tenderness to all the needs of a person whom you meet, because whatever you do for a person in need, you do for me. The closing words generalize and extend the precepts, most people say. But that is not what John Chrysostom says. His interpretation is that the words limit the command. The Lord commands that you care for “the brethren” – that is, baptized Christians. You are not obliged to care for others, he says. If may be good if you care for others as well as for the brethren; but you are not obliged to do so.
It seems to me that this argument was settled 15 centuries ago. The pattern of hospitality in the Patristic age and for a millennium afterwards was not national (as in the teaching of Moses) nor individual (as in the teaching of Jesus) but ecclesial. The commands were taken seriously, but in practice the task (and joy) of fulfilling them was generally delegated to monks, supported by lay people. And the monks, following Benedict, welcomed all. All, not just Christians. On this matter, Benedict and all monasteries after Benedict followed the example of Basil and Jerome, not the teaching of John Chrysostom.
It would be gravely unjust to stop there! There was indeed a disagreement ages ago, and one can quote John Chrysostom on one side of the argument – to support an interpretation of hospitality that excludes 80% of the world. But that argument was settled long ago, and it is now the unmistakable teaching of the Catholic Church that we share the joys and sorrows of all: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” That’s Vatican II: for Catholics in union with Rome, the argument is settled. But justice requires that we listen respectfully to the words and wisdom of John Chrysostom.
And he said …
If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.
And he said …
Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.
And he said …
When you are weary of praying, and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him.
And he said …
This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good ... for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for neighbors.
St. John Chrysostom (354-430) offers us a challenge. He was eloquent about the six precepts in Matthew, but he tacked on a twist. Jesus demanded that we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, etc. But the passage ends: “whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” What does that mean? Most people think this sentence extends the call to service beyond the six specific items; the six are prime examples of a more general invitation. For example, ransoming captives is certainly a response to the spirit of the six precepts, whether it’s in the list or not. John Chrysostom had a very different understanding of that last line. He said that it clarifies the limits the passage: we feed the hungry among the brothers of the Lord. That is, we are obliged to care for Christians, the people who are brothers (and sisters) of the Lord because they know the Lord by name and follow him.
Jerome was emphatic that we are called to serve all people. John Chrysostom was equally emphatic: we are called to serve all Christians, not others. If we serve others, that might be okay too; but the demand is that we serve the least of the brothers. The idea that Christians should serve Christians, and that our obligation toward non-Christians is to preach to them until they are Christians but not necessarily to protect them from starvation: this idea appalls many Christians today. But it is embraced by some – and it has ancient and respectable roots.
I am not qualified to argue with St. John Chrysostom, one of the four Great Greek Fathers. But his interpretation was not the majority view then, nor is it now. Further, more importantly, the Fathers wrestled with ideas and taught eloquently; but then, what mattered more than their words was what others did with their ideas. And the question of whether we should serve all people or all Christians was, in practice, turned over to monks and nuns to settle. They were the ones who did the actual work, for most of the history of the Church. So what did they say and do?
The answer comes from St. Benedict, who – though he was not among the eight Great Fathers – was immensely influential. St. Benedict (480-550) did not invent monastic life; there were monasteries all over the world for hundreds of years before him. But he built communities that were balanced and sane. He and his followers led lives of prayer, bolstered by fasting and other ascetic practices. But Benedict was aware of the dangers of fanaticism, and he worked hard to construct monastic life in a way that was sustainable, organized toward God and not toward some nihilistic ideal sprinkled with holy water. Toward the end of his life, he collected his ideas and wrote them up. Fifteen centuries later, men and women around the world still choose to live by this “Rule of St. Benedict.” There have been many offshoots and alterations of his communities, and many reforms, and reforms of the reforms; but the Rule remains a steady and healthy starting point. And the Rule is clear and explicit about hospitality: it is universal. All guests are to be welcomed as Christ. Special care is appropriate for those of our faith, and for pilgrims, and for the poor; but those are details within a more general rule, based on what Jesus himself said. The Rule of St. Benedict is unmistakable:
Caput 53: De hospitibus suscipiendis. Omnes supervenientes hospites tamquam Christus suscipiantur, quia ipse dicturus est: Hospis fui et suscepistis me.
Chapter 53: about welcoming guests. All guests who come are to be acknowledged and accepted as Christ, because he himself will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
All guests. All. The teaching of St. John Chrysostom deserves respect. But the disagreement between Jerome and Chrysostom was settled definitively in practice, for centuries, by Benedict. Omnes: all.
What about the laity?
Emphatically, the role of the clergy in welcoming strangers did not mean that the laity had no responsibility. Rather, most of the time, most people discharged this solemn and unavoidable (and joyful) responsibility by delegating it, and supporting the agents who accepted this delegation of responsibility. That is, the “law of the Church” that the laity were morally required to support the clergy financially or in other practical ways was not invented by manipulative clerical thieves; it was, in part, a logical extension of the Lord’s fiery commands to serve the least of our brothers and sisters.
St. Benedict’s influence
The Rule of St. Benedict expresses a very strong opinion about the proper way to treat strangers – including pilgrims and migrants and refugees and the homeless. All are to be treated as Christ himself. That’s interesting, but is it important? Do monasteries matter?
To put that another way: if monks don’t carry weapons, does that end war? If monks pray, does that make everyone intelligent and loving and creative? If monks work in the fields, does slavery disappear? No, no, and no. So who cares what a few pious ascetics say about hospitality?
To assess the impact of monasteries on European civilization, it may be worthwhile to understand the view of Thomas Cahill, in his exploration of a dusty and neglected corner of history. In How the Irish Saved Civilization (published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, New York, in 1996), Cahill argues that after several unlettered tribes descended on the Roman Empire, looting and burning, literacy and the civilization associated with it declined and almost disappeared throughout western Europe, for several centuries. What rescued it was the work of monks on islands way off to the edge of the continent, in Ireland. They copied the Bible by hand – and everything else they could get their hands on. And in time, they carried these links to the past back into continental Europe, to monasteries everywhere. When the grip of barbarism loosened, emerging leaders realized the immensity of the quiet treasures in their midst: monks had books.
In the 21st century, it may take some effort to understand booklessness. For us, books can be almost like water; they are everywhere, as if they fell from the sky. The Library of Congress in Washington has about 160 million publications. The British Library has about 150 million. The French Library, the Bibliotheque Nationale, has about 40 million. Harvard’s Widener Library has 3.5 million books. There are about 9,000 public libraries across the United States, with an average of about 80,000 books in each. Books are ubiquitous. And that’s without looking at the revolution of books available in electronic format; a high school student might walk into class with a thousand books in his/her pocket.
Two hundred years ago, books were not rare but not ubiquitous. The Library of Congress started in 1800 with 740 books. It was burned by the British in 1814; it had about 3,000 volumes then. After that war, the library was re-established, beginning with the acquisition of Thomas Jefferson’s private library, comprised of 6,487 volumes.
Two thousand years ago, libraries held hundreds of books. In the Roman Empire under Augustine, there were three public libraries. Three hundred years later, around 325 AD, under Constantine, there were 28 public libraries. But by 400 AD, “libraries, like tombs, were closed forever.” Forever was an extravagant claim; the book famine lasted about two hundred years. At the time of Pope Gregory the Great (died 604), there were three libraries in Europe: Gregory’s own poor library, Isidore’s library with about 400 volumes in Seville, and Cassiodorus’s library in Calabria. But about then, the Irish went to work.
The first fountain of renewed literacy was probably St. Columcille – or Columba, to the English. By the time he was 41, legend asserts and maybe it’s true, he had founded 41 monasteries. And he loved books. Legend also asserts, quite likely with some modest leavening of fact, that he loved a beautiful psalter, and copied it himself – secretly. This copyright infringement was detected, and Columcille was hauled before the king, who declared that the copy belonged with the copied, not the copier. This led to a fight in which, legend asserts, 3,001 people died – 3,000 of the king’s men and one of Columcille’s. The Irish have been known to exaggerate, but it’s probably true that there was a fight, and Columcille emerged with the book. Unfortunately, he was excommunicated for a time, because monks weren’t supposed to take up arms. And his punishment included permanent banishment from Ireland – which was unfortunate for him, but not for the rest of Europe. He took his book – and his love of books, and his ability to build communities – and traveled east, a rowdy monk with a gift for civilization. He only went as far as Scotland, where he founded or inspired another 60 monasteries beginning in Iona – and copied hundreds more books.
The Irish monasteries did not have extraordinary architecture; they had extraordinary libraries. The basic plan of a monastic foundation following Iona was simple: a church, one small hut per monk, a guesthouse, a kitchen and refectory, some barns, some sheds for crafts – and a library with a “scriptorium,” the copy room, where manuscripts were copied by hand, preserving and disseminating the Bible and commentaries, plus every bit of literature the monks could find.
What Columcille carried to Scotland, others carried farther east. Monks flowing out of Ireland built pockets of literacy all over Europe. During the age of barbarian marauders, Greek culture survived in the East; Greek literature was available in and around Constantinople. But in the West, Latin literature would have been lost if not for the monks with their scriptoria.
For hundreds of years, monasteries served as places of prayer, but also as the continental department of health and human services. They built and ran the schools, the hospitals, the libraries, the architecture, the art, and the music – of Europe.
So it did matter that the monasteries – mostly Benedictine, and all influenced by Benedict – were committed to hospitality. The leaders of civilization throughout the continent believed that strangers come to us as Christ.
[This section was published previously in Knocking at Haven’s Door.]
As the Catholic Church in America struggles to re-assert and defend a right to migrate, some of the opponents of this drive for justice claim that St. Thomas Aquinas is their ally. This is wrong-headed. The views of Aquinas are nuanced, and deserve careful treatment.
Four brief remarks about the teaching of Aquinas
First, Aquinas’ view is that the Lord’s command that we welcome strangers is indeed binding. On the other hand, he also said that nations have a right to scrutinize immigrants and to set up criteria for citizenship. He does not have these two ideas tied together neatly, but they are both in his teaching, and this same balance is key to the teaching of the Church today. To assert a right to migrate without asserting a right to control borders, or to assert a right to control borders without asserting a right to migrate – either one – is contrary to the teaching of Aquinas, and also contrary to the teaching of the Church. Justice requires a balance of rights that are in tension.
Second, the Fathers of the Church agreed that welcoming strangers was fundamental, but were divided on the question of what a “stranger” is. St. Jerome said we were commanded to welcome all people – all. St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, said that the phrase “least of the brothers” limits the command to Christian brothers (and sisters). In practice, the matter was settled by St. Benedict and St. Basil and their followers: for centuries, monks and nuns followed their teaching and example, and welcomed all. And since the Church delegated the duty of hospitality to monks and nuns, what they did was what the Church was doing. That’s the practice; but the teaching remained fuzzy. Aquinas weighed in on that controversy: his view was that the command to welcome strangers applies to all, but especially Christians.
Third, Aquinas made an observation that over time proved to be extraordinarily significant. He asserted that the corporal works of mercy were somewhat adrift, cut loose from their origin in the words of the Lord recorded in Matthew 25. Aquinas embraced both Scripture and the corporal works of mercy firmly – but noticed the differences, and was concerned about them.
And fourth, his understanding of a poignant detail from the Last Supper is explosive, pregnant with meaning, connecting hospitality and salvation the same way that Moses connected them.
Some commentators today assert blandly that Aquinas defended border security over hospitality. This is misleading.
Welcome strangers …
Aquinas’ reflections on the Lord’s command to welcome strangers are found especially in his sermons on Matthew 25 and John 13.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Aquinas reviews the six precepts in 25:31-46. He separates them into groups: internal needs, external needs, and special needs. That is, food and drink are internal; clothing and shelter are external; visits to the sick and imprisoned are special needs. With regard to hospitality, he explains it by reference to a passage in Hebrews. He says:
There are exterior needs, two of them – one separate from the body and the other touching the body. The Lord says about needs that aren’t physically touching us, “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” Elsewhere, we read, “Do not forget hospitality; for by this, some people – although they were unaware of it – have entertained angels [Heb 13:2]. With regard to a need that touches the body, the Lord says, “I was naked, and you covered me.” Elsewhere we read, “Have I despised a man who was dying because he didn’t have the clothes he needed, or the poor man with nothing to warm his body? Didn’t that man bless me, warmed by the fleece of my sheep?” [Job 31:20]. And again: “When you see someone naked, cover him!” [Isaiah 58:7].
That is, Aquinas embraced the view that the call to welcome strangers is an invitation to perennial epiphany, continual revelation.
Also in the commentary on Matthew 25, Aquinas asserts that the Lord explained why some people are excluded from the kingdom of God, and notes that some are excluded for interior sins, and others for exterior sins. Matthew 25 has two parables before the Lord’s description of the Last Judgment and the six precepts. One of these parables is about virgins greeting the bridegroom when he arrives. The wise virgins prepare, and have oil in their lamps; the foolish virgins know what’s coming, but don’t prepare, and have no oil in their lamps. Aquinas says that they were excluded from the celebration because of an interior defect. By contrast, says Aquinas, the parable of the servants who were given different amounts of talents – some invested, but one didn’t – shows that some people are excluded from the kingdom of God because of their neglect of exterior works (“propter negligentiam exterioris operationis”). In other words, Aquinas asserts that the Lord speaks about damnation because of negligence, or sins of omission. And immediately after this parable about negligence, the Lord turns to his list of six precepts. What follows the parable about negligence is the description of the Last Judgment, with a list of exterior works that some people perform and others neglect – feeding, giving water, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned. Those who serve people in need find that they have served the Lord, and they are welcome in the kingdom; others neglect these exterior works and are damned for it.
In his reflections on John 13, which is about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Aquinas asserts that the passage includes a command: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” And Aquinas assets again that the precepts are binding, that neglecting them is a mortal sin. The precepts can be fulfilled in various ways; but in one way or another, we are commanded to serve. These binding precepts include welcoming strangers. Aquinas sees the Lord’s words at the Last Supper – to wash the feet of others as he had washed the feet of the apostles – as a reference to all forms of service, including feeding and clothing and welcoming those in need. That is, in Aquinas’ understanding, the six precepts in the Lord’s description of the Last Judgment are all commanded yet again in the Lord’s words at the Last Supper.
Protect borders …
Aquinas’ reflections on a nation’s right to control its borders are found in the Summa Theologica (in the second half of the first part, question 105, especially in Article 3). The passages has some problems.
Aquinas speculates about law, and about the Law in the Old Testament. He explores a list of questions: are the precepts in the Old Testament binding on everyone, what are the differences among natural law and moral law and divine law, and such. He distinguishes among the specific commands, dividing them into three groups: ceremonial precepts, about worshiping God; moral precepts, like “thou shalt not steal”; and judicial precepts, about justice. Then he divides the judicial precepts into four categories: relations between a ruler and subjects, relations between individuals, relations with foreigners, and relations within a family. With regard to foreigners – the passage that is pertinent here – his general intent is to defend the wisdom of God revealed in the Old Testament, and to sort out what is permanent and binding from what was specific to the Jews whom Moses led. So Question 105, article three, explores: were the judicial precepts in the Old Testament regarding foreigners “framed in a suitable manner”? (Or: “Utrum iudicialia praecepta sint convenienter tradita quantum ad extraneos.”)
His approach is speculative. He’s arguing, not pontificating. One of the great puzzles about the way people use his work today is that his life-long approach to questions was so flexible and inventive and intelligent; but many of his admirers seize on his words – often speculations – and hold them rigidly. That is, his followers often discard his method and cling to his conclusions, which is completely contrary to his genius.
In his response to question 105, Aquinas runs into trouble almost immediately. He says that the Jews had three kinds of peaceful interaction with foreigners: when they are just passing through, when they come to stay, and when they want to become full members of the community. The distinctions he makes to get to these three categories are based on (1) a mistake in translation, and then (2) Aristotle in direct opposition to Scripture.
His first two categories are taken from two passages in Exodus, referring to advena in Exodus 22:20 and peregrinus in Exodus 23:9. Both are to be protected, kept free from molestation – but, he says, they are two different groups with different needs.
Aquinas referred to advena, or a new-comer, in Exodus 22:20: “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien [advena], for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” And he referred to peregrinus in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien [peregrinus]; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” The problem is, there are indeed two separate words in the Latin text, the Vulgate; but there is only one word – proselutos – in the Greek text, the Septuagint; and more importantly, there is only one word – ger – in the original text, the Hebrew text.
Exodus 22:20: “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien [ger in Hebrew, proselutos in Greek, advena in Latin], for you were once aliens [ger in Hebrew, proselutos in Greek, advena in Latin], residing in the land of Egypt.”
Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien [ger in Hebrew, proselutos in Greek, peregrinus in Latin]; you well know how it feels to be an alien [ger in Hebrew, proselutos in Greek, advena in Latin], since you were once aliens [ger in Hebrew, proselutos in Greek, peregrinus in Latin] yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
Sorry, let me repeat that one more time, with a chart:
Scholars debate whether Aquinas was fluent in Greek, but there seems to be agreement that he didn’t read Hebrew. In this case, at least, it’s clear that Aquinas used only the Latin text, not the older Greek text, nor the original Hebrew text. So his first distinction – strangers who are passing through versus strangers who come to stay – is based on a misunderstanding. The text does not have two words; it has one. Why did Jerome, or someone working with Jerome to produce the Vulgate Bible, use two different words to translate a single word in the original? Who knows? Perhaps it sounded a little better than repeating a word three times in a sentence of just 13 words. I don’t see how it did any harm – until someone assumed that the two words referred to two different categories of stranger.
So far, Aquinas’ distinction is innocent. It’s not Scripture, but it’s harmless: there are strangers who pass through, as pilgrims; and there are strangers who stay a bit, as new-comers. But his description of a third category – settlers – opens the door to a variety of immense abuses.
For his third category, Aquinas finds the idea in Aristotle, without any reference to Scripture. The distinctions he makes are sensible, rational, useful, provocative – but they have nothing to do with Scripture. He suggests that immigrants should go through a long period of testing and training, building relationships and learning the culture – for decades or even generations. Slowly, over time, they should be incorporated or assimilated into their new culture. That’s not a foolish idea, but it’s Aristotle, not Scripture.
If the approach that Aquinas proposes is understood to be Scriptural, that’s an error, and the error is not trivial. Aquinas, following Aristotle, suggests that immigrants be treated differently from citizens – excluded from the rights and privileges of citizens for years or even for generations. Neither of these two great men can be dismissed casually. But this proposal is directly contrary to the clear teaching in the Old Testament that Aquinas is discussing! The question of how to treat immigrants – and specifically what the differences in treatment should be between native-born citizens and immigrants – comes up at least 52 times in the Old Testament. Of these, there are 29 assertions that the treatment of Hebrews and immigrants should be the same. There are 20 references to preferential treatment or extra protections for immigrants. There are three references to circumstances in which Hebrews should be treated better than immigrants.
References to equal treatment (29):
1. Ex 12:19
2. Ex 12:48
3. Ex 12:49
4. Ex 20:10
5. Ex 23:12
6. Lev 16:29
7. Lev 17:8
8. Lev 17:10
9. Lev 17:12
10. Lev 17:13
11. Lev 17:15
12. Lev 18:26
13. Lev 20:2
14. Lev 22:18
15. Lev 24:16
16. Lev 24:22
17. Lev 25:35
18. Num 9:14
19. Num15: 14
20. Num 15:26
21. Num 19:10
22. Num 35:15
23. Dt 1:16
24. Dt 24:14
25. Jos 8:33
26. Jos 8:35
27. Jos 20:9
28. Ez 14:7
29. Ez 47:22
References to preferential treatment of immigrants over Hebrews (20):
1. Lev 19:10
2. Lev 23:22
3. Dt 10:17
4. Dt 14:29
5. Dt 16:11
6. Dt 16:14
7. Dt 24:17
8. Dt 24:19
9. Dt 24:20
10. Dt 24:21
11. Dt 26:12
12. Dt 27:19
13. Ps 94:6
14. Ps 146:9
15. Jer 7:6
16. Jer 22:3
17. Ez 22:7
18. Ez 22:29
19. Zech 7:10
20. Mal 3:5
References to preferential treatment of Hebrews over immigrants (3):
1. Lev 25:45
2. Lev 25:47
3. Dt 14:21
Teaching in the Old Testament about equality or preferential treatment of immigrants is not absolute and rigid, but it is clear and overwhelming – 49 to 3 clear.
Greek balance versus Old Testament balance
It’s worthwhile comparing the Greek approach to hospitality, and the Hebrew (Old Testament) approach. Both the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews considered hospitality to be fundamental to civilization. Both were especially careful about three protected classes – widows and orphans and strangers. Both considered violations of hospitality to be heinous crimes, even capital crimes in some cases. Both had a balanced approach to hospitality. But the way they understood this balance was radically different.
The Greeks were careful about balancing the rights and responsibilities of hosts on one hand, and guests on the other. In the Odyssey, for example, the themes that Homer explores include courage and loyalty – and also hospitality. There are numerous visits and welcoming feasts throughout the epic, in Ithaca and in the travels of Odysseus and Telemachus; at each, the rules and expectations are clear for both host and guest. The issue of hospitality is central as events unfold in Odysseus’ kingdom and palace. The suitors abuse Penelope, although they believe – mistakenly – that she is a widow. They abuse Telemachus, although they believe – mistakenly – that he is an orphan. And then they abuse Odysseus, believing – mistakenly – that he is a stranger, a mere beggar at the door. Their abuse of Penelope and Telemachus is a long string of violations of the duties of a guest: they eat her food and consume her wealth carelessly, heedlessly, without gratitude. But their abuse of Odysseus is a little different. When he shows up, the suitors arrogantly assume the role of the host, deciding who is welcome and who is not – and then they violate the sacred duties of a host. This abuse of a helpless and hungry stranger – apparently helpless – is the last straw. Their abuse of Penelope shows them to be bad guests, and unworthy of marrying her. But their abuse of Odysseus shows them to be bad hosts, and unworthy of ruling Ithaca. So they are all executed, and their blood splashes up the walls of the banquet hall.
The story looks at the rights and duties of hosts and guests with severity. But note the balance.
The Greeks balanced the rights and duties of host and guest. In Scripture, there is a balance – but it is worlds away from the Greek balance. Literally worlds away: the Hebrews balance our duties of hospitality with God’s generosity to us. The Greek balance is familiar and sensible: I give to you and you give to me. The Hebrew balance depends on faith: I give to you, and God gives to us both.
The Hebrew sense of balance does not propose rules and roles for host contrasted with guest, balanced carefully. The Hebrew approach doesn’t even distinguish carefully between the two parties, let alone balance them. At the First Feast in Scripture, Abraham begins as host, welcoming three strangers to his tent under the trees at Mamre; but by the end of the day, it is God who is host, pouring out gifts to his friend as they converse under the sky. The balance is: you welcome a stranger, and God will welcome you.
The lesson from Abraham, repeated by the Prophets for centuries, is that welcoming strangers matters greatly, because the guest might be God. The lesson from Jesus is similar, but stronger: welcoming strangers matters, because the guest is God. When you welcome a stranger, you welcome me, says the Lord – not maybe, not sometimes – but definitely albeit mysteriously, and always.
When Aquinas offers ideas about immigration, and draws on Aristotle, that’s rational and reasonable – but wrong. The Old Testament isn’t Greek; it’s Jewish.
The antisemitism of the Catholic Church
In 1986, Pope St. John Paul II visited a synagogue in Rome. He quoted a document from the Second Vatican Council asserting that the Catholic Church is committed to a new and peaceful relationship with Jews (and others). He said, “With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
Obviously, these words of Pope John Paul II are different from many things said by Christians over the centuries. For 18 centuries, the history of the Church has been marked by antisemitism. An incident of failure to love and respect our older brothers and sisters in the faith – and a failure to understand and cherish their insights – is troubling but not isolated, and not surprising. The Pope was deliberately turning away from ancient sins that afflicted many Christians through the centuries – including Aquinas.
In his defense of the wisdom of the teaching that he finds in Scripture, Aquinas explores six specific questions. One is, did the teaching in the Old Testament do wrong in permitting the Hebrews to mistreat foreigners – by engaging in usurious practices with them but not with each other. There are several problems with Aquinas’ response to this objection. First, just as he took a single Hebrew word and split it in two, so now he takes two Hebrew words and combines them to make one. Hebrew does not distinguish between pilgrims passing through and migrants come to stay. But Hebrew does distinguish between immigrants who are settling in the land of Israel and foreigners who live elsewhere. The Old Testament does permit Hebrews to charge interest when they loan money to a foreigner in another land – but does not permit interest on loans to other Hebrews, nor on loans to immigrants. But Aquinas didn’t read Hebrew.
That confusion doesn’t change the question at hand: does Scripture endorse an evil practice. But it does give reason to worry about Aquinas’ understanding of what the Hebrews were doing. The question remains, did God permit the Hebrews to engage in a pattern of evil in their dealings with strangers. Whether they are inside the country as immigrants or outside as plain foreigners doesn’t really alter that challenge.
There’s another bit of confusion here to address before looking at exactly what Aquinas said. Aquinas considered it to be wrong to charge interest or ask for any kind of bank fee. In his time, any fee or interest charge was considered to be usury. Jews then – and everyone today – would make a distinction between asking for reasonable interest for a loan versus charging a high interest rate to a person in desperate need. The latter was and is evil, although the line between the two practices may be hard to draw sharply. But Aquinas, considering it to be evil to charge any interest on any loan, wonders why the Old Testament permits it – even with strangers.
And here we get to the real problem. His answer is bluntly antisemitic: Aquinas says that God accommodated the hard hearts of the Jews, who are “prone to avarice” (propter pronitatem Judaeorum ad avaritiam). This kind of rank antisemitism is gravely wrong. And this casual embrace of antisemitism in a passage which some people now hold up as clear-minded insight into the problems of immigration is problematic indeed. Obviously, it’s anachronistic to demand that Aquinas understand the lethal effect of antisemitism in twentieth century immigration laws. But in our time, it’s foolish – or perhaps deeply evil – to overlook antisemitism in immigration laws!
To say that America’s anti-immigration laws contributed to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust is not speculation, and not exaggeration. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington, you can get a list of the hundreds of Jews who fled from Hitler, crossed the Atlantic on the infamous voyage of the SS St. Louis, saw the lights of Miami, were turned away, returned to Germany, and died in concentration camps.
You can’t blame those deaths on Aquinas. However, a passage about immigration that is tainted by antisemitism cannot be used authoritatively in our time.
Antisemitism has a long history in the Church. At the first council of all the leaders of the Church – the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles – the question they were wrestling with was whether you had to become a Jew in order to follow Jesus. Jesus followed the Law of Moses; if you want to follow Jesus, must you follow Moses? The answer was no: Greeks could follow Jesus without being circumcised. But it took a meeting of all the apostles, and an argument between Peter and Paul, to get to that answer firmly. However, a few generations later, the matter was turned on its head. It wasn’t necessary to be a Jew to become a Christian: in fact, it was prohibited. Most people who wanted to become Christian went through a catechetical program, and then got baptized. But Jews had to go through the same program – and then abjure Judaism! – and then get baptized.
The Gospels can be read by an ignorant person to say that the Jews crucified Jesus. For example, Matthew writes that when Pilate said he was innocent of the blood of Jesus, the people (Jews) responded, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” (Mt 27:25) But when he wrote that, Matthew was a Jew, and most of his audience was Jewish. His words might have been clearer if he had said, “Look, friends, at what we did!” But in post-Jewish Christianity, words about the Jews were read as a reference to them, not to us – in fact, as a reference to a despised bunch of them. Read out of context, the words of the Gospels seem to justify hatred – and indeed they were used to justify hatred and rejection, for centuries.
The Second Vatican Council explicitly and forcefully rejected this excuse and any other excuses for antisemitism. In “Nostra Aetate,” the Pope and bishops together declared that the sacred synod “remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.” The document continues:
The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. …
Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues. …
Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.
The Church doesn’t deny that we were involved in evil; but we have understood it, and we have turned away from it. Aquinas, of course, wrote centuries before the Second Vatican Council, during the time when antisemitism was deeply entrenched in Christian life. But he was unquestionably loyal to the teaching of the Church. It is unthinkable that he would have seen the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and rejected it. It is twisted to enlist him as a proponent of ideas that the Church has rejected.
It is twisted to erect Aquinas as a “voice of reason” opposing the teaching of the Second Vatican Council – regarding either prejudice against Jews or unjust restrictions on immigration. Aquinas’ antisemitism was a real problem, but we do not have to speculate about whether he – given the teaching of our day – would have turned away from it. Of course he would have! And his views about immigration are similarly problematic – but again we need not speculate about what he would have done, given the teaching of our day. He was completely and permanently committed to the Church.
Aquinas combines hospitality and salvation
Aquinas made mistakes, but justice demands that we remember his wisdom and insight. Look again at his commentary on the Gospel of St. John.
Throughout Scripture, hospitality and salvation are intertwined. Moses took two great lessons from the Exodus: God saves us from slavery, and asks us to welcome strangers. Moses had two sons, whom he named Eliezer and Gershom – approximately, “God saves” and “welcome strangers.” In the Easter Triduum, we recall and celebrate the Last Supper, God and man at table together, an act of world-changing hospitality that was foreshadowed by Abraham’s hospitality at Mamre; then we recall the sacrifice on Calvary that saves us. The prayer that Jesus taught includes asking for our daily bread and for forgiveness – hospitality and salvation. Christmas and Easter: this is hospitality and salvation.
There’s a fascinating insight into this intertwining of God’s works in Aquinas. In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, in his third lecture on chapter 13, Aquinas talks about washing feet. At the Last Supper, which parallels the First Feast at Mamre, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, imitating Abraham’s care of his visitors. Washing feet – or at least providing water to wash – is a standard detail of Biblical hospitality. But Aquinas, examining the passage, focuses on forgiveness instead.
Aquinas says that the Lord’s actions at the Last Supper leave us with a serious obligation to wash each other’s feet; in fact, he argues, it is a grave evil not to do so (qui negligit praeceptum peccat mortaliter). It’s best to do it physically, literally, he says – but if we can’t do it physically, we can and must do it in our hearts. In his view, this metaphorical wash means washing away sin – by forgiveness and prayer (which anyone can do, and all must do), and by the sacrament of Reconciliation (a priest’s role).
Aquinas asserts that when the Lord washed the disciples’ feet, he was gesturing toward all the works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming visitors.
Aquinas sees the act of washing feet, at least metaphorically or spiritually, as a grave obligation. And he sees this act of hospitality as an act of forgiveness.
St. Thomas Aquinas has an understanding of this gesture of washing feet – at minimum a detail of the annual celebration of Holy Week, but at maximum a way to refer to all the works of mercy taken together – that intertwines hospitality and salvation. Amidst the challenges of his wonderful Aristotle project, he develops an approach that looks like the teaching of Moses: God saves his people, and asks us to welcome each other, including strangers – especially strangers. Aquinas, like Moses, conjoins salvation and hospitality.
It is possible to make an argument against universal hospitality by cherry-picking carefully. Use the Didache, John Chrysostom, and scraps from Thomas Aquinas. But an honest study affirms hospitality.
I draw four key lessons from this overview of hospitality in the Patristic and Scholastic ages of the Church, from the Fathers up to St. Thomas Aquinas.
- Hospitality in the Church followed a new – a third – paradigm.
- There was disagreement among the Fathers that was resolved by monks and nuns.
- The third paradigm opens the way to other models.
- Hospitality is joyful.
First: a new paradigm of hospitality
It seems to me fair and accurate to assert that the Patristic response to strangers is different from the pattern of Moses, and also from the pattern of the Gospels. Obviously, it’s not contradictory, but it is different.
The pattern of hospitality in the Old Testament, exemplified by Abraham and taught by Moses and the Prophets, includes a personal response but focuses on a communal approach. God and a couple of angels approached Abraham, and were made welcome, in a very personal fashion; but the business at hand was about the inhospitality of a social group, Sodom and nearby towns. In the end, the Cities of the Plain, not just one or two specific individuals, were obliterated. The nation of Egypt welcomed the people of Israel, and then abused them; and God punished the nation. The nation of Israel punished the tribe of Benjamin for inhospitality (and other crimes). The prophets spoke to the people collectively about a special care for widows and orphans and foreigners.
The pattern of hospitality in the Gospels is not the same as in the Old Testament. At the time of Jesus, the Jews did not have a nation; they saw themselves as strangers in their own land. So they did not think about how a nation should welcome foreigners. Instead, Jesus said with shocking firmness that the responsibility to care for strangers persists even when the nation cannot do it: individuals must assume the burden. The terminology shifted a little: Jesus did not talk about the line between natives (ben Israel) and immigrants (ger); instead, he talked about the line between neighbors and non-neighbors. The perspective as also shifted a little: Jesus asked his followers not only to care for strangers, but to become strangers. The fundamental teaching was the same: get inside the mind and heart and experience of strangers, and serve them with intelligent love. But the pattern from Moses was largely social, and the pattern in the Gospels was largely individual.
The Patristic era brought a shift. The eight “Great” Fathers of the Church, four from the East and four from the West, all spoke about hospitality with power and eloquence. Their ideas were based on Abraham’s experience at Mamre, and on the six precepts in the teaching of Jesus about the Last Judgment: there is obvious (and unsurprising) continuity. However, their general approach to hospitality to strangers is neither national nor individual. Instead, they (and the rest of the Church) saw hospitality as the work of the Church. For about 1500 years, the social pattern of hospitality was based on monastic life: monks following the Rule of Benedict welcomed strangers as Christ, while many common folk felt that their responsibility to welcome strangers was discharged when they supported their clergy and the monasteries.
Second: Hospitality for whom? Ask a monk or nun.
In the first half a millennium of the Church, there was much discussion of whether the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was a command for everyone, or an ideal for some. Voluntary poverty, for example, was a “counsel of perfection,” not for everyone. Most of us strive to be good stewards. But the six precepts (including “welcome strangers”) were definitely not optional. Aquinas put it most strongly: the precepts are mandatory, and failing to fulfill them (all six) is mortally sinful. The precepts, including hospitality, are often delegated, but they are not optional.
All the Fathers of the Church did indeed take the lessons from Abraham at Mamre and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount very seriously. They were crystal clear that there is a serious obligation to care for those in need, including strangers. They were eloquent about the blessings attached to serving the poor – both the obviously intrinsic blessings and the less obviously attached rewards for obedience. They were forceful about the punishments attached to a failure to serve those in need, including strangers.
But the Fathers did not agree about the identity of a “stranger.” St. Jerome’s opinion was emphatic: there is no limitation to this category: person whom you meet whom you don’t know is a stranger, and strangers have a list of needs, some easily identified such as food and water and rest. Other needs are less easily specified: protection, an intent ear, welcome. At the other extreme is St. John Chrysostom, who was equally emphatic: the list of people in need – including the hungry, thirsty, naked, and strangers – is carefully and deliberately limited by Jesus to the least of the “brethren,” which means followers of Jesus.
The sharp and deep disagreement amongst the Fathers was eventually left in the hands of the monks, who provided hospitality in obedience to the Lord and in the name of the Church. Their view was clear. The hospitality offered by Benedict and the monastic tradition was unequivocally universal, following the teaching of St. Jerome. At least in theory, monks offered hospitality to all who knocked on their doors. Quite certainly, in practice, there were some limitations on this hospitality, but these limitations were seen as grave failures to fulfill a solemn obligation.
Third: if there’s more than one paradigm, and indeed more than two, how many can there be?
If there’s a third pattern, following the spirit of Moses and Jesus but different in approach, then perhaps there can be a fourth pattern, and maybe one day a fifth, sixth, tenth. To insist that everyone must always and everywhere offer hospitality precisely the way Jesus did it – to demand a single pattern of service – is to overlook and set aside the experience of the Church for centuries. So systematic attacks on the new patterns of service set forth by the Second Vatican Council are not just criticisms of modern innovations; they are also attacks on Patristic and medieval teaching, dismissing the universal practice of the Church up to the time of the Reformation.
Seeing and understanding this third pattern is fundamental to understanding the crisis in our time. If religious communities carry out the tasks of hospitality, and then convents and monasteries are suppressed, who assumes the duty? When monasteries are suppressed, the remnants are more likely to focus on the needs of fugitive priests than the neglected duties of the porter. Good people will step forward to act with charity – but what’s the pattern, the model, the prompt and automatic response to the needs of strangers?
It’s critical to grasp that the general approach to hospitality of the Church for 1500 centuries was different from the Old Testament and New Testament patterns, because we live in a time when a fourth approach has developed. Pope Leo XIII, the Social Gospel, Pope Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, Nostra Aetate, and “Strangers No Longer”: these are all grounded firmly in Scripture and Tradition, but the approach to hospitality in them is different (again) from the pattern taught by Moses, and also different from the pattern shown in the Gospels, and also different pattern of the Fathers and monks. Hospitality today is a global (universal, catholic) problem, and we need a global (universal, catholic) response. But that’s for a later volume.
Even as the Vatican makes peace with the history of Protest and completes the Reform, a new force comes forth: “traditionalists” who reject tradition. In the name of Tradition, they insist that we return to the purity of the Gospel without any taint of monkish aberrations! Their fight against the Social Gospel – from Leo XIII up to and through Vatican II – somehow misses a huge aspect point of Tradition. Our Tradition carves out abundant space for innovation.
Fourth: hospitality is a joy.
Over and over, all through the history of the Church, the teaching about hospitality and the experience of it were joyful. The hermits in the desert laughed about hospitality all the time: how do you provide hospitality when you are fasting and don’t have any food? How do you provide hospitality when you have fled into the desert to pray, and pesky pilgrims pursue you? They weren’t grim about it!
Monasteries accepted visitors as Christ. But you and I are really pretty sure that some people showed up looking for free food who were not Christ, were discernibly and just about certainly not Christ. So there’s a persistent legend that the Rule of Benedict provides for discernment … and if the visitor balks, “let two stout monks explain the matter to him.” This is apocryphal. I think the legend persists because it’s funny. Hospitality is a permanent joke. Ask the famous sourpuss Dorothy Day, who tried to welcome every guest who knocked, and was always moaning and groaning and complaining, right? No, not right: she filled the house one night, chock-a-block full, and then there was another knock – so she slept in the bathtub. She might be a saint, or she might be a nut, or both – but she’s not humorless.
The Fathers were often sharply sarcastic about the rich who found themselves incapable of welcoming beggars and strangers. (A favorite, about the poor generally, not just strangers, but still delightful: St John Chrysostom was deeply disturbed by disparities of income, and asked: “Are you so careful to be respectful about your excrement that you insist on placing it in a silver chamber-pot when there’s a man made in the image and likeness of God outside freezing to death?”) He means it; he’s got fire in his belly. Such sharp criticisms are full of pain and anger – but also a wry delight.
The stout monk story is a myth, a joke. And it’s funny – not because it rips away pretense and reveals a scandalous truth, but because it’s nonsense.
Hospitality, like birth, is a disruption and a challenge. But far more, it’s a deep and rich joy. When we welcome strangers, we are invited to see the Lord, now and on into eternity.
The story of the two stout monks in Benedict’s Rule is a joke. It’s sort of funny, because we all want to put limits on our offer of hospitality. All of us can finish the sentence beginning “The people who really shouldn’t expect a warm welcome here include …” Maybe you can’t finish that sentence. Maybe you’re a better person than anyone I’ve ever met. Maybe.
We want a limit. We think there’s a limit. But what Moses said, and what the Gospels taught, and what the monks did, didn’t have limits. Moses: you remember what’s it like, so welcome strangers! Jesus: when you meet a stranger, you are looking me in the face. Benedict: welcome all.
We pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
And He does.
The current volume, The Two Stout Monks Myth, is the third book in a longer project, entitled McGivney’s Guests. McGivney’s Guests is a work in progress exploring immigration and the Knights of Columbus, which is a Catholic fraternal and service organization, founded in 1882 in Connecticut by Fr. Michael J. McGivney, to serve the poor at that time, mostly immigrants.
The whole work (of which this book is a part) explores:
· the clear and forceful and abundant teaching about hospitality in the Old Testament;
· the rich and powerful teaching about hospitality in the New Testament;
· the insights and the labor of monks and nuns for centuries, providing hospitality;
· the American experience;
· the extraordinary document “Strangers No Longer” written jointly by the American and Mexican bishops in 2003;
· the experience of the Knights of Columbus throughout the past century, and
· essays on justice.
During a time of confusion about hospitality, the USA is not acting as a nation of immigrants, welcoming refugees. When that changes, this nation will again work to incorporate millions of newcomers each year. That will require organization coordinated nationally but carried out in small communities – often, in churches. A national service project, helping immigrants, organized in every parish: that may require a new structure, or maybe a happy renewal of the Knights of Columbus. We’ll see.
This booklet, as well as the larger book McGivney’s Guests, grew out of conversations among KOC members; it is written by and principally for members. However, it is not an official publication of the Knights of Columbus.
John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe is best known for his work as an activist, building the nonviolent branch of the pro-life movement. He has been called by “Father of the Rescue movement” by Time, NY Times Magazine, Joan Andrews, Joe Scheidler, and others. LA Times writer Jim Risen’s history of the rescue movement, Wrath of Angels, also uses this title. Cavanaugh-O’Keefe notes that the title is odd, because the real leaders of the rescue movement were mostly women, including Jeanne Miller Gaetano, Dr. Lucy Hancock, Jo McGowan, Joan Andrews, Juli Loesch Wiley, Kathie O’Keefe, ChristyAnne Collins, Monica Migliorino Miller, and others. Nonetheless, “father” or not, his writing – especially No Cheap Solutions and Emmanuel, Solidarity: God’s Act, Our Response – influenced activists in the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, all over Europe, Philippines, Korea, and Australia.
Cavanaugh-O’Keefe has been arrested 39 times for civil disobedience. He was in the first group that was jailed for pro-life nonviolent action (in Connecticut, 1978). He was among the three organizers of the “We Will Stand Up” campaign, the most successful event of the rescue movement, closing all the abortion clinics in eight of the nine cities that Pope John Paul II visited in 1987. He initiated the Tobit Project, retrieving hundreds of bodies from dumpsters in the Washington area and providing respectful burials.
He has written extensively about eugenics and population control; see especially The Roots of Racism and Abortion. He participated in efforts to resist the population reduction campaigns, particularly in South Africa under the apartheid government, and in Bangladesh; see especially “Deadly Neocolonialism.” He supported the work of the Information Project for Africa, which brought feminists and pro-lifers together to resist coercive depopulation measures at the UN population conference in Cairo.
He has written about eugenics and human cloning. When President Clinton established his National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), Cavanaugh-O’Keefe helped form a grass-roots commission in response – the American Bioethics Advisory Commission (ABAC) and served as the first executive director. The first policy question that the Clinton’s NBAC addressed was human cloning, and their report has sections on eugenics and dignity that were written in response to input from Cavanaugh-O’Keefe. When the NBAC completed published a report supporting human cloning as long as the clone is destroyed in the embryonic or fetal stage, the ABAC worked with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops against this “clone-and-kill” proposal.
He has written about eugenics and immigration; see especially The Sign of the Crossing and Welcome Date TBD – and the work in progress, McGivney’s Guests, which this booklet supports.
Throughout his life, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe has worked to cross-fertilize, and to maintain civil dialogue with opponents. He worked with Pro-lifers for Survival, as editor of the group’s publication, P.S. This ambitious organization brought peace activists and pro-life activists together; their challenging work was later taken over by Cardinal Bernardin. Cavanaugh-O’Keefe was proud to be invited to contribute to the Women’s Studies Encyclopedia; crossing an ideological divide, he wrote their article explaining the pro-life movement. He worked with a common ground group in the Washington area, bringing pro-life and pro-choice activists together – not to find compromises, but to encourage respect and understanding.
In 2012, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe began working to strengthen the unity of the Catholic Church by encouraging pro-life and pro-family activists to re-consider their positions on immigration, and encouraging pro-immigration activists to reconsider their positions on life and marriage. See www.SignoftheCrossing.org.
He and his wife live in Maryland, where they raised six children and now enjoy 15 (plus) grandchildren.
Knocking at Haven’s Door. The pattern of hospitality in the Old Testament was national or tribal; in the New Testament, personal; in the Church for a millennium, ecclesial; in today’s church, global. Between the third and fourth, the teaching was obscured. Why the eclipse? Two partial explanations – including the problem with teaching about “corporal” works.
Restoring the Works of Mercy. None of the teaching of Jesus is interpreted on a single level except his sermon about the Last Judgment – and that was a silly mistake. The works of mercy should be read as corporal, figurative, social and anagogical.
The Sign of the Crossing. This is a painstaking effort to sort out the words for “stranger” in the Bible. Not much of a plot: lots of vocabulary lists. But it does permanently destroy superficial anti-immigration arguments from careless Scripture scholars who support the work of FAIR and CIS.
McGivney’s Guests. Not published yet (2020). This is a work in progress, to facilitate a long discussion about immigration within a Catholic fraternal and service organization. Two parts of a projected seven are available; see below.
Strangers: 21 Claims in the Old Testament (McGivney’s Guests, part 1). The Old Testament teaching about hospitality is clear, abundant, forceful – but unfamiliar to most Christians today.
The Persistent Other (McGivney’s Guests, part 2). The teaching in the New Testament about hospitality is a hidden treasure – everywhere, and beautiful – once seen, never unseen.
The Roots of Racism and Abortion. This is an exploration of eugenics, the ideology of arrogance that affects both the” right” and the “left.” Eugenics underlies the explosive growth of abortion and the persistence of anti-immigration policies.
Emmanuel, Solidarity: God’s Act, Our Response. This is a serious effort to walk away from nonsense “strategies” and find a real way to protect unborn children and pregnant women, to make peace between generations, to restore domestic tranquility.
All these books are available through Amazon and Kindle.