Rule of Life
Community of Charity
31. Community life has a social dimension in which the demands of charity are felt and a charismatic dimension in which the freedom of the Spirit prevails. Love is the bond between these two dimensions.
32. The brothers maintain honest relationships among themselves and make every effort to affirm one another's gifts and talents.
33. The brothers accept one another as they are. They bear one another's faults without complaint and avoid causing anyone suffering.
34. With gentleness and humility, Gospel expressions of love, the brothers take responsibility for one another to the extent of becoming their brothers' keepers.
35. The older brothers make themselves present to the younger brothers in a spirit of respect, understanding, and encouragement. They change their lifestyle when it is necessary to create a climate conducive to the growth and perseverance of the younger brothers.
36. In a spirit of brotherhood, the brothers support those who are isolated or overwhelmed by their tasks. They keep in touch with the brothers who are far away, show interest in their work, write to them, and welcome them warmly when they visit.
37. The brothers consider their sick confreres to be identified with the Lord in a special way. They pray for them, visit them, and attend to their needs with sensitivity and kindness.
38. The brothers cultivate a deep respect for their elderly confreres, listen to them willingly, and assure them of an active participation in community life.
39. The brothers willingly participate in provincial gatherings through which they build friendships and brotherhood.
40. The brothers hold regular meetings to explore together what can unite them more closely. They share their joys as well as their human and spiritual experiences.
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Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life
Henri Nouwen, pp. 46-54
Chapter 4 “Creating Space for Strangers”
Living in a World of Strangers
The first characteristic of the spiritual life is the continuing movement from loneliness to solitude. Its second equally important characteristic is the movement by which our hostilities can be converted into hospitality. It is there that our changing relationship to our self can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings. It is there that our reaching out to our innermost being can lead to a reaching out to the many strangers whom we meet on our way through life. In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their
neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
A Biblical Term
At first the word “hospitality” might evoke the image of soft sweet kindness, tea parties, bland conversations and a general atmosphere of coziness. Probably this has its good reasons since in our culture the concept of hospitality has lost much of its power and is often used in circles where we are more prone to expect a watered down piety than a serious search for the authentic Christian spirituality. But still, if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host. When Abraham received three strangers at Mamre and offered them water, bread and a fine tender calf, they revealed themselves to him as the Lord announcing that Sarah his wife would give birth to a son (Genesis 18:1-15). When the widow of Zarephath offered food and shelter to Elijah, he revealed himself as a man of God offering her an abundance of oil and meal and raising her son from the dead (1Kings 17:9-24). When the two travelers to Emmaus invited the stranger, who had joined them on the road to stay with them for the night, he made himself known in the breaking of the bread as their Lord and Savior (Luke 24:13-35).
When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the newfound unity.
Thus the biblical stories help us to realize not just that hospitality is an important virtue, but even more that in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.
During the last decades psychology has made great contributions to a new understanding of interpersonal relationships. Not only psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, but also social workers, occupational therapists, ministers, priests and many others working in the helping professions have made grateful use of these new insights in their work. But maybe some of us have become so impressed by these new findings that we have lost sight of the great wealth contained and preserved in such ancient concepts as hospitality. Maybe the concept of hospitality can offer a new dimension to our understanding of a healing relationship and the formation of a recreative community in a world so visibly suffering from alienation and estrangement.
The term hospitality, therefore, should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house – although it is important never to forget or neglect that! – but as a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a great variety of ways.
Ambivalence Toward the Stranger
Although it belongs to the core of a Christian spirituality to reach out to strangers and invite them into our lives, it is important to realize clearly that our spontaneous feelings toward strangers are quite ambivalent. It does not require much social analysis to recognize how many forms of hostility, usually pervaded with fear and anxiety, prevent us from inviting people into our world.
To fully appreciate what hospitality can mean, we possibly have to become first a stranger ourselves. A student wrote:
I left Nice one day with little money and stuck out my thumb. For five days I went wherever the wind blew me. I ran out of money and had to depend on the kindness of others. I learned what it is to be humble, thankful for a meal, a ride, and totally at the mercy of chance . . . .
We can say that during the last years strangers have become more and more subject to hostility than to hospitality. In fact, we have protected our apartments with dogs and double locks, our buildings with vigilant doormen, our roads with anti-hitchhike signs, our subways with security guards, our airports with safety officials, our cities with armed police and our country with an omnipresent military. Although we might want to show sympathy for the poor, the lonely, the homeless and the rejected, our feelings toward a stranger knocking on our door and asking for food and shelter is ambivalent at the least.
In general we do not expect much from strangers. We say to each other: “You better hide your money, lock your door and chain your bike.” People who are unfamiliar, speak another language, have another color, wear a different type of clothes and live a life style different from ours, make us afraid and even hostile. Frequently we return home from vacation with that gnawing suspicion that some stranger might have broken into our home and discovered the closet where we have hidden our “valuables.”
In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it. When we travel we keep a careful eye on our luggage; when we walk the streets we are aware of where we keep our money; and when we walk at night in a dark park our whole body is tense with fear of an attack. Our heart might desire to help others; to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and offer a shelter to travelers; but meanwhile we have surrounded ourselves with a wall of fear and hostile feelings, instinctively avoiding people and places where we might be reminded of our good intentions.
It really does not have to be so dramatic. Fear and hostility are not limited to our encounters with burglars, drug addicts or strangely behaving types. In a world so pervaded with competition, even those who are very close to each other, such as
classmates, teammates, co-actors in a play, colleagues in work, can become infected by fear and hostility when they experience each other as a threat to their intellectual or professional safety. Many places that are created to bring people closer together and help them form a peaceful community have degenerated into mental battlefields. Students in classrooms, teachers in faculty meetings, staff members in hospitals and co-workers in projects often find themselves paralyzed by mutual hostility, unable to realize their purposes because of fear, suspicion, and even blatant aggression. Sometimes institutions explicitly created to offer free time and free space to develop the most precious human potentials have become so dominated by hostile defensiveness that some of the best ideas and some of the most valuable feelings remain unexpressed. Grades, exams, selective systems, promotion chances and desires for awards often block the manifestation of the best that man can produce.
The Recognition of Back-stage Hostility
Recently an actor told me stories about his professional world which seemed symbolic of much of our contemporary situation. While rehearsing the most moving scenes of love, tenderness and intimate relationships, the actors were so jealous of each other and so full of apprehension about their chances to “make it,” that the back-stage scene was one of hatred, harshness and mutual suspicion. Those who kissed each other on the stage were tempted to hit each other behind it, and those who portrayed the most profound human emotions of life in the footlights displayed the most trivial and hostile rivalries as soon as the footlights had dimmed.
Much of our world is similar to the acting stage on which peace, justice and love are portrayed by actors who cripple each other by mutual hostilities. Aren’t there many doctors, priests, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and counselors who started their studies and work with a great desire to be of service but find themselves soon victimized by the intense rivalries and hostilities in their own personal as well as professional circles? Many ministers and priests who announce peace and love from the pulpit cannot find much of it in their own rectory around their own table. Many social workers trying to heal family conflicts struggle with the same at home. And how many of us don’t feel an inner apprehension when we hear our own pains in the story of those who ask our help?
But maybe it is exactly this paradox that can give us our healing power. When we have seen and acknowledged our own hostilities and fears without hesitation, it is more likely that we also will be able to sense from within the other pole toward which we want to lead not only ourselves but our neighbors as well. The act on the stage of our life will probably always look better than what goes on behind the curtains, but as long as we are willing to face the contrast and struggle to minimize it the tension can keep us humble by allowing us to offer our service to others, without being whole ourselves.
Creating a Free and Friendly Space
When we have become sensitive to the painful contours of our hostility we can start identifying the lines of its opposite toward which we are called to move: hospitality. The German word of hospitality is Gastfreundschaft which means, friendship for the guest. The Dutch use the word gastvrijheid which means, the freedom of the guest. Although this might reflect that the Dutch people find freedom more important than friendship, it definitely shows that hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him alone.
Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
Thoreau gives a good example of this attitude when he writes:
I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that
before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that
there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have
each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or
his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. (Walden, p. 65)
Creating space for the other is far from an easy task. It requires hard concentration and articulate work. It is like the task of a patrolman trying to create some space in the middle of a mob of panic-driven people for an ambulance to reach the center of the accident. Indeed, more often than not rivalry and competition, desire for power and immediate results, impatience and frustration, and, most of all, plain fear make their forceful demands and tend to fill every possible empty corner of our life. Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. “Being busy” has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion. From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence. Hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain them with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressing than revealing.
Occupied and Preoccupied Space
Occupation and not empty space is what most of us are looking for. When we are not occupied we become restless. We even become fearful when we do not know what we will do the next hour, the next day or the next year. Then occupation is called a blessing and emptiness a curse. Many telephone conversations start with the words: “I know you are busy, but . . . .” and we could confuse the speaker and even harm our reputation were we to say, “Oh no, I am completely free, today, tomorrow and the whole week.” Our client might well lose interest in a man who has so little to do.
Being busy, active and on the move has nearly become part of our constitution. When we are asked to sit in a chair, without a paper to read, a radio to listen to, a television to watch, without a visitor or a phone, we are inclined to become so restless
and tense that we welcome anything that will distract us again.
This explains why silence is such a difficult task. Many people who say how much they desire silence, rest, quietude would find it nearly impossible to bear the stillness of a monastery. When all the movements around them have stopped, when nobody asks them a question, seeks advice or even offers a helping hand, when there is no music or newspapers they quite often experience such an inner restlessness that they will grab any opportunity to become involved again. The first weeks or even months in a contemplative monastery, therefore, are not always as restful as they might seem, and it is indeed not surprising that vacations are more often spent on busy beaches, camping grounds and around entertainment centers than in the silence of monasteries.
All this shows that preoccupation is in fact a greater stumbling block than occupation. We are so afraid of open spaces and empty places that we occupy them with our minds even before we are there. Our worries and concerns are expressions of our inability to leave unresolved questions unresolved and open-ended situations open-ended. They make us grab any possible solution and answer that seems to fit the occasion. They reveal our intolerance of the incomprehensibility of people and events and make us look for labels or classifications to fill the emptiness with self-created illusions.
We indeed have become very preoccupied people, afraid of unnamable emptiness and silent solitude. In fact, our preoccupations prevent our having new experiences and keep us hanging on to the familiar ways. Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty. Our preoccupations help us to maintain the personal world we have created over the years and block the way to revolutionary change. Our fears, uncertainties and hostilities make us fill our inner world with ideas, opinions, judgments and values to which we cling as to a precious property. Instead of facing the challenge of new worlds opening themselves for us, and struggling in the open field, we hide behind the walls of our concerns holding on to the familiar life items we have collected in the past.
The conservative power of our preoccupation is very convincingly expressed by Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian, in one of his conversations with the anthropologist Carlos Castaneda. One day Carlos asked Don Juan how he could better live in accordance with the Indian’s teaching. “You think and talk too much, you must stop talking to yourself,” Don Juan answered. He explained that we maintain our world by our inner talk, and that we talk to ourselves until everything is as it should be, repeating our inner choices over and over, staying always on the same paths. If we would stop telling ourselves that the world is such and so, it would cease to be so! Don Juan didn’t think that Carlos was ready for such a blow, but he advised his student to listen to the world and so allow changes to take place. (Castaneda, A Separate Reality, pp 218-19)
Although this advice might sound bizarre to the ears of the “organization man,” it should not be strange for someone who has taken to heart the words of Jesus Christ. Didn’t he also say that our worries prevent us from letting the kingdom, that is, the new world, come? Don Juan is asking how we ever can expect something really new to happen to us if our hearts and minds are so full of our own concerns that we do not even listen to the sounds announcing a new reality. And Jesus says: “. . . do not worry; do not say, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?’ It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself”. (Matthew 6:31-34).
So we can see that creating space is far from easy in our occupied and preoccupied society. And still, if we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. Hospitality, therefore, is such an important attitude. We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center. How important it is to become empty in order that we may learn is well illustrated in the following Zen story:
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 5)
To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship. This conversion is an inner event that cannot be manipulated but must develop from within. Just as we cannot force a plant to grow but can take away the weeds and stones which prevent its development, so we cannot force anyone to such a personal and intimate change of heart, but we can offer the space where such a change can take place.