The shooting of Congress-woman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8 sparked a national conversation about the need for civility in our public discourse. It is a much-needed virtue in ecclesial circles as well, where polarized, shrill voices so often dominate.
The graduate lay ministry formation program I direct at St. Meinrad's in Indiana deals with these tensions in microcosm. Students span the theological spectrum, but this mix of perspectives has worked in the classroom—until recently. In one course, however, ideological fault lines became painfully apparent. The atmosphere grew increasingly hostile and tense, with plenty of “passionate intensity,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
Through some intervention by the professor, the school’s president-rector and me, however, the class was able to pull back from the brink. I worried that some of the more vocal students would either drop out or feel so shut down that they no longer would participate, and that the tension would continue to fester underground. But to my surprise, and to the great credit of the professor and the class, all the students remained. The temperature cooled, intimidated students felt more at ease to speak, and all went on to have a meaningful engagement with the course content and one another’s ideas.
I will not claim that there was a marvelous meeting and melding of minds or that all tensions faded. But civility and charity did finally carry the day, and what seemed doomed to disaster ended in détente. Many students even confided in me that, as difficult as it had been, they were grateful for the experience.
I have thought a great deal about what enabled that course to end as well as it did. I believe one reason is that it took place in a context of what I call radical hospitality.
Hospitality is a primary charism of the Benedictine monks who conduct the school. The Rule of St. Benedict, which has wisely guided Benedictine communities for 15 centuries, urges that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Hospitality is a fierce discipline; the monastery’s namesake, St. Meinrad, was a ninth-century hermit monk who became known as the martyr of hospitality because he was killed by two thieves he had invited into his cabin in the woods of the Swiss Alps. I would like to think that the students’ experience of Benedictine hospitality played a part in dampening the heated rhetoric of their class.
To welcome others as Christ is to recognize that despite vast differences, the diverse human family is part of the same God-given belonging, and we need one another to survive and thrive. Hospitality is simply a practical working out of this truth. The monks’ hospitality means not only welcoming people with their concrete needs but also making a safe space for the expression of their differing perspectives and ideas.
Such an open-minded and open-hearted stance is radical, first of all, in its fearlessness. Fear bolts the gate, hunkers down and hurls epithets over the fortress walls. Courageous hospitality, on the other hand, flings open the door and discerns Christ in the strange and the stranger—even when, as St. Meinrad learned at the cost of his life, what we admit is threatening. Welcoming others and their opinions requires facing the fear that something in us may have to die, perhaps even the certitude to which we cling.
Hospitality can be fearless when it is rooted, as the word radical denotes. Saint Meinrad Archabbey has deep roots in a rich tradition, with a thick Catholic identity that is not overtly evangelical nor encrusted with excessive trappings of traditionalism but grounded in everyday habits of prayer and community life honed by 1,500 years of practice. And it is rooted in love: the alpha and omega of the entire creation, the force that pulls everyone and everything toward a center that can hold.
Our ecclesial and popular cultures seem lately to favor strident, uncompromising voices and to dismiss moderate stances, like that of the Benedictines, as lacking strong conviction. But what I have seen of fearless, rooted Benedictine hospitality looks less like the muddle of the middle and more like the golden-mean possibility of reconciliation—in a theology classroom, within the church and amid pressing issues of the global commons. It makes me suspect that such moderation, like love, might be the most radical stance of all.