Too Open to “the Other”?: When Reception Is Not Tempered by Discernment

Those who have had any encounter with the Rule of St. Benedict, or with Benedictine monasticism, are well-aware of the famed hospitality for which the Order is known. Even those who are less than aware of Benedictine monasteries have heard words like these from the Rule:

In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because in them Christ is more especially received
The Rule of Saint Benedict, 53:15 (tr. and ed. by Luke Dysinger, OSB)

But this is not the only stricture our holy father Benedict gives to his monks. At the very beginning of this chapter on the receiving of guests, he writes, “[the] kiss of peace is not to be offered until prayer has first been said on account of the illusions of the devil” (53:5). This is an allusion to Paul’s words, “[F]or even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disuguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15 ESV). The Apostle John, similarly, wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [i. e., of Jesus being the incarnation of God in the flesh], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 10-11). And it was a commonplace of desert monasticism that if a radiant spirit appeared to one during prayer, that one should reject it three times, lest it be a manifestation of the devil and not a messenger of God.

There is a popular myth, along the lines of the “noble savage,” rampant in our culture, the myth of neutrality. This is the understanding that there are really three sides to this unseen warfare in which we engage: God, the devil, and innocent noncombatants. The fact of the matter, however, is that this is heresy. We all, consciously or not, have chosen sides in this conflict. We are either seeking the Kingdom of God, or fighting against it. As Romans 1:18-32 indicates, whether or not we consciously rebel against (or seek after) God or not, we rebel against (or fight for) the light we have. C S Lewis said it well:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (“The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, p. 18-19)

Many Christians today emphasize the virtue of hospitality. Most frequently this is based on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 about the “least of these.” In the stranger, the “other,” it is said, we receive Christ himself. And many Christians rightly criticize, at least here in the U. S., our sinful lack of hospitality. Of course, hospitality may be extended to something other than persons. Ideas, beliefs, practices, experiments, these too we are encouraged to approach with the spirit and virtue of hospitality.

Unfortunately, all too often, this emphasis goes to a harmful extreme, and hospitality is not tempered with discernment. That is to say, we can be too open to “the other.” If we are not prayerful and discerning, “the other” may well be the demonic. And I do not mean this in the spectacular, Linda-Blair-spinning-head sense of possession. Gauging by my own life, Satan need not “possess” me for me to give way to his influence. Hate is demonic. Lust is of the devil. Gluttony is hellish. No, it isn’t the spectacular about which I need to be concerned. The dangers I face are much more domestic.

We can be too “hospitable” toward many things. We can receive the teachings of others, teachings which contradict the Gospel, though ever so subtly. Pelagius anyone? We can take on practices that are “new,” “fresh,” “innovative”–all of which mean untried. We can watch movies, read literature, listen to music–all in the much-touted spirit of “receptivity to the other”–and open our lives to the deception of the devil. The vampire legends have it right: we invite the desolation of living death, it does not enter of its own will. Satan, after all, masquerades as a gentleman. At least until he crosses the threshold of our lives. Then we experience the raging hate and destruction he unleashes on us. This is the lion that devours our entrails, the anti-Aslan.

What is the remedy for this dilemma of ours? How do we practice hospitality without becoming ensnared in the slow destruction which erodes our souls and bodies? The armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) and prayer, of course. Daily, moment-by-moment repentance. The humility of bending our intellect and will to God. I’m sure there are other tools for discerning the other. Regrettably, I cannot teach others, not having yet adequately been taught or taught myself.

But I do know that the next time the doorbell to my life rings, I’m going to first pray . . . then tell them to go away. According to the desert monks and nuns, God won’t mind.