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Virgil Michel, O.S.B., and the Benedictine Influence on the CW Movement: Benedictine Influence Prominent in Catholic Worker: The Guest is Christ

In chapter 53 of his Rule, Benedict addresed the reception which was to be accorded guests. He reminded his monks that everyone was to be received as Christ, for on the last day each monk would be told: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt. 25:35). All persons, without distinction, were to be greeted with every courtesy, including a sharing in the abbot’s table, and an offering of accomodation in the guest quarters. The awareness of Christ’s presence ran like a refrain throughout the chapter, with special consideration being given to the lowly:

“Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.” (Rule 53.l5)

Benedict’s injunction to hospitality, with its inherent exercise of the works of mercy, carried on a tradition known from the earliest days of Christianity, a tradition later encouraged by the Fathers of the church, including Basil (330-379), Jerome (342-420), and Augustine (354-430).

Dorothy, like Benedict before her, was guided by a thoroughly biblical sensibility. She had long ago been drawn to the exercise of the works of mercy enjoined in Matthew 25:3l-46. Though Dorothy attempted to live out the biblical injunction, incorporating all the works of mercy as part of the Catholic Worker program, nonetheless three of these stood out with particular relief. These may be viewed as the three sisters of hospitality, namely, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.

In the earliest editions of the paper Dorothy Day spelled out the program for houses of hospitality in an idealistic fashion which carried overtones of a monastic interpretation of a life of service. Prospects for a house were in view, and their purpose at that time was stated:

“The general purpose of the Houses of Hospitality is to form a center of Catholic action in all fields, to work for, teach and preach social justice, to form a powerhouse of genuine spirituality and earnest educational and vocational work, to dignify and transform manual labor, and to work for the glory and love of God and His Church.”

Later, when some criticized the Worker’s program as maintaining the present order, the Catholic Worker responded that hospitality was deeply rooted in Christian tradition:

“We consider the spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy and the following of Christ to be the best revolutionary technique and a means for changing the social order rather than perpetuating it. Did not the thousands of monasteries, with their hospitality, change the entire social pattern of their day? They did not wait for a paternal state to step in nor did they stand by to see destitution precipitate bloody revolt…. Not bound by vows and being weak in ourselves, we try, stumblingly, to do our little bit to express faith in the hospitable tradition.”

As late as l968 Stanley Vishnewski recalled in a letter the lasting incluence of the Benedictine charism upon the movement:

“The Benedictine Tradition has had a great influence on the Catholic Worker. Peter Maruin used to tell us in his conferences how the Benedictine Monks swept over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and established “Farming Communes” which helped keep learning alive during the so-called Dark Ages.

I am sure that without the influence of the Benedictines that there would be very little in the Catholic Worker Movement–For from the Benedictines we got the ideal of Hospitality–Guest Houses–Farming Communes–Liturgical Prayer. Take these away and there is very little left in the Catholic Worker Program.

(Exerpted from Brigid O’Shea Merriman, O.S.F., Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day, University of Notre Dame Press, l994.)