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Monastic hospitality: the enduring legacy

O'Gorman, Kevin D. (2007) Monastic hospitality: the enduring legacy. In: Annual Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth, 2007-04-10 - 2007-04-13.

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Abstract

This paper summarises the origins of western monastic hospitality, illustrates how it influences modern civic, commercial and domestic practices and reports on an empirical investigation into contemporary monastic hospitality. Research into the phenomenon of hospitality continues to broaden through an ever-increasing dialogue and alignment with a greater number of academic disciplines. This paper reports on an investigation into the hospitality offered by Benedictine monasteries and demonstrates how an enhanced understanding of hospitality can be achieved through synergy between social anthropology, philosophy and practical theology. All monastic hospitality takes its direction from St Benedict's Rule (530 AD); this foundational document became the basis of all western European religious hospitality. During the Middle Ages the western monasteries (as well as being the custodians of civilisation, knowledge and learning) had provided detailed and formalised rules for religious hospitality, the care of the sick and the poor, and responsibilities for refugees. The Protestant Reformation (c 1540) was to have a transforming affect on religious hospitality. Hospitable activities became separated from their Christian ties as the state increasingly took over more responsibility for them, although they adopted the principles of hospitality that had already been established within the monastic tradition and are still evident in civic, commercial and domestic hospitality. The empirical information on contemporary monastic hospitality presented in this paper was gathered by living in the monastic cloister with the monks themselves, sharing their day, their life, and their work. During the research it became clear that within the environment of the monastic community hospitality provision is extremely complex; there was a hierarchy of guests within the monastery and differing levels of hospitality provision. The research highlighted the use and division of space for the monks and their guests, types of accommodation, inclusion and exclusion, hospitality rules and rituals and the dichotomy between the social and commercial manifestation of hospitality within the monastery. The paper concludes by observing that the prima-facie purpose of a monastery is not to offer hospitality, it is to house the monks in a community environment so that they can dedicate their lives and live their vocation to the service of God. The Rule is clearly of the utmost importance to the running of the monasteries, however an element of change has been necessary to ensure the continuing survival of the monastery and its hospitality provision. Within the monastic community hospitality and the ritual reception of guests and the provision of hospitality play an important role by being both the bridge and the barrier between the monastic and secular worlds.