guests and hosts

Memorial of Martha, Mary and Lazarus

60th Anniversary of the Founding of New Camaldoli

On the liturgical calendar for the rest of the Church, this feast is listed only as the feast of Martha, but the Benedictine order celebrates this as the feast of her siblings as well––Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. And more specifically yet, for us here, of course, it’s a special feast, because it’s the day we were officially recognized as a religious institution in the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno in 1958. Our Camaldolese liturgical calendar, which comes out of Italy, lists these three as amici ed ospiti del Signore. Ospite is an interesting word in Italian. In common language it is usually translated as “guest,” but in the dictionary its first meaning is actually “host.” How can someone be a guest and a host at the same time? Maybe that’s what happens in the closest of friendships, the line between host and guest, teacher and student, even master and disciple, sometimes disappears. If you think of it, Jesus at the celebration of every liturgy is both our guest and our host: we make room for Jesus in our midst, in our hearts and in our lives, and God provides a feast at the Table of the Word and Sacrament.

In looking at this family that we celebrate today, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, one gets the feeling we are catching a glimpse of Jesus’ own private life. Outside of the apostles and his mother, these are his most intimate relationships. It’s nice to think that Jesus had a place he could go, where he was just among friends, some people who knew what kind of foods he liked and what kind of sandals he wore. Maybe their house was that one place where he could go where he didn’t have to be on stage, where he didn’t have to be rabbi, or “good teacher,” or “Lord.” He was just “our friend Jesus.”

I also like to think of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, these three people who loved Jesus, as representing three different aspects of love. (Hence especially the reading from 1 John that we are offered for this day.[i]) Mary is the easiest to understand. Though this Mary is often conflated with the figures of Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery, there is no proof of that. But there is something similar about the energy of their relationships with Jesus. I think we could even think of her being in love with Jesus––that doesn’t diminish Jesus’ divinity in any way––even as they say one falls in love with one’s guru or teacher. Mary is at least the symbol of the one always leading with the heart. There are two different stories of her anointing Jesus, once with her hair, a shockingly intimate gesture.

And then there is Martha, another aspect, another kind of love. If Mary is the way of devotion, Martha is the way of work and service. Martha is usually for us the symbol of the harried, overworked one, maybe a classic “Two” on the Enneagram, scurrying around the kitchen while Mary sits gazing lovingly at Jesus. Traditionally she has come to symbolize the active life as opposed to the contemplative life. But Meister Eckhart didn’t think that was quite fair. He suggested that she might have been the one closest to spiritual maturity, because she didn’t need the physical proximity to Jesus any more. She could get about the work that had to be done and still retain her closeness to Jesus, like Brother Laurence of the Resurrection finding God amid the pots and pans as much as in his cell or at liturgy. Maybe Martha could carry the cell in her heart, but still immediately get up and make Jesus’ favorite foods for him. Maybe she simply didn’t understand why Mary needed that proximity to Jesus, and it is then that Jesus tells her to let it go. Mary needs this for now. Soon enough Mary is going to need to hear the same words that the Magdalene heard: “Do not cling to me.”

And then there is Lazarus. We don’t know that much about him, except that they say to Jesus, “The man you love is ill,” and after Lazarus dies they say, “See how much he loved him!” This is the kind of language that is reserved only for Lazarus and the apostle John, the other one “whom Jesus loved.” And I have to think that it is that love that Jesus uses to raise Lazarus from the grave. This is a kind of love that can write symphonies, the kind of love that can build a world of justice and peace, the kind of love that can rip the doors off of smashed up cars when your baby is trapped inside. This is the kind of love that can raise your friend from the dead.

It’s not too far of a stretch to see the three-fold good of our Camaldolese charism in these three people: solitude, community, and the third unnamable special one, those energies that we are trying to incarnate in our lives: Mary, the symbol of the one-on-one intimacy with the Lord in solitude, in our obviously contemplative times; Martha, the symbol of community, and our availability and readiness to serve; and Lazarus, the prodigal surprise of grace, the power that flows through us and takes us where we not thought it was possible to go and saves us even from the jaws of the netherworld, something we could not and maybe would not do of our own accord.

Someone asked the great Russian novelist Dovsteosky, concerning his novel The Brothers Karamazov, which of the three brothers he was. And he answered, “All three.” So also, all three of those holy energies, all three of those goods, all these loves––Mary’s, Martha’s, Lazarus’––are inside of us. And all three too, at some point, not unlike the Trinity, are not really three. They are all aspects of one love, one call seen from different angles and manifesting itself in different aspects, just as the greatest commandment is twofold––to love God and neighbor as self. Like the line between guest and host, the line between these loves dissolves at some point, and it’s all one love.

And that brings us back to this idea of hosts and guests, and how we could be both at once. I love the fact the New Camaldoli officially began on this feast, because we monks are both guests and hosts here, too. We are guests here in the sense that this piece of land itself on the rugged Big Sur has its own ancient self-mediating beauty and its own demands, and it obeys its own rules, like the planet itself, so we are learning. We are only here for a moment. We are guests here in the sense that the Camaldolese tradition is now over a thousand years old––the Benedictine one 1500––, and will hopefully thrive here and elsewhere into the precarious future. We are only here for a moment. We are each merely guests here given that this community was here before we were––for some only one year before us and for others 59 years before we got here––and hopefully it will carry on long after we are gone. We’re just here for a moment.

If I may quote myself, five years ago when I took on the ministry of prior, in my installation homily I said: We monks make a mistake if we think that we are the center of this life, of this monastery. The altar in the middle of our rotunda always reminds me what is the center of our life or, better, who is the center of our life: God in Christ. The altar is like a well, and those who stay close to that well stay close to the center of our life, because they stay close to God in Christ. That altar is like a cauldron, that’s what the center of our life is, and so all those who stay close to that cauldron, stay close to what Saint Bonaventure calls “the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and burning love.” We’re not the center of this life; we’re circling around the center. God in Christ is the center, our practice is the center, all those things that will remain after more than one generation of us are in our graves; and whoever stays near to that center, that well, that raging fire, is at the center of our life.

And that brings us to you, our honored guests. We monk-guests now become the hosts for a short while here, in the sense that now we welcome others here, new candidates are invited into our life, oblates who want to live out our charism in their own way in the world, and of course the constant stream of guests that stay for longer or shorter periods, from tourists passing through for the “Deep Books and Holy Granola” all the way up to folks who stay here on sabbatical for months at a time, as a place of hospitality and prayer. One of the things that the Benedictine Directory for the Work of God emphasized after the 2nd Vatican Council was that the monastic liturgical assembly should never constitute a closed group; monastic liturgy must be open to everyone who wants to take part in it, learn from it and be formed by the liturgy. And so every effort, we are told, must be made to make the Opus Dei an occasion when anyone who comes may join in the prayer of the monks or nuns. This comes so naturally to a Camaldolese, so much so that some of our monks say that our third good––missionary-martyrdom––mainly takes the form of hospitality now. We guests now act as hosts: we’re here to keep the fire burning, to keep the water flowing, to keep the doors open, and to storm the heavens with our prayers, for you and with you.

So by the example and intercession of these guests and hosts, these friends of Jesus, and by our participation in this celebration where we are both hosts and guests of Jesus, let’s pray that we too may find this intimacy with the Beloved in silence and solitude; let’s pray that we be ready to carry the presence of the Lord in all of our work and service; and that we also be ready for the surprise, the wild card of grace, to be ready for the most amazing things to happen to us, in us, through us, by the energy of the Spirit of resurrection and life. Let’s pray too that this little village of New Camaldoli would always be a place of welcome for our friend Jesus who comes to us often as one unknown and unrecognizable in the stranger, in the seeker, in the marginalized, in those who mourn. May we be good and willing hosts and guests, friends of Jesus.

cyprian, 29 july 18

[i] 1 Jn 4:7-16.

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  1. One of the finest homilies I have heard, the expansion on the guest / host and Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
    I printed this out and will look to it often as something to read and especially think about. Thank you. Happy Anniversary New Camaldoli


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  2. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with you. When I ordered my tickets I thought I would have to drive all the way around and back to Cambria, so only embed for lunch. That in itself was wonderful, but it was also wonderful to be able to socialize with everyone. So great to have Brother Robert there !. Many thanks, and Happy Anniversary. I have been coming since 1963, and my in laws before that.

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