The ritual of washing hands or the Benedictine sink

The ritual of washing hands or the Benedictine sink

The pandemic and its consequences have brought to the fore a very daily act: hand washing. From Pilate to the priest ascending the altar, to Benedictine hospitality, this little ritual carries big meanings.

In common parlance, the expression “to wash your hands of it”, in relation to a question or a problem, is negative. It refers to Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea who, at the moment of delivering Jesus to the Jewish authorities, “seeing that his efforts were of no use, except to increase the tumult, took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. , saying: “I am innocent of the blood of this man: that concerns you!” (Matthew 27.24). Unfortunately, his lack of responsibility increases the fault he commits.

However, handwashing does have a purifying meaning that Pilate understood. A few months of the pandemic have reminded us of this… but the liturgy shows us this at each Eucharist since the priest, before going up to the altar to offer the sacrifice of Christ, purifies his hands by saying: “wash me of my faults Lord, and cleanse me from my sin. A way, not of shying away from the human reality of one’s sin, but of recognizing it, inspired by Psalm 25, already used in the Jewish liturgy. It is conscious of his unworthiness that the celebrant lends his hands to the gift of the Saviour, which are the Body and the Blood.

All guests who arrive will be received like Christ, for he himself will say one day: I asked for hospitality and you received me. (§233)

Washing hands is also, even if it is less known, the sign of Benedictine hospitality. We know how much Saint Benedict, in his Rule, who founded Western monasticism in the 6th century, insisted on welcoming all those, many, who came to the monastery: “All the guests who arrive will be received like Christ, for he himself will say one day: I have asked for hospitality and you received me (cf. Mt 25,35). All will be shown the honor due to them. (§233).

A symbolic washing

To make this welcoming of the other – which allows us to better open up to the Other – concrete, the father of the monks gives throughout chapter 53 of the Rule, instructions to best receive guests. For 1,400 years, the cultural context having changed, some seem curious: “In the way of greeting, we will show all the guests a deep humility: in front of those who will arrive or leave, we will bow our heads, or we will bow down, the body on the ground, adoring in them the very Christ whom we receive. (§235).

solesmes-washing hands
Dom Dupont, at Solesmes, at lavatorium.

Arnaud Finistre

In the absence of such prostrations, at Solesmes and in many Benedictine abbeys, the tradition of bathroom sink : “The abbot will pour water on the hands of the hosts” (§238). A simpler act than the washing of the feet also proposed by Saint Benedict, by the whole community! Before the first meal that the guest spends in the monastery, he is thus welcomed symbolically, but really, by the father abbot, an opportunity to exchange a few words and to introduce himself. The cloister of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes even has a lavatoriuma place, very simple, planned for this moment.

This hand washing remains symbolic: the monks must above all invite those who come to them to pray. By welcoming others as Christ, they enable them to know God, to whom they have consecrated themselves, and who is the Wholly Other. By paying particular attention to the most fragile, in whom Jesus is eminently present: “Guests thus welcomed will be led to prayer. […] Particular solicitude and care will be shown in welcoming the poor and pilgrims, because it is above all in their persons that we receive Christ” (§236 and §239).

Bec Hellouin monks

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