A Welcome Beyond Words: Learning to Work Intentionally for Others Through Silence

by Harper Cartwright (C’24)

Headshot of Harper Cartwright

Harper Cartwright (C’24) in front of a fence adorned with love locks at the Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre, Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Harper Cartwright (C’24).

Jet lag hit me in full force the second we arrived at the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) headquarters at Bonnevaux in Marçay, France. I slept through evening prayer and morning prayer the next day, so I first met the residents of the abbey over breakfast—in complete silence. As I grumbled about in my journal entry from that day, “My first introduction to the community was, of course, silent breakfast, where I could not introduce myself or explain my presence to those gathered. My anxiety was through the roof.” As people wandered into the space, however, this meal turned into one of the most touching and memorable moments of the trip. 

When students walk through the door of the John Main Center here on the Hilltop, I greet them with words of welcome, questions about their day, and introductions. In silence, how can you welcome someone without words? The people at Bonnevaux managed this beautifully. Smiles and nods served as a greeting. I was waved over to the bread box and the tea kettle, and I watched and followed along as someone grabbed a mug, showing me how to proceed. They led by example, and I followed, grateful. No one questioned who I was, or why I was there, or even seemed surprised, as I had feared. They made room for me at the table and gave me space to eat as though it were the most normal thing in the world. Thanks to them, I sat, ate my bread, drank my tea, and settled into the silence, completely at ease. 

Retreatants enjoying a meal in silence.

Retreatants enjoying a meal in silence. Photo courtesy of Harper Cartwright (C’24).

As leaders at the John Main Center (JMC), we strive to be the tenzo, the porter or host who prepares the space and caters to the needs of all who enter. Tenzo is a role in Buddhist monasteries that involves cooking for other monks, but also emphasizes helping other monks along their journeys–working intentionally for others. In the Jesuit value of “people for others,” when we host, we are dedicating ourselves to facilitating the practice of all who join us. Our role is simply to give ourselves to those who enter. 

It is familiar and straightforward to welcome a guest verbally. What if I had to welcome them to the JMC in silence? What other ways could I perform the role of host that might go beyond words? For me, it’s things such as projecting a sense of calm for my guests even when I may be stressed or creating flyers to welcome more meditators to the center. It’s remembering what my regulars tell me about their lives. It’s building up my knowledge and practice so that I can share what I learn with others. It’s hosting an LGBTQ+ meditation every semester. It’s a wave across campus to someone who attended a session once. Welcoming others to the JMC goes far beyond and exists on many more levels than simply my constant refrain of “Welcome to the 9 pm session!” Though this is fundamental to our work as student hosts, it took the absence of language that morning at Bonnevaux for me to truly appreciate it. 

It was these little things, gestures that went beyond a simple welcome that made me feel at home at the John Main Center three years ago. My goal ever since has been to reflect that back again and make a space for others that is as beautiful and inviting as it has been for me.

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

—St. Teresa of Ávila

Harper Cartwright (C’24), is the Christian Contemplative Fellow at the John Main Center at Georgetown University for the 2023-2024 year. The fellowship is made possible by a grant from Trust for the Meditation Process.