A great deal has been said in recent years about hospitality. Among Christians the number of books on the subject, from hospitality as spiritual practice inspired by Le Arch, Catholic Worker, and others; to how to make your congregation a “hospitable community” to seekers and visitors of all sorts.
Perhaps we should not be surprised. We live after all in a world that would make anyone long for a bit of the simplest hospitality. Despite calling me a “guest,” more and more stores now dig through the contents of my cart carefully checking it against my receipt. Whole neighborhoods hide behind locked gates and pass codes. Schools are patrolled by armed guards. Hospitals require ID and visitor badges to so much as pass the information desk. Stores, parks, and public spaces are littered with “no loitering” signs, and police to chase you off if you look to be prone to spending much time there. And even the “service industry” has ceased to see me as an individual to be served; to even them I have become an account number to be exploited for maximum profit.
It is tiring. Just once we would like to be greeted with genuine joy, to be treated as one deserving respect, to be treated as a child of God. But it takes more than name tags (though they help) and greeters to practice hospitality. It takes room. It requires us to make our hearts, and our expectations expansive enough for the unexpected other.
It requires that we set aside our own expectations and comfort, and instead seek, even for a time, the comfort of the other. To do so is no easy feat. Sarah and Abraham surely did not know what would become of their expense of precious food and drink to dusty strangers. Their guests might have been merely penniless travelers who would take what was offered and move on. They might even be scouts for a band of thieves looking for an easy target. But Sarah made bread anyway, and Abraham slaughtered one of their meat animals, and space was made among their tents out of the hot sun.
Out of that space came unexpected joy and blessing, so unexpected that my sister Sarah laughed. Our own hospitality, if it is to be authentic, must be open to such surprise.
I have experienced communities of great hospitality, and communities too afraid of surprise to admit room for the other to be different than themselves. I am sure you have as well; and I am sure we both agree where we have been more comfortable. It is far easier to recognize hospitality when it is given, far easier to practice false hospitality if we lack awareness of our own selves and expectations.
Do we make an offer, joyfully and willingly, and then create space for an honest and non-coerced response? If we never find ourselves containing disbelieving laughter at the blessing which has occurred in our midst, the answer is sadly, no.
But St. Benedict knew the urgency of offering that true hospitality, for in such encounters we may meet God’s own Self beside the dusty road. In such encounters Christ enters our midst. In such encounters God’s promises are spoken, new life begins, resurrection happens.
The Rule, written by Benedict, practiced hospitality by making room. Guests were to be received at any hour, in fact a brother or sister was to always be ready to welcome a guest into the community. And the rules of that community were to be bent or broken for the comfort of their guest. The monk or nun who met and welcomed the other could break bread with them even if it was not meal time, was excused from their regular work or worship to offer the traveler the rest, comfort, or companionship they needed. Benedict insisted that his communities make room for the other, for the one who was different from them. In doing so, he taught, they welcomed Christ into their midst.
Our own discussions of hospitality are often tied to increasing our membership, to bringing guests into the fold and making them just like us. But the heart of hospitality demands no such outcome, in fact it is anathema to it. For hospitality must be freely offered, an open heart and place where the other may meet their needs, and then move on. If its goal is to entice the other to stay the space closes, and an opportunity is lost. This is what we must struggle with as we seek to make our congregations into places of hospitality.
Further suggested reading: Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love