Authentic hospitality is one of the greatest human experiences. There is the literal hospitality of receiving and hosting a guest with a sense of delight and dignity and belonging. More importantly, there is the day-to-day openness to the experience of receiving and being received, the surprising delight that can arise in encounters that cause us to feel more authentically human and more authentically Christian. You just never know when a small foretaste of the heavenly wedding feast might unexpectedly manifest itself! But we easily miss the moment if we are not abiding in love and truth.
I’m currently in the midst of a 3-month sabbatical, and gratefully receiving the hospitality of Benedictine monks. The importance of hospitality is actually written into the Rule of Saint Benedict, that brief but adaptable treasure trove of wisdom that still inspires people of all faiths even 1,500 years after he wrote it. Benedict instructs his monks, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Some of my happiest memories of childhood are moments of hospitality. I was recently asked to reflect on experiences of wholeness in my story – when I most deeply felt a sense of delight, belonging, and justice. It was a challenging exercise at first! My story includes much deprivation and going it alone. But with prayer for illumination, my memories turned to my grandparents’ home, their joy and excitement at seeing me every time I arrived, the warm embrace, the twinkle in their eyes, the offering of food or drink or toys they knew that I enjoyed, the total sense of belonging and safety. Or I thought of Christmas gatherings with extended family – the laughter, the acceptance of everyone present, and the material and emotional abundance, the ache for the moment to last forever.
During my college seminary years, I met a few friends from the South, and came to appreciate their constant readiness to show hospitality to guests. It felt dignified and important to me, and became something I’ve valued over the years. Whether my years in communal living or my years in a rectory, I’ve relished the opportunities to show hospitality to guests. Planned gatherings are fun enough, but the best moments have been the unexpected parties. I’ve learned to ensure that I have a few things on hand to be up for the occasion. As I sometimes quip, I like my living space to be ready to go “From Zero to Party in 10 Minutes.” People have appreciated the gesture more than once.
Truthfully, though, I am still very much learning the height and breadth and depth of human hospitality. There are various versions of it, not all of them equally great. There have been times where my hospitality was more about projecting an image or feeling the pressure to perform, rather than simply “being with” the guests. There have been times where it was more about subtly grasping at my own unmet needs than about serving those I was hosting. And there is my frequent tendency to get disengaged, to check out of the present moment or withdraw emotionally into my own space of isolation – and then my connection with others is diminished or lost.
Speaking more universally, when it comes to hospitality of the heart, being open and receptive to unexpected “Jesus moments” with others, I cannot truthfully say that my heart is always ready. It’s one thing to think ahead and have a few items stocked up in the pantry. It is so much more challenging to abide in love and live wholeheartedly in the present moment.
Jesus was a human being who knew how to experience hospitality – how to receive it and how to give it. There is a great vulnerability in authentic hospitality, a tender willingness to enter into intimacy. We cannot give well if we have not learned how to receive. We don’t often ponder this point, but Jesus was quite willing to receive hospitality –from the very beginning.
God though he was, Jesus began his human existence in humility and obscurity, depending vulnerably on the tender care of his mother and foster father, taking in the delight and awe showed by so many guests at his birth: the shepherds, the magi, and the angels. He spent thirty of his thirty-three years learning how to receive. Even in his public ministry, he still allowed himself to be vulnerable and receive. I think of the woman with the alabaster jar in Luke 7 – weeping, kissing his feet, and anointing him with costly perfume. Jesus does not squirm or resist, as many of us probably would. I think of Jesus’ apparently frequent visits to Bethany, cultivating a deep friendship with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha – including a willing reception of their hospitality. He even goes there during Holy Week, shortly after his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Even on Holy Thursday, as he enters his “Hour” of suffering, Jesus reaches out to Peter, James, and John – asking them whether they would be with him in his sorrow. And of course, there is his belonging to and receiving from his heavenly Father, as Jesus regularly withdraws – not in isolation or disengagement – but into vulnerable and intimate relationship.
Drawing from that sense of joy and belonging and abundance, Jesus showed hospitality so beautifully. One of the strongest “accusations” against him was that he welcomed sinners and dined with them! Jesus attuned to people’s hearts, noticing the desire and the movement of the Holy Spirit there (or the hardness of heart and resistance!). When there was movement, he stopped and lingered and invited them into relationship. They felt seen by him. They felt understood by him. They felt welcomed and delighted in by him. They were loved as they were, and they also realized that he was committed to their well-being and wasn’t going to fudge or fake things in the relationship. I think here of the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, Matthew, and Peter (at so many moments!).
I have always cherished hospitality, and intuitively understood how central it is in the human experience. I have not always appreciated the invitation to vulnerability that is there, the call to give others access to my well-guarded heart, the call to be present and engaged, to be open to unexpected surprises, to notice what God is doing in the hearts of others, to appreciate their uniqueness and to accompany them step by step in becoming who they are (versus who I want them to be!). To the extent that I abide and stay open to hospitality, I truly get to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” – even now amidst this sojourn through a valley of tears. Such moments never last, but they are truly good – a promise and foretaste of the Day in which the joyful feasting we experience together will never end, but only become ever more delightful and more real.
This post was originally published on Abiding in Truth and Love and is reprinted here with permission.