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Formations #5: The Giving and Receiving of Hospitality

(This is a part of a blog series for my Formation of Christian Traditions class)

Take a moment and think: what does hospitality mean to you? What do you picture when you think of this word? I think of visiting my grandmother in central Illinois. She would always make my favorite food and sit in the living room with me and tell stories. We’d play card games with my grandfather, and I always felt warm, safe, and surrounded by love.

You might be familiar with the verse “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” in Matthew 25:35. Jesus says this to his disciples when describing the way in which he wanted them to live within their community: be welcoming to all people, whether sick, naked, hungry, or imprisoned (the verse goes on to address each of these). But after quoting this verse, I think people often stop and don’t think about the deeper meanings of hospitality.

Hospitality is one of the principal values of the New Monastic movement, which we will discuss later. It is a practice of making space, of setting aside time and place to be with each other. This ideal has old roots, as many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers practiced radical hospitality for each other and for strangers. There are many quotations in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that lift up the practices of early Christian ascetics, such as the following story:

“Once two  brothers came to  a certain old man. It  was  his custom not  to eat every day but when he saw them he received them joyfully and said, “A fast has its own reward, but he who eats for the sake of love fulfills two commandments: he leaves his own will and he refreshes his brothers.”

In this story, the older ascetic had a practice of fasting and refraining from eating regularly, and so when he entertained guests, you’d think he would be frustrated or disappointed because they interrupted his spiritual practice. But, in fact, we find quite the opposite! In presumably eating with the two brothers, the old man was subverting his own will and also practicing hospitality for the people who needed refreshment. Even though his spiritual practice was one of refraining from eating, practiced for the improvement of his soul, offering hospitality to others helped remind him not to become too self-righteous, but to allow his own will to be stretched by offering food to his fellows.

loaves-and-fishes-image laura james.jpg
Laura James

Coming from the opposite direction, Abba James said, “It is better to receive hospitality than to offer it.” When I talk about hospitality with peers and with other progressive Christian folks it is usually in the context of me wanting to provide good hospitality, on my own terms and in my own home. Whether I put mints on your pillow as a mark of hospitality is not your problem, it’s my choice.

On the flip side, receiving hospitality as a practice is really hard for me. It must come down to the lack of control. To think about how you react to hospitality provided for you, think of how you act when you get sick. Picture this: you’re in your Snuggie on a couch littered with tissues, you’ve binge watched all of The Great British Baking Show (or Gotham or House of Cards or whatever your poison is…) and you need something. Do you just do it yourself? Or do you ask someone to help you?

Hospitality is one way to show the wideness of God’s love to people, even–and especially–to people who are different from us, maybe to folks who live in poverty or experience homelessness. God’s beautiful creation is gifted with flourishing diversity, and we should treat it as such. Diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, political stance, economic status, educational level, is a blessing because it shows us truly how hospitable God is towards all the Earth–giving us multiple ways to learn about and access God’s presence. The brothers at Taize practice an aspect of hospitality called “solidarity,” which understands “making space” in the context of making space for people to experience God’s love through the care and concern of another person. Brothers travel all over the world to the places where the light of Love needs to be shined, living alongside the poor in the slums of Bangladesh, refugees in Iraq, the indigenous communities in South America, and the marginalized in Haiti. Brother Roger of Taize wrote,

“Simplifying our life enables us to share with the least fortunate, in order to alleviate suffering where there is disease, poverty, famine…Our brothers in Taize, as well as those living on other continents among the very poor, are keenly aware that we are called to a simple life. We have discovered that it does not keep us from offering hospitality day after day.”

This practice of solidarity with the poor is what the New Monasticism movement refers to in their practice of “relocating to the abandoned places of empire.” The places where Empire (with a capital E because it’s important to know about and powerful) has exploited people and widened the gap between the rich and poor and forgotten people because they are not part of the privileged class (in Western United States this is usually white, educated, wealthy). Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way community live in the inner city of Philadelphia, PA and routinely witness violence, addictions of various kinds, and the systemic injustice that comes from unequal distribution of resources in our society. Similar to the brothers of Taize and the Simple Way community, the ancient ascetics lived spare, humble lives and did not keep extravagant amounts of food around. However, they still chose to share whatever they had with the needy in their community.

radical hospitality jesus in food line.jpeg
Fritz Eichenberg

For this next week, think about hospitality, both given and received. If you feel the need to provide hospitality to others, invite some friends (or strangers!) over for a game night or for dinner. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a resource shelter that serves people experiencing homelessness. If you want to practice receiving hospitality, try going to an event on your campus hosted by a group you are unfamiliar with and meet some new people. When someone asks you how your day is going, instead of saying, “good!” or “fine!” tell the truth (how often do we do that?) and let the person care for you if that care is extended. When you walk by someone on the street, meet their eyes and greet them, keeping in mind that they, just like you, are a child of God! You’ll be surprised by how many relationships and stories you can gain while doing something as simple as saying, “Good morning.”* Go forth to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned and all will be blessed.

*Of course, try these practices only as you feel comfortable and safe doing so.

Reflective questions to consider while trying your new practice:

  1. What about this practice feels good to me? What does not feel good? What assumptions and motivations are behind both of those feelings?
  2. Do I feel closer or farther from God when doing these practices?
  3. How can I enact hospitality in all areas of my life? How can I practice receiving hospitality?

Peace be with you!