Friday, May 7, 2010
A lesson in hospitality
I have been reading and hearing about hospitality quite often these days. It's always been a favorite subject of mine. Descending from very hospitable ancestors has encouraged me to develop this skill in myself, and it's a passion of mine to make sure others feel welcomed by me.
I wish I could remember where I recently read of the book Radical Hospitality - it's now on my shortlist of must-reads. The book is based on St. Benedict's rule which says "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ." In a nutshell, it turns out there is hospitality, and then there is Christian hospitality! In other words, there is the kind that just makes us feel good about ourselves and raises us in the esteem of people - sort of a mutual ego-stroking, if you will. It's the kind that makes us want to show off our pretty things and wow our guests with the state of our homes. It is the same kind that causes us to hide out when things aren't perfect, to avoid being seen in our less-than-ideal reality.
In this beautiful blog post Elizabeth Foss points out that this is not really even hospitality, but mere entertaining, without any spiritual basis. Entertaining can be done out of love, of course, but pride can have a sneaky way of taking over.
The other, not-so-glamorous kind of hospitality is one that requires us to really "die to self". This type puts the needs of others prior to our feelings. It is focused on the "other" rather than on the "I". If someone is lonely, you ask them in, even if your home doesn't meet your "company standards". You listen and ask questions when a friend calls, before launching into your own list of woes. Perhaps you mail cards to those who are struggling or celebrating, or you double your dinner recipe to bring a meal to someone in need.. More than good manners, it is a concern for the well-being of others and a desire to reach out to them on a spiritual level as well as materially. It is especially perfected in family life, where balancing the needs of others is a continuous challenge. True hospitality asks "What can I do for you?" instead of "What can you do for me?" It's really simple, but so difficult sometimes.
I once had a great opportunity to see what this distinction looked like in my life. A group of friends was invited over for a children's party. As others have done before me, I stayed up all night (after the kids were asleep) making the house and the food and everything else look "perfect". The day of the party I was exhausted and still not ready. A friend with a large young family made a huge effort to attend, driving quite a distance and arriving earlier than I expected. Unfortunately, upon opening the door, my first words were of surprise (maybe even consternation) and not of welcome. For all the preparation, in the moment that counted as actual hospitality, I came up less-than-gracious. Surely, had Christ Himself been standing there, I would have acted differently?
This incident troubled me for a long time as I realized that I have a lot of work to do in cultivating the true spirit of hospitality. While I still don't like the idea of flinging the doors open and inviting everyone in when clutter is piled high and the bathroom is scummy, I realize I could be more relaxed and open my home more willingly, without exhausting myself to make everything appear perfect. Even better, I could foster a spirit of hospitality by cultivating better housekeeping habits - making my surroundings more welcoming to my family as well as to those outside. Post-kids, I sure don't have it all together enough to practice the "pseudo hospitality" I used to prize. But genuine welcome can flow from a spiritual place in the midst of daily life, whatever that looks like for each of us. Opening our hearts and homes to assimilate others into life as we know it is more practical and more loving, anyway.
It's not wrong to put forth our best for our guests. The challenge comes when perfectionism derails us from the mission of showing love. It's a simple matter of people being more important than things. Sometimes the Lord sends us situations to help us stretch outside of our comfort zones, to grow in charity and detachment. It's as if He Himself were asking for our hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 says: And hospitality do not forget; for by this some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels.