Any of y’all speak Latin? You may know the word hospes, whose meaning has shifted over the years. Fundamentally, it means “foreigner or stranger,” though it has attached to it a sense of care and welcome, and refers to either the host or the guest, depending on its use. You’ll see it in words like hospital or hospice where strangers care for strangers, or you’ll see it in hostel or hotel where strangers welcome strangers. I see it, of course, in hospitality. Hospitality, which refers to the dynamic relationship between a host and his guest in which the host attends to the guest’s comfort with goodwill and generosity, has me really turning my gears lately.
Diving right in, I’d like to posit that hospitality is more than that which passes between host and guest and back again, and certainly has more to it than simply care and goodwill. I’ve been pondering lately the applications of hospitality in other aspects of my life, past the cut-and-paste application of copy-and-paste guests, and believe with conviction that it is not a passive reference to a relationship or a preparatory act, but rather an active state of living that demands elevated communication, an increase in awareness and understanding of others, and an abandonment to suffering and diminution of self. (Yes I did write that myself. I put the lit in “hospitality.”) If hospitality is an active state of living, it isn’t just enough to keep a clean guest room. It demands more of you and it demands all of you. It’s no longer solely about pretty bed linens and hygge. It’s not about the host, it’s about the guest. It’s about more than anti-hedonism.
In a lovely compendium written by Anna Keating and Melissa Musick, an essay on making a home details that hospitality is “established in the Old Testament as a sacred duty.” In fact, Deuteronomy 10 spells out clearly that you must “defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and love the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” How many of us pick out the part about food and check hospitality off of the to-do list? These are calls to action, and the world’s understanding of hospitality is passive, small, and self-placating. It’s not wrong to invite a friend to dinner or a family member to sleep in the guest room for holidays. But if this is where your hospitality stops…better try again. This ancient sacred duty has been reinforced in the New Testament as we follow Jesus and his apostles from town to town. Jesus was, first of all, laid in a manger as a newborn, because no one was willing to love those foreigners. And from the beginning of His public ministry, He never had a place to call home. He dined with and lived with just about anyone, and often gave them no advance warning other than “I’ll be there at dinner, also I’m the Messiah.” And you think you’ve got it tough!
Hospitality is both a call to action and the answer to that call. One of my favorite things to remind people is that the Lord did not say “blessed are the peaceful,” but rather blessed are the peace-makers. Hospitality demands that we champion the causes of and advocate for the protection of the marginalized. We are asked to start paying attention, to actively listening to understand, to communicate needs. We are asked to find the ones who need and answer that need however we are able.
I don’t want to make it sound like I suggest that you all go into politics or social justice, though some of you should or will. But we must be vigilant with making a home outside of ourselves and our spaces. This is not to say we need to be scrupulous and austere in our own lifestyle; this means that we need to be generous, self-sacrificial, and loving. Nor is this to say that the smallest gestures are not big enough – because remember that the woman who gave one coin still gave all that she had.
Tangible hospitality on one hand looks like reduced consumerism, volunteering time or skills to protecting the unborn or eliminating bullying, donating money to natural disaster victims, and the list doesn’t end. Large-scale tangible hospitality asks us to make sacrifices, be generous, and actively pursue solutions. It drives me nuts when people stop wearing shoes, go vegan to stop hurting the feelings of cows, and take saving trees to Moana-proportions. But I will say that we had better make some changes if we hope to change the way this world operates, and some of these changes will only be made by large, persistent numbers.
And on the other hand? Small-scale tangible hospitality looks like inviting someone new into your book clubs, planting a bee garden, donating food to a soup kitchen, praying for the refugees, being kind to people that you don’t want to be kind to, and being vocal against hate speech. This list doesn’t end either. I find, too, that small-scale hospitality can be even more difficult for us than the large-scale options. It forces you to shed your natural desire for comfort and make an intimate connection with someone, and to make small day-to-day choices consistently to make peace, to make a home.
And speaking of intimacy, if the good Lord knocks on your door, is your soul hospitable enough for Him? – And isn’t that what Lent is about anyway? In the same way we purge and clean our homes to prepare for guests, we must also clean ourselves by getting rid of the clutter and mess in our spiritual lives. Perhaps you practice hospitality, but are you yourself a hospitable home for guests? This is where we bring in abandonment to suffering and diminution of self – less of you in the guest room and more of the Guest. We are too many of Martha and not enough of Mary. Can we truly be hospitable, either in our hearts or in and outside our homes, without neglecting ourselves for the good of others?
A note, then, on neglecting ourselves. The more I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure that personal sacrifices designed to cause myself hardship would work in my spiritual life. If giving up social media works for you, carry on. But I find it harder to sacrifice when sacrifice demands humility rather than abstinence. I can abstain from meat and Twitter no problem. It makes me uncomfortable, but I get over it. But the humiliation of lowering myself to the level of servitude for the benefit of someone else is something that is not appealing to me on a base human level. But that’s the supernaturality of Lent and of spiritual practices as a whole: we ignore natural instincts, which were curated from those actions of our original parents, and we return to the uphill climb to Heaven. To that end, we cannot afford to be satisfied with what we have created for ourselves here. It’s okay to be happy on earth, but we must not allow ourselves to drowsily become satisfied.
A reminder, in case it didn’t dazzle you before – hospitality is not a passive reference to a relationship or a preparatory act, but rather an active state of living that demands elevated communication, an increase in awareness and understanding of others, and an abandonment to suffering and diminution of self.
In that compendium I mentioned earlier, Dorothy Day’s 1945 essay “Room for Christ” was noted, and the authors say “Day reminds us that the tired and the weary, those in need, are still among us, and that everyone one of them bears the image and likeness of God.” To welcome a stranger, she says, is to welcome Christ.
If you could spend this Lent, the short few days before it ends, making one small hospitable act a day, what would it be?
Better question – what difference would it make?