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April 19, 2010

emmausThe abundance of God’s provisions ― manna in the desert, loaves and fishes for the multitudes points not only to God’s hospitality across time, but also to the abundance of Life itself, which becomes reality after Easter.

     ~ Elizabeth Newman

A recent but posthumous book by Henri Nouwen, Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, opens with a reflection on Nouwen’s arrival at L’Arche Daybreak in 1986.  Unnervingly, Nouwen was confronted daily by one of the members in the group home, who always asked the same two questions of people: “So, where’s your home?” and “Are you home tonight?”  In her Introduction, Sue Mosteller writes that with his frenetic schedule Nouwen “very often had to falteringly explain to John that he would again be absent from the table that evening.”  Mosteller suggests that Nouwen, who came to Daybreak in search of a home, needed John’s constant reminders that he was on a journey home.  Nouwen had written earlier in his career that hospitality is “the creation of a space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” (Monastic Studies 10, 1974).  One is left with an impression of unrealized longings.

     The stranger belongs in the story.  Contrary to the modern notion of hospitality, which is thought of as entertaining friends and hosting parties, the Greek concept of hospitality meant offering all you had to feed and house a complete stranger.  It was wrong to send any stranger away.  The Greek xenos, referring to a stranger who receives welcome or who welcomes the other, stands behind the dual notion of hospes, meaning both “guest” and “host” in the Latin, from which we get our word hospitality.  Hospitality therefore implies mutuality and is characterized by sincere graciousness between strangers.  (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, p. 515)  Augustine apparently understood this when he wrote:

You take in some stranger, whose companion in the way you yourself also are, for we are all strangers.  This person is a Christian who, even in his own house and in his country, acknowledges himself to be stranger.

In “Accepting Our Lives as Gift,” Elizabeth Newman suggests that Jews and Christians are “homeless” or “displaced” (strangers) in this sense: “They are called to turn from identifying themselves primarily by their nation or their family or their position in society in order to draw their identity from God . . . who acts in and with a people, for the sake of the world.”

     As “guests” and “hosts” in the world, it is possible to view hospitality within the larger context of the gift of relationship with God.  As Newman also notes, the “home” from which we offer hospitality is God’s household.  Joseph B. Soloveitchik discerns a connection between hospitality and the growth of mutuality and friendship between Abraham and God in Abraham’s Journey.  In the beginning, God commands Abraham. But later he enters into a more mutual relationship with him, reveals himself increasingly to Abraham, and is present to comfort him when he is in pain.  Abraham welcomes and is welcomed. God-Host is the sometimes guest of Abraham.  Soloveitchik asserts that the gift of hospitality received requires that the hospitality given be more than mere charity:

. . . charity reflects sympathy, not equality.  Giving a handout to someone at the door does nothing to erase the social gap between the giver and the one to whom the handout is given; inviting that person in for a meal does. . . .  Hospitality requires patience and perseverance.  Acts of charity take a few seconds. Once they have donated, people with wealth can return to their own cares.  Hospitality, on the other hand, means, caring for another person for an extended period . . .

     We have to go beyond.  That seems to be the message.  To the list of dispositions for hospitality offered by The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (p. 516) a willingness to listen to the needs of the world, to acknowledge a preference for the poor and the stranger, and to maintain an openness that is conditioned by attentiveness, humility, kindness, readiness to meet and to be with the other we might add “a hospitality of thinking,” a graciousness and spaciousness of thought that is open to the other as guest and host, that transcends rationalism and trusts that God’s household “rests on the assumption of superabundance, one in which there is not need to hoard and save.” (E. Newman).

     Hospitality in thinking is a spiritual disposition closely allied with contemplation.  It is, if you will, meditative thinking or reflection.  And it may be what Jesus was speaking about when he tells Martha that Mary has chosen “the better part.”  Martha, we know, has been beside herself preparing to be the good host, and she appeals to the Lord to get Mary to help out.  Yet, in his response, Jesus affirms Mary: she is doing something commendable, even pleasing to him.  What could that possibly be?

     Is Mary in her own way preparing to receive the Guest?  Has she recognized that in some way she herself is the guest, and that he who is coming is also the host whose hospitality she should be prepared to receive?  Contemplation has awakened her to the abundance of God’s graciousness in her life, to the gifts she has constantly received from the hospitality of God’s household.  Sensing mysteriously the presence of the Provider in the expected guest, she sits in anticipation and enhanced receptivity.  In paradoxical fashion, this contemplative stance fosters receptivity and hospitality on her part: she becomes the better prepared to receive the guest in her home both as host and guest.

     “One who opens her home to the Other receives her inwardness in a new way.”  These words of Kees Waiijman (Spirituality) are about hospitality.  Specifically, they relate to Emmanuel Levinas’s understanding of recollection as an act of hospitality.  Recollection in a home that is open that is, hospitality ― is the condition for the “relation with infinity.” Only now, Levinas intimates, does the home really open itself up.  (Totality and Infinity)  In recollection (contemplation) one receives one’s inwardness in a new way (as a guest); in establishing the relation with infinity, one becomes also a host of sorts.  The two together are “the better part” of contemplation affirmed by Jesus.

     Hospitality is the recognition that we belong together, that our destinies are linked, and that in receiving and caring for one another we “come home” to the spiritual union we always and already long for.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.