RADICAL HOSPITALITY: A Sacred Calling?
Story: from Radical Hospitality, p. 214. [paraphrased]
A young couple and their four-year-old son were in a restaurant. Their order was taken by one of those experienced waitresses who are always courteous, but are not intimidated by anyone, including parents. She turned to the child and asked what he wanted. He answered with a kind of desperate haste: “I want a hotdog.” His parents chorused sternly, “No hotdog!” The mother turned to the waitress saying, “He’ll have the vegetables and chicken, and a glass of milk.”
The waitress did not take her eyes off the small boy. “What do you want on your hotdog?” The boy responded eagerly, “mustard, and lots of relish, and may I have some milk too?”
“Coming right up,” the waitress responded, then left without a glance at the stunned parents. The boy turned to them and said with great astonishment and joy, “She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”
When people really listen to us, that’s when we know we are real.
When I think of hospitality, my visit to Transylvania some years ago with a group of Unitarian Universalists comes to mind. Like many poor, farm-based cultures, the Transylvania Unitarians consider hospitality a matter of great importance. Food was pressed upon us at each stop. We discovered later that the people of one village had pooled their scarce funds to buy a $100. pig for our dinner! That was no time to mention some of us didn’t eat meat.
Every one of us on that trip was gripped and fascinated by our encounter with an alien "other" who was yet religious kin to us. We were at home, but we were also in the wilderness. Offering shelter and food is a common definition of hospitality. Yet Radical Hospitality, as a spiritual practice, goes farther. Nurture is there, but so is deep listening and open-hearted acceptance of one another, and of the stranger in our midst. So is an openness to the possibility of transformation – a moment of unexpected intimacy – of authentic heart connection – that can alter our world forever. As St. Benedict wrote in his Rule 15 centuries ago, “Guests should be received just as we would receive Christ himself.”
Jesus, they say, told us who would inherit the kingdom of God: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was sick, and you visited me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me... I tell you in all seriousness, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:34-35, 40).
To see and honour the Holy that dwells in each of us – that is the challenge that takes hospitality beyond the “expected social graces.” A modern Benedictine tells us, “Hospitality, rather than being something you achieve, is something you enter. It is an adventure that takes you where you never dreamed of going. It is not something you do, as much as it is someone you become. You try and you fail. You try again.
You make room for one person at a time . . . and each of these choices of the heart stretches your ability to receive others. This is how we grow more hospitable – by welcoming one person when the opportunity is given to you.” (RH 38).
I’ve told you, I think, of the Christmas Eve when a Japanese Buddhist monk named Kizu needed hospitality. It was a magical experience. We could not help thinking that this stranger in the night, on this special night, was a messenger. How like a UU family to encounter the Christ Child in the form of a Buddhist monk on Christmas Eve!
Our UU theologian Forrester Church, in his book Entertaining Angels, suggests that angels, as messengers of God, almost always wear masks. "If angels are strangers," he asks, "How can we recognize them?" Often
we can't --- which is one reason why it is prudent to offer hospitality to strangers who land upon our doorstep. Strangers like the ragged poor folk in the fairy tales who appear from the forest asking for bread or shelter, and have the power to grant wishes. Strangers like Jesus of Nazareth, who shared meals with outcasts: beggars and tax collectors and prostitutes. Even our best beloved in some sense always remain strangers, for they can be windows to the holy mystery within us all. It is important not to forget that.
Hospitality to the Stranger is an ancient religious commandment. There is even a Hebrew proverb: "Hospitality to strangers is greater than reverence for the name of God." The Greek culture considered it a high virtue. Almost all ancient and non-industrial cultures have revered hospitality. Much as we might wish it otherwise, however, we live in a world full of conflicts between ethnic groups. Xenophobia often seems to be the human condition. Xenophobia – the fear of strangers or foreigners. Yet I was intrigued to find out that in ancient Greek xenos means both host and guest! For that matter, so does hospes, the Latin root of hospitality. The host is the one who is at home, who has the power to provide nourishment and shelter. The wayfarer or guest often comes feeling tentative and insecure, perhaps frightened or in need. When we reach out to the stranger, we step out of our own safe "at home" space, in order that the other may feel more at home. We have to go just a few steps into the wilderness in order to meet the other.
My favorite medieval mystic tells us:
"Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think ... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.
If you don't break your ropes while you are alive,
Do you think ghosts will do it after? (Meister Eckhart- source??)
Yet it does take courage. We are dealing with the unknown. We are stepping outside of our own at-homeness. It just isn't all that easy! Robert Frost wrote a poem called "The lockless door." It catches the anxiety we can feel sometimes about a knock at the door, about welcoming an unknown guest [here or leave in "Juxtaposition" section?]
It can be a scary, mysterious business, either way. Welcoming the Stranger, or being one. As UUs who affirm the priesthood of all believers, however, we all share to some degree in the challenge of being the stranger as well as the host. We feel at home, we affirm the abundance of life, and yet we are still on some level strangers within our own cultures. I like how one of my colleagues describes our tradition as a fluid, flexible religion: "We are rooted, sheltered . . . fed, loved and yet we know the aching anxiety and restlessness of the open road. We are a people with a home; we are a people of the way. . . . Being host and guest, family and stranger are the two masks of our religious challenge." (Tom Owen-Towle, sermon....)
At the very core of what our community means must be the inclusion of the others, those who are different. Because in our heart of hearts, we know that if any are excluded, than we could be. We know that within each of us the stranger lurks -- the one who doesn't quite fit in. There is a Celtic proverb: "The one who bids me eat wishes me to live." We each need to know that there are those who wish us to live. That even knowing the stranger within us, there are those who wish us to live. We receive that message as well when someone listens to us deeply, with acceptance and respect. That too is a part of hospitality. “There is nothing more human than our desire to be heard. It is our cry for permission to live” says a writer on the Benedictine practice of Radical Hospitality (Homan & Pratt, Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s way of love, p.216). Or a sign that another thinks we are “real!”
There is no greater challenge to the liberal religious community today than to witness against exclusion. We must take a stand against the suicidal xenophobia of our times which might well lead to some form of
global desolation. We need to insist that the outsider we fear is not the enemy, but "only the stranger." (McFague). The stranger who most probably bears gifts, and possibly even transformation. We need to insist upon hospitality on a cosmic scale, to be at home in the world and to nurture all creation.
And we need to live our commitment in everyday moments. We need to welcome the stranger who comes to the door of this community, recognizing in him or her our own human condition. We need to be mindful that the most ordinary encounters with strangers, and with our companions here in this place, may change our lives. Or perhaps not. But we never know for sure, do we? When messengers of the Holy are disguised as strangers, it is only prudent to offer everyone hospitality!
Or perhaps it is more prudent to duck out the window, without waiting to see what knocks, as Frost's poem suggests. What do you think? Is prudence what we are most about here, anyway? The vision we share together chooses hope over fear. How much ducking out the window can we square with that?
So let’s hold on to our courage -- and each other -- and say, "come in." And if this time, we break and run for the window before the door opens? Well, there will always be another knock. There will always be