Creating a Spirit of Hospitality

In the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, paragraph eight names three challenges inherent in the life of mercy. “We strive to witness to mercy when we reverence the dignity of each person, create a spirit of hospitality and pursue integrity of word and deed in our lives.” While the entire paragraph invites reflection, the second phrase has often captured my attention – “create a spirit of hospitality”. The word “create”, with its meaning of bringing something forth out of nothing, suggests that hospitality requires that we conjure up a warm and welcoming spirit even, and perhaps especially, where none naturally exists.

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Creating a Spirit of Hospitality

In the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, paragraph eight names three challenges inherent in the life of mercy. “We strive to witness to mercy when we reverence the dignity of each person, create a spirit of hospitality and pursue integrity of word and deed in our lives.” While the entire paragraph invites reflection, the second phrase has often captured my attention – “create a spirit of hospitality”. The word “create”, with its meaning of bringing something forth out of nothing, suggests that hospitality requires that we conjure up a warm and welcoming spirit even, and perhaps especially, where none naturally exists.

Catherine McAuley had just such a “creative” approach to hospitality. Her first sense of the ministry to which she felt called was a ministry of hospitality. She told William Callaghan that, given the opportunity, she would buy a small house and take in women who had nowhere else to go. She had, throughout her young life, been consistently dependent on the hospitality of others and now she looked to return that goodness. When the resources became available to her, she created a place where women and children were welcomed. She took people in – into her house, into her heart, into her concerns.

Catherine’s lessons of hospitality are summed up in maxims like, “You must waste time with visitors”; or “Mercy receives the ungrateful again and again and is never weary of pardoning them”; or “It is better to receive a hundred impostors than to suffer one truly deserving person to be sent away empty”. Her experience also taught her and she, in turn, taught the women who joined her, that sometimes being an hospitable presence is the best thing we can do. “There are three things the poor prize more highly than gold though they cost the donor nothing. Among these are the kind word, the gentle, compassionate look and the patient hearing of their sorrows.” Sometimes hospitality calls us to simply be with others in their moments of confusion, anxiety, and suffering. Sometimes we simply need to realize that there is nothing we can do but give ourselves over to the hospitality of silent companionship and support.

There are many examples of Catherine’s hospitable spirit but perhaps the most striking is that of Mrs. Harper. One day when Catherine was visiting the sick poor in Dublin, she discovered an old woman living alone in a hovel. Her name was Mrs. Harper and the early manuscipts describe her as a maniac. Though she had previously been somewhat well off, she was now desperately poor and mentally unstable. Catherine took her to Coolock house and cared for her. Though Catherine would certainly have offered her a comfortable room, she respected Mrs. Harper’s choice to live under the steps near the kitchen. She rarely appeared during the day but crept through the house at night stealing food and whatever else struck her fancy. Though the household was disrupted by her and the staff disliked her, Catherine continually called on them to extend kindness to Mrs. Harper as she herself did. In the face of this patient and forbearing hospitality, Mrs. Harper exhibited an intense dislike for Catherine and returned every kindness with unpleasant and unreasoning behavior. Nevertheless Catherine cared for her until she died several years later. Catherine’s maxim, “It is for God we serve the poor, not for thanks”, may well have emerged from this experience.

A number of years ago I heard a report on National Public Radio about a homeless man in Washington D.C. which reminded me of the relationship between Catherine and Mrs. Harper. The story told of a Sunday morning during the first Bush presidency. A homeless man was sitting on the steps of the church that is called the Church of the Presidents because many of the presidents over the years have worshipped there. On this particular Sunday, President Bush was coming to church and this homeless man, sitting on the steps, asked President Bush to pray for him. Mr. Bush replied, “Why don’t you come into church and we’ll pray together?” So that’s what they did – the president and the homeless sharing a pew and worshipping together. From that day on, the homeless man became a member of that congregation and was welcomed each time he participated in worship there. While the congregation certainly had the means to offer him food and shelter, they respected his choice to remain on the streets. Of what interest might this be to a national radio audience? It was this – that when the man died, the members of the church went to court to have themselves declared his spiritual next of kin so that they would have the right to bury him. Having left him free to make his own life choices, very different from the ones they might have made for him, they still sought formal, legal relationship with him – a kinship of the spirit that has to do with recognizing the ties that exist among all of us.

These two stories represent the profound challenges of creating a spirit of hospitality. It is one thing to extend hospitality to friends and relatives. It is quite another to open our hearts, our minds, perhaps even our homes to persons whose nationality, race, orientations, politics or religious beliefs differ from our own. To create a space in which another can be who they are, can find their place in the world, can explore and practice their beliefs – even when these gifts are unreciprocated – is the perfection of hospitality. Perhaps confronted with the world today, Catherine would encourage us not only to waste time with visitors but to welcome the strange person, the strange idea, the strange experience as opportunities to move more deeply into God’s welcoming heart.

Scripture:

Genesis 18: 1 – 15
Matthew 22: 1 – 14
Luke 1: 39 – 45
Luke 6: 27 – 35
Luke 10: 29 – 37
Luke 10: 38 – 42
Luke 14: 12- 14

Books:

Kent Haruf, Plainsong
Christine Pohl, Making Room Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition
Phillip Hallie , Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed

To what persons or experiences or viewpoints are you being called to open your mind and heart?

When have you experienced profound hospitality? What characterized this moment? What did it feel like? How can you create that experience for someone who is lost or alone?

How can we create a more vibrant sense of hospitality for newer members whose life experiences and approaches differ from ours?

How do we make space in our practice of hospitality to respect the choices of our guests?

Read the stories on the front page of your newspaper. What do they suggest about the state of hospitality or even common courtesy in our world?

Volunteer or donate to an organization that assists immigrants, refugees or persons who are homeless.

Look around your community, your co-workers, your relationships and identify someone who is never asked out. Take them to lunch.

Make a special treat and take it to a soup kitchen to distribute to their guests.

Read about and perhaps attend a worship service in a faith with which you are unfamiliar.

Welcoming God, free my heart to recognize all those you send into my life to teach me about you. May every person and experience be a source of wonder. May I never miss the opportunity to embrace and engage with amazing variety of your creation. Open me to all that it means to be human and give me a sense of gratitude for all who walk this path with me. I ask this in the name of Jesus who chose to be human as a way of revealing you. Amen.

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