"A Vast Expanse"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-
As I was inviting people to a gathering to be held at our house at the end of this week, the word "hospitality" kept flashing through my mind. For the most part, when people hear that word they likely think about setting a nice table or assuring that there is enough food and drinks for guests. The word "hospitality" is rarely identified as a "spiritual discipline." And yet, as I see it, the practice of hospitality lies at the heart of any spiritual path that seeks deeper truth and greater wisdom.
Abraham, hailed as the "Patriarch" of the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was a nomad who lived in a tent in the middle of a desert. According to legend, Abraham always kept the flaps of all four sides of his tent wide open so that he could see travelers passing by, friends or strangers alike, and offer hospitality to them - a cool drink, a meal, a place to rest. One day he invited three passing strangers to stop, rest, and share a meal with him. As the legend goes, these three strangers were actually angels in disguise.
The "practice of hospitality" is at the heart of all the Abrahamic traditions. It is at the core of all spiritual paths.
When I consider the teaching and example of Jesus, I find that he especially practiced a "no-holds barred" form of radical hospitality as a guiding principle in the way he lived. The tent of his life was always open to any travelers who passed him by - no one was excluded from the table of his life. He welcomed fellow Jews who went to temple every day and he dined with sinners and outcasts. He broke all the rules by embracing gentiles and respecting pagans and nonbelievers. He lived a life of radical hospitality and he invited any who would follow him to do the same.
In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Autobiography, Kathleen Norris writes:
True hospitality is an open response to the dignity of each and every person.
We live in a culture of individualism and autonomy - our constant fear of terrorism forces us to keep borders closely guarded, gates barred, doors locked, and this "locked gate" mentality seems to have crept into the fabric of so much of contemporary life. "Circle the wagons" is the motto of the day. Be careful of foreigners, stick with safe and similar others who look alike or dress alike, speak the same language and think alike. "Keep out," "Do not trespass," are the signposts of the culture. It's hard to find a tent with all the flaps open nowadays.
And yet, on the spiritual journey we are guided by the enduring wisdom that there are no different others. We all belong to one another. Every human being has dignity and is worthy of respect, and when we welcome strangers into our tent we often find that they are angels in disguise.
I am very fond of a story that comes out of the writings of the ancient Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers: Some travelers had stopped to seek advice from a desert monk and they were warmly welcomed into his little hut, a meal was shared and most of the day was spent in lively conversation. Upon taking their leave, one of the travelers apologized:
Forgive us brother, we have prevented you from your daily work and kept you from your prayers and meditation. The brother answered, 'my daily work is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you on your way in peace.'
Above all else, the "practice of hospitality" is the guiding principle for all of us as we walk a path of wisdom and truth, making our way through the wilderness of life.