Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Practice of Hospitality

"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. 



  1. Hospitality is a feature of non-Abrahamic reigions as well. The Katha Upanishad makes use of the tradition of hospitality in order to frame the story that is told. It's a delightful spiritual tale about a young man who arrived at death's residence and waited 3 days before Death returned.

    Upon learning his guest had languished without welcome in his house for 3 days Death granted the boy three 'boons', or wishes to make up for his dereliction of duty to provide hospitality. The story is at this link. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15010.htm If you're not already familiar with it I bet you'll enjoy it.

    I wonder if hospitality is a positive human trait first and a religious / cultural trait second.

    1. I agree that ALL spiritual paths place hospitality as a core discipline (it may not be called this, but it is hospitality nonetheless.)

      I actually think our tendency to hospitality is part of our basic human desire for transcendence. At some level we all know we belong together and so at a deep level we also know how important it is to welcome and embrace one another.

      Thanks Dave

    2. I think so to. I believe I read somewhere that the custom in the East of bowing to another person is based on the recognition the divine in the other person.

      and that brings us right back to Jesus who said the way we treat others is the way we are treating him.

    3. Yes the word "namaste" used so often actually means something like,"The divine in me salutes the divine in you."

    4. Hospitality goes hand in hand with the kindness philosophy of the Dalai Lama too. It seems this is the core of spirituality.