Monday, April 18, 2016

Radical Hospitality

"Oasis in the Wilderness"
 -Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Starting tomorrow we will have a house full of guests as our kids and our baby grandson and a few others visitors come to spend some time with us out here in the desert. Yesterday as my wife and I were cleaning the house and making up beds in anticipation for tomorrow’s arrival, I thought about the meaning of “hospitality.”

When most people hear the word, “hospitality” they most likely think about setting a nice table or making sure there is plenty of food and drink for guests. But, “hospitality” goes far beyond good social etiquette; in fact, the “practice of hospitality” is a key and necessary virtue on any spiritual path.

I just read about a custom that was common practice among ancient Christian communities in the 1st and 2nd centuries. In those days every Christian household would always have a “stranger’s bed” available in their homes - an extra bed or sleeping mat was always “made up” and set aside for any weary stranger who might happen to show up at their door seeking a cool drink and a place to rest.

Those ancient Christians believed that their practice of open-ended hospitality was a way of following in the footsteps of Jesus who lived a life of “radical hospitality.”  No one who ever came to Jesus was ever turned away. They were always welcomed into his life, embraced with an open heart and open arms - good religious people, public sinners, foreigners, strangers and pagans, the strong and sick, weak and hungry, even Roman soldiers were always welcome to the table of his life.

Those first Christians believed that as “Followers of Jesus’ Way” they were also called to practice this same kind of unbridled, “radical hospitality” and that’s why they always had a “stranger’s bed” set up in their households.

To this very day most Christian monastic communities continue in the practice of making a “stranger’s bed” available in their monasteries. There is always a place set aside for visitors and strangers to rest, to pray and share a meal - all guests are received as if Christ himself were knocking at the door.

I am reminded of a little story found in the writings of the ancient 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers.  As the story goes some travelers had stopped to seek advice from a wise old desert monk who warmly welcomed his unexpected visitors and spent the day with them.  Before they left, the visitors apologized for imposing on the old monk’s hospitality:

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 open my doors and to welcome you with open arms.’

I have also discovered that the practice of “radical hospitality” is certainly not unique to Christian monks.  In my various visits to Buddhist monasteries I have always been welcomed to their table, invited to pray with them and warmly embraced with open arms. I have always experienced that these monks received all guests as if the Buddha himself were knocking at their door.

Author and spiritual guide, Kathleen Norris, once wisely observed:

True hospitality is an open response to the dignity of each and every person.

As I see it, the importance of practicing “hospitality” on a spiritual journey is perhaps more important than ever in our own culture of individualism and autonomy as we live behind locked doors and within enclosed gates, and as we talk about building big walls to keep out foreigners, strangers and exclude any who are different. Now more than ever we may all need to set up a “stranger’s bed” in our hearts and minds and maybe even in our homes.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, put it this way:

The human being is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
Be grateful for whoever comes and invite them in.

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