Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Spirituality of Radical Hospitality

"A Welcoming Oasis"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Almost every day I try to stop by our local Starbucks where I sit and relax for a half hour or so with a cup of coffee or an iced tea. Usually the place is relatively calm and quiet, but yesterday it was so busy that I couldn’t even find a parking space and the line to get in went outside the door.

Beside all the tourists and visitors that usually come out to the desert at this time of the year, this is also our “festival season” and so every weekend this month, over 100,000 extra people descend upon the Coachella Valley for several major outdoor music festivals. Yesterday it seemed like all 100,000 people were standing in line at the Starbucks.

While I was trying to find a place to park my car I caught myself wishing that all those “strangers” who had come to town invading my peace and quiet, would go back home, back to where they came from.  I also realized that this negative attitude about strangers and foreigners is way too pervasive in today’s culture and it’s a serious roadblock on any spiritual path.  My Starbucks experience yesterday caused me to do some serious reflection about the importance of practicing hospitality on any spiritual journey.

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.

I recently 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 traveler 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.

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.’

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 practicing “hospitality” on a spiritual journey is perhaps more important than ever nowadays in our own culture of individualism and autonomy as we live behind locked doors, within enclosed gates, as we talk about building big walls to keep out foreigners 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.

I finally made my way into Starbucks yesterday, the energy and enthusiasm in that place filled with all those “strangers” was electric and life-giving.

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