"Open to Everyone"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Moderate temperatures and always-sunny days make the desert an almost perfect place for a spring vacation. This usually-tranquil region almost triples in population with the many visitors and tourists who come here at this time of year.
This is also our “festival season,” and so, this weekend an additional 125,000 (mostly younger) people have descended upon a patch of desert not far from our house to listen to music and dance in the desert at the world-famous International Coachella Music Festival. Every hotel, rental property and campground is fully booked, our quiet little desert “town square” has been transformed into an urban metropolis, supermarkets are packed and every available table is taken at every restaurant in the area.
Yesterday, while I was trying to find a place to park my car to do some grocery shopping, 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 suddenly realized that I had become an old curmudgeon; but more than that, I also wondered if my negative attitude about strangers and foreigners was also indicative of the atmosphere that seems to pervade so much of our popular culture nowadays - a serious roadblock on any spiritual path.
The presence of so many strangers and “outsiders” in town has 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 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. He welcomed good religious people along with public sinners. He ate meals with his fellow citizens and also broke bread with foreigners, strangers and pagans. He embraced the strong and healthy along with the sick, weak and hungry.
Those first Christians believed that as “Followers of Jesus’ Way” they were also called to practice this same kind of "unbridled 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.’
As I see it, the importance of practicing an "unbridled hospitality” lies at the heart of any spiritual journey and this practice is perhaps more important than ever nowadays in our own culture of individualism and autonomy. We live behind locked doors, within enclosed gates and we talk about building big walls to keep out foreigners and strangers. There is a tendency in this culture to exclude any who are different and to fear those who seem out-of-the-ordinary. So 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.
After standing in a long line yesterday, my wife and I finally got a table at a local restaurant where we ate our lunch. The energy and enthusiasm in that place filled with all those many “strangers” and “outsiders’ was electric and life-giving – a great gift.