There are a lot of ways to speak about hospitality, probably as many ways as there are to be hospitable. But, I particularly love thinking about how our hospitality informs our ways of seeing the world, and how our ways of seeing the world inform our hospitable actions. Hospitality seems to be circular, and deeply embedded in the Christian narrative:
“Hospitality is a central virtue of the biblical tradition itself, where God is always using the stranger to introduce us to strangeness of truth. To be inhospitable to strangers or strange ideas, however unsettling they may be, is to be hostile to the possibility of truth; hospitality is not only an ethical virtue but an epistemological one as well.” Parker Palmer, To Know as we are Known
I don’t really know how to add to the potency of this statement, except to say that the linking of hospitality (action/ethics) and hospitality (belief/epistemology) reminds us that the fears we have in hospitality are warranted. When we encounter a person we are afraid of, who makes us bristle or renders us uncomfortable—we can be sure that they are a sacred, strange truth. And this renders us vulnerable: if this is a bearer of sacred truth and yet I am unable to receive him/her—what does that say about my relationship to truth? Might I not possess it all right now as I thought I did? Is there more?
We know, on a deep level, that we either have to open up to this flesh-covered truth, or run away (or fight, or shut down). Often, we use our instinctual fear responses (fight, flight, or freeze) to respond to the person, and to the possibility of truth that they bear. We keep our truth locked up tight, walled in, and quite certain. And we make sure they do too. It’s safer that way, we think.
For example, when we see a person on a street corner asking for money, the first decision we make is whether or not to even read the sign or risk making eye contact. The first act of hospitality is to look. What keeps us from looking? The knowledge that when we connect, we’ll have to encounter the need (or reality) of another person, and we don’t really want to deal with that this morning. So we ignore. We may even switch lanes to avoid having to encounter this “problem.” And that is how we encounter strangers throughout our day, on street corners, on Facebook, at the office. Except maybe some of us are more combative with strangers—people see politics or religion in a different way. They are the problem.
What if we started to see the discomfort of the stranger as an invitation to strange truth?
The problem with strangers is that we may actually have to change in the process of encountering them, to sit with discomfort and lack of certainty as we hold something in tension, to begin to ask questions of ourselves based on new information. Scientifically speaking, our bodies and minds resist change at all costs—or find ways to keep things familiar—but they are also capable of great change (read: neuroplasticity). Familiarity is safe and certain and keeps us alive—but thanks be to God that physical safety and material security do not have to be the extent of our lives. Even people who are denied basic rights to security of their person have access to amazing capacities for consciousness and reflection.
In the parable of the good samaritan, both the religious leaders pass by the man who was beaten and robbed. They passed over to the other side of the road, assumedly diverting their gaze, because who can deny that when we really look, we are invited in? The Samaritan looked, and was moved to hospitable behavior. Maybe it was by intention, or happenstance, but that day one man chose to not look away from the stranger. Laying in the road was an “enemy,” who was also a human. This maimed man was knocking on the door of his heart, and fundamentally altering the way that the Samaritan man felt, and therefore, the way he behaved that day. We have to assume that the Samaritan man not only had to overcome cultural barriers, but also personal ones (But what about my money: do I have enough? What about my family: will they worry if I’m home late? But what about my future: does this mean that I am “that guy” who always helps people on the road?…and the list could extend for ever). This wasn’t just a random act of kindness—there was a lot at stake here. But the real question is, “who saved who that day?”
When we receive a stranger, we are sure to be called into a new kind of response, and that is scary because we have to leave familiar patterns, even our religious ones (the priest might have missed his Temple responsibilities to help the stranger!). And that is why as people of faith, who desire to grow in character, wisdom, and virtue do not need to divert our eyes when the stranger knocks, we need to be formed in the way of looking with dignity upon all people, particularly the ones we are scared of, knowing that in some strange way, they will bring us the truth that we so need—even if that is only discovery of their sacredness that is the birthright of all people.
Sometimes, this new behavior, this new welcoming, feels really good. And we learn that it isn’t quite as scary as we thought. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel good and we are confused and scared the whole time—Why am I here? Why am I listening? Why am I “wasting my time” on something that probably won’t yield the results I want? Why am I exposing myself to this reality?
Why indeed? Be hospitable with the questions, and don’t look away. Look with love on the stranger in front of you, the strange truth between you, and the strange spaces inside of you that you haven’t yet explored. As my girl Flannery might say, “The life you save may be your own.”
Annie Dimond is a member of Celtic Way's Board of Directors. Read more about her here.