Hospitality is a lost art in the world today. Through fear, indifference, or just being too busy, we often overlook the simple needs of others right before our eyes. The world could use a little more hospitality. The Church offers a rich history of models of hospitality that may help us today–in our professions, homes, and parishes.
St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is often called the “founder of western monasticism.” In The Rule of Benedict, which still guides many contemporary religious communities, he instructed his followers to receive guests with deep, sincere love. His pastoral concern for visitors is rightly held up as an example for those in the hospitality industry and indeed for all Christians.
St. Benedict stressed the importance of the reception of guests. His rule outlines how he wants the monks to handle the arrival of pilgrims, the poor, and other guests to the monastery. He writes that “all guests who arrive should be received as if they were Christ.” St. Benedict exhorts his monks to follow the pattern of prayer and welcome, and then to wash their feet, give them food, and provide them a bed. Basic acts of service are essential to the art of hospitality, as they meet the physical needs of the pilgrim. The saintly monk knew that the higher spiritual journey must begin with prayer, but that practical human needs must be provided, or else the pilgrim’s journey will go awry. Once rested, satiated and clean, the guest can now more eagerly seek the Lord without encumbrance.
Not just for hotels anymore
How can this 1,500 year-old practice be used in our world today? In our homes, parishes, and retreat centers!
The call to hospitality is part of God’s revelation for all families, found in both Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul exhorts the Romans to “welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7). His message to all Christians is nothing shorto of a universal call to hospitality–tapping into the welcoming grace that softens our evangelistic efforts and invites and comforts those in need. Christ accepts people as they are, loves them as they are, and invites them into deeper communion. This is our call as well.
More Christian families need to find ways to welcome Christ in the stranger, the guest, and the pilgrim. As St. John Paul II stressed in Familiaris Consortio, his famous 1981 document on marriage and family: “In particular, note must be taken of the ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms, from opening the door of one’s home and still more of one’s heart to the pleas of one’s brothers and sisters.”
Opening the doors of our homes and hearts is the constant call from Paul of Tarsus, who heard that call from Christ Himself, to our contemporary Church leaders. Hospitality should simply flow from the living heart of a Christian who sees Jesus in all those people around him or her. The Christian family must not become a closed circle, any more than the Church can become a closed membership group. We are called to be open and “exercise hospitality” to all.
One reason that hospitality has become something of a lost art in our world comes from the lack of understanding of how to practice it. Primarily, hospitality is not about the host, but about the guest. We ought not try to change the guest, but to accommodate our spaces for them. Thus, anticipating their needs accurately is essential to good service. Benedict identified this point as he assigned “suitably competent” brothers in the guest kitchen and “sensible people” whose hearts were “filled with the fear of God” to run the guesthouse. Those competent and sensible people can see the needs of their guests almost before they realize their own need.
Similarly, the sensible hostess of a Christian family can supply her guest with clean linens and towels (an obvious need) while now also supplying an extra power strip in the guestroom (a more recent need, with increased electronics). One gets better at hospitality with practice, as is the case with any other habit or virtue. Thus, the Christian family should seek to invite guests to dinner, to stay with them, and to pray with them.
Open to the “circle of grace”
Following the Rule of Benedict with regard to the reception of guests can enable the Christian family to remain open to the circle of grace that lies before them. As Abraham hosted the three angels at table in the Old Testament (cf. Gen. 18-19) and grace flowed from that encounter, so too can the modern family receive grace through hospitality.
In this context, reflecting deeply on the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, we can see that the three angels at Abraham’s table form an “open circle” that is at once complete and yet at the same time allows for the viewer to join. We are called to Eucharistic communion at that table. The icon serves as a window into the nature of the hospitality of both Abraham (whose generosity was repaid many times over, as father of many nations) and of God Himself. Therefore, divinized hospitality (magnanimous love for others) is the goal for Christian families, as it was for the monasteries of St. Benedict’s day and age.
This active disposition of generous openness is a distinctly intentional pro-life, pro-family stance. With the mentality that “there’s always room for one more,” the Christian family can stand counter-culturally for life in every way, such as through their openness to God’s blessing of fertility, through natural birth, adoption, or foster care. With the mentality that “we always have a seat for a guest,” the Christian family can live out the call to open their doors, calling the stranger into communion, making them a stranger no longer.
This practice of generous service can then lead to the virtue of magnanimity, literally a “great-souled” effort to give generously, in the right way and at the right time, a holy hospitality that will “unknowingly entertain angels” (Heb. 13:2).