Hospitality is listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit and is concerned with representing God’s kindness to guests, strangers or visitors and making them feel welcome. Most often we think of this in terms of offering food or lodging or fellowship, in other words offering physical sustenance and friednship to those in need.
One of my favourite reflections on hospitality is given by Henri Nouwen in his book entitled The Wounded Healer, in which he focuses on hospitality as being an expression of Grace. He says that we are all weary travelers on a journey and from time to time we are all in need of hospitality, except that we can only really offer hospitality when we are comfortable in our own home. In other words, relaxed enough to allow the guest to simply be.
In this sense hospitality is a metaphore for our being spiritually at peace with ourselves enough to the extent that we feel no judgement of the other, regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender or sexual orientation or any other such characteristic that can make us feel very uncomfortable within ourselves. Viewed this way prejudice then is the antithesis of hospitality. Prejudice and intolerance are derived from a sense of separation from the other, we see the other person as different from us and judge this to be a bad thing. Deep down difference feels threatening, we don’t understand and that makes us feel uncomfortable. The ego steps in to protect our interests and rather than showing kindness and hospitality (spiritual or practical) we close the door and hope that the other will move on quickly.
The great commandments to ‘Love God with all you hear and mind and soul and strength and to love you neighbour as your self’, are a formula which lead us not only to feeling comfortable in our own home but also to a genuine desire to offer hospitality to our neighbour, whoever they might be.
Firstly Loving God with everything we have derives from that desire for intimacy and personal inner relationship, to such an extent extent that it pervades all aspects of our very being. When we are on this path of seeking an ever closer communion with God we begin to discover that the edges between where we end and God begins are fuzzy – we begin to partake in the divinity and lose our sense of separation. Now when this happens we also begin to lose our sense of separation from others too. It is as if there is a growing sense of oneness within us. It is a transforming process that causes us to feel deep peace within our soul – or in other words, comfortable in our own home. From this place loving our neighbour as our self comes easily because we don’t feel those hard boundaries that mark us as different and we are no longer threatened. Our security comes from our relationship with God within us.
And so we come to a state where we can extend hospitality without any desire to judge. Or, as Henri Nowen puts it we become the host who gives their guests ‘a friendly space where they can be free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of and empty pace where the guest can find his own soul.’