Hospitality is part of our faith tradition
By Daniel Mulhall
Catholic News Service
Abraham was a rich man, but he had no son with his wife Sarah, and he and his wife had grown old. One day as he sat at his tent in the hot sun he noticed three men. Abraham immediately ran to them, bowed down in front of them, and invited them to dine with him.
Bringing them into the shade, he fixed a special dinner and treated them as royalty -- which they were, as angels of the Lord. Following this act of hospitality, Abraham and his wife Sarah were blessed by God in their old age with a son, Isaac. This wonderful display of kindness presented in Genesis 18 is one of many examples in the Bible that tell us of the importance of hospitality. We are to welcome strangers at all times and treat them with great respect. No one knows when that stranger might be a messenger from God.
As the holiday season kicks into gear, we are faced with more situations that ask us to welcome visitors or family from various parts of the country or the world. We welcome them into our homes or run into them in the streets of our cities or towns or when they visit our temples as they worship.
But throughout the year, we also are faced with opportunities to show our hospitality to others as we welcome them into out parish and sometimes into our faith. Hospitality then becomes a practice intertwined with our faith, one practiced by our ancestors.
In 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah saves a starving widow and her son because of her hospitality. In Matthew 25:38, Jesus tells us that those who welcome a stranger also are welcoming him. In Malachi 3:5, God promises judgment against those who turn aside the stranger.
While hospitality may involve sharing our material goods, food or shelter, with strangers, it is a practice that also involves sharing our Christian spirit.
Joanne Cahoon, a certified spiritual director from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, suggests that there are various aspects involved in the act of offering hospitality.
The first part involves making room for others in our hearts and lives. Hospitality requires that there be sufficient space -- physical, emotional and mental -- for the guests to enter and stay comfortably. If we are too busy, too afraid or too distracted to even see the strangers, how can we possibly offer care for them?
Once we have made room for our guests, the next part involves welcoming them with open arms and with small and large “touches” to signify how valuable we find them. To truly welcome people is to exercise the art of attentiveness: we turn off electronic distractions and communicate with them so they may relax in our presence. Nothing is too good for our honored guests.
A key part of hospitality is caring enough about others to want to know more about them, so we listen carefully as they speak and we engage them in conversation. If every encounter with another human being has the potential to be an encounter with God, then we must be “all ears” when we offer hospitality because we never know how God is speaking to us through our guests.
By listening intently to others, we pay them a great honor. By engaging them in dialogue, we acknowledge that they bring something important into our lives. Again, communicating with others requires that we first allow them into our lives.
When we offer hospitality we become vulnerable to the other people. We drop our guard, we fully allow them into our homes, into our temples or into another aspect of our lives. We put ourselves at risk to some degree. In so doing, we open ourselves to the gifts that God sends us through the person’s visit. Just as the lives of Abraham and Sarah were changed because of their angel visitors, our lives will be changed by our interaction with our guests or with the strangers with whom we share our lives.
Another part of hospitality involves allowing ourselves to be affected by and be willing to grow from interacting with our guests. Any time we welcome another person fully into our lives we will be changed by the experience.
For this to have lasting meaning we must engage with the experience, think about it and act upon it. How we respond to the gifts that come our way because of hospitality will determine how much we benefit from them.
In James 1:22 we’re told to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” When we practice the acts of kindness and generosity that are part of hospitality we become “doers of the word,” and by so doing, we allow the word of God to take root in our hearts. While we cannot expect to serve angels every time we offer hospitality, we can expect to be touched by God through each act.