The Mysticism of Hospitality

Manna House was quiet when I arrived Tuesday morning to start the coffee. There was not even one guest waiting for me at the gate. I entered the house, plugged in the coffee, and sat down in the kitchen for forty minutes of reading, reflecting, and praying. I have done the same thing for some twelve years now.

I first read the “Saint of the Day” from Robert Ellsberg’s fine book, “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.” Then I turn to my “Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary” for the daily psalms with scripture and prayers. Somedays this rich feast of saints and psalms leads me to write. On other days, I simply sit in silence, listening to the birds, the passing traffic, the arrival of guests, and letting all of that abide in the Word of God I have just read and prayed over.

I am convinced that hospitality cannot last without returning faithfully to prayer. There is a mysticism inherent to Christian hospitality. The mysticism is in the vision of guests as Christ. This mystic vision forms the practice of hospitality as sacramental. The guests are outward signs of the invisible reality of the presence of Christ. In the guests, Christ resides, just as much as Christ resides in the Eucharistic bread and wine shared on a Sunday morning. The guests are sacred, and this reality is grounded in Christ’s own institution of this sacrament of hospitality, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).

Without prayer I would find it hard to maintain the mystical vision of seeing Christ in our guests. The temptation I struggle with first of all is to lapse into seeing our guests as the larger society sees them: as despicable, disgusting, and dangerous. This temptation casts the guests as beggars to whom I can give any old “charity” because “beggars can’t be choosy.” In this temptation, guests are seen as instance of the larger species called “the poor” who are not to be trusted, who are to be rigorously tested to make sure they are not getting anything for “free,” who are to be forced to jump through myriad bureaucratic hoops to get a few scraps from the master’s table. This is the view of the poor urged these days by Tennessee Governor Haslam and his henchmen. They are happily proposing yet further requirements for the poor to meet in order to receive a few measly dollars of government support.

But as I point that finger at politicians and others, four fingers also point back at me. I know how easy it is to slip into viewing a guest with suspicion, or wishing that a particular guest would just go away and never come back, or being short tempered with a guest who is consistently demanding. “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” I learned long ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta (now in Baltimore). But I can easily lapse into seeing guests as just plain strange.

Without prayer and the mystic vision of Christ in the guests there is another temptation I easily slip into: trying to save the guests who come. Like the “charity” of the “beggars can’t be choosy” variety, this second temptation is another form of control. In this case, the control I seek is that of the souls of the guests. I seek to remodel guests into my image, rather than respecting that they are already made in the image of God. Hospitality is not about reforming people, it is about sharing together God’s redemptive grace known in love. Father Gregory Boyle puts it this way, “The intentionality of what we do is really not about trying to change folks or save them, but to savor and cherish them.”

To welcome guests in a way that savors and cherishes them, welcoming them in God’s grace as I am welcomed by them in God’s grace, I need to pray to nourish the mystic vision of the guests as Christ. I need to make the time and the space in which God’s gracious hospitality receives me in my strangeness, my brokenness. In this prayer, I am joined to Christ, welcomed as Christ by God. In prayer I am able to welcome guests knowing, how in them, God has welcomed me.

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