Cultivating the Virtue of Hospitality
Summer 2021 stands in contradiction to Summer 2020 with a note of joy and excitement whereas last summer had a note of malaise and concern. The world is opening up again and people are hungry for connection with others after many spent so much time alone or shut in with their nuclear families. We were made for human relationships and made to spend time doing this together with family, friends, and our local communities. Summer in many ways lends itself to spending time with others as there are many holidays to celebrate, nature is inviting and interesting, and people want to share in the delicious delights of summer harvests. It’s a good season to return to hosting others over at your house if you have not done so already. Hospitality is not merely the invitation to come over to your home or to an event you are hosting, but hospitality is a virtue modeled throughout the Sacred Scriptures that we are called to implement and imitate in our own lives.
What Constitutes the Virtue?
What is it that makes a good host or hostess? It is not necessarily having tons of food and drink (though that helps) nor is it having the latest and greatest entertainment available for the occasion. The virtue of hospitality can be summarized in these three qualities:
1) a disposition of active receptivity
2) attentiveness to the needs of others
3) the offer of both friendship and freedom to guests
The hospitable person receives others with joy. They welcome guests into a space and help the newcomer feel comfortable in their surroundings. This receptivity is active rather than passive. It is not merely saying “hi” at the doorstep and walking away, but actively bringing the other into the space and acquainting them with the space and the other people in it. The good host knows how to make each guest feel comfortable, even if they are a stranger. This is achieved through an attentiveness to the needs of the guest. If the guest is not well known to the host, what can the host observe about the guest? Are they mingling with others, are they standing apart? Do they need or want an introduction? This attentiveness also applies to the physical needs of food and drink and a place to sit or play, but cannot be reduced to the physical. As body-soul composites, the active receptivity and the attentiveness to the needs of the guests applies to both physical and social needs. In attending to the social or spiritual needs of others, the one who is virtuously hospitable offers both friendship and freedom to their guests. Sometimes people want to dive right into conversations, others prefer hanging back and listening. Some will be front and center to play a game while others might want to sit meditatively on the back porch with a drink and join in later. The good host offers friendship to the guests, but also respects their freedom to choose how to conduct themselves and how to enjoy where they are and what they are doing. The virtue of hospitality essentially is the reception of another, body and soul, and attending to their body and soul needs.
The Example of Abraham & Sarah
Abraham and Sarah are the first to truly exemplify the virtue of hospitality in the Bible in Genesis 18. The Lord comes to Abraham under the appearance of three young men. Abraham’s disposition is one of active receptivity – he knows who comes to him, and the sacred author says Abraham runs to meet the men. He is eager to respond to their visit and to make known his desire to receive the Lord well. He offers water to wash their feet and food with which to refresh themselves. He slaughters a calf to feed them with – he does not withhold anything of his that is good. This is when the Lord makes it known to Abraham and Sarah that the following spring she will bear a son. They have made known their receptivity to the Lord, and now they are prepared to receive the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises to them.
The Example of Mother Mary & Jesus
Mother Mary clearly shows her attentiveness to the needs of others in John 2 at the Wedding Feast at Cana. The host has run out of wine though he does not know it yet. Mary, aware of this lack and aware of the social shame that would come upon the family if they run out of wine for the guests, intercedes on the behalf of the family to her Son. Jesus is persuaded by his Mother to perform his first public miracle though few know about the miracle. Mary leads others to fulfill Jesus’s will when she tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you” – a paradigm for us all in the life of faith. This command of Mary’s is indeed a valuable command when employing the virtue of hospitality. Sometimes we think an event or get-together should go a certain way, but the Lord often has other plans for the benefit of others. Mary’s intercession at the Wedding Feast leads to physical and spiritual goods for the guests and for the servants.
The Example of Martha & Mary
Martha is the classic example of hospitality in Luke 10 – and the pitfalls of not practicing the virtue of hospitality to its fullest extent. Martha is busy serving the physical needs of her guests, and although she surely received the Lord with joy, she was too distracted to simply be in his presence. Jesus gently chastises Martha’s needless cares and anxieties. Mary, her sister, sat at the Lord’s feet and had the better part. Notice Jesus does not say Martha had a bad part, Mary simply had the better one. It is important to attend to the physical needs of others. Sometimes, they have to take precedence before you can dive into the spiritual needs of others. A hungry friend will not want to pour their heart out to you and it is much pleasanter to do so over a cup of coffee or tea. But the spiritual needs are the deeper, more needful part. Filling someone’s belly is important, but filling their heart with the love and affection they need is absolutely essential. Martha shows that she learned this lesson well in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 11, when her brother Lazarus has died. Martha is the first to come to the Lord when he arrives to console Martha and Mary. Mary sits in the house until she knows that Jesus is calling for her. Martha expresses her absolute trust in Jesus’s power, goodness, and true identity. St. John notes when she goes to get her sister she speaks quietly to her, which indicates Martha’s gentleness and attention to her sister’s needs in her grief. The Church celebrates the feast of St. Martha at the end of this month, July 29, one week after St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day.
Living Hospitality Right Now
What are some ways to live out this virtue of hospitality in a world that’s being driven ever more by technology in a post-pandemic world? Give people opportunities to spend time together in person. Depending on where you live, there might still be some restrictions on gathering. But it does not take much to provide human connection. Keep your gatherings simple and focus on the people in front of you. Invite another family from your parish over to pray the rosary and have dinner on a Sunday evening. Let the kids run around after a decade and eat something really easy so you can focus on building the relationships and not worry about whether or not an intense meal is prepped and cleaned up. Invite a long-lost friend over for coffee and talk about what books you read in the last few months. Ask them what has gotten them through these strange times. Offer to help with coffee and donuts after Mass at your parish, oftentimes this is done by the same reliable people every week, so become that reliable person. If you see someone alone at coffee hour, introduce yourself to them and ask them about how they got connected to the parish. Above all, actively receive others with an attentiveness to their needs, physical and spiritual. Extend the hand of friendship and allow for the freedom of choice to accept that hand of friendship or reject it. May the saints, always hospitable and gracious, pray for us that we may grow in the virtue of hospitality. St. Martha, pray for us!