“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hospitality can mean different things. Often we think of entertaining people; welcomed guests being “wowed” by our cooking, good wine, and decorum. Cooking shows, websites, and magazines give us all the tips for being the perfect host. Christian hospitality on the other hand has a different goal in mind. Certainly opening our homes to guests, serving a nice meal, and making people comfortable are good things and are a part of Christian hospitality, but there must be more than this.
Seeing, serving, and loving Christ in others is the true goal of Christian Hospitality. The importance of Christians practicing hospitality is shown in the Gospel. There we read how we will be judged when Christ comes in glory, “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’(Matthew 25:34-36) Loving and serving one another is how we love and serve Christ, “… if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)
When it comes to practicing hospitality, even more important than the wine we may pour, or meal we make, is being truly present to people: listening to our guests and opening our hearts to them. An acknowledgement of God’s people even in the simplest ways; looking in the cashier’s eyes at the store and saying hello for example is an act of hospitality.
A genuine gift of self through service to Christ in others is the heart of Christian hospitality. Those of us living in the world can learn much from the service given by monastics to their guests and fellow monks. We must serve Christ in the same way. Opening our hearts and homes to others is a way to serve Christ, and so is exercising hospitality with our own family, which can sometimes be harder to do.
I personally have experienced monastic hospitality many times over: a listening ear in confession or counsel, a room and food given on retreat, an open place to enter into the prayer life of the monks whenever possible. Fr. Moses is the guest master at Holy Resurrection Monastery (where I attend church). He is known for being an excellent chef, serving guests delicious and nourishing food, and for being ready to sit down and talk with you when needed. He loves to serve people. I asked Fr. Moses where he got his sense of hospitality from. He explained, “I remember reading something as a teenager, possibly from the Benedictines, on seeing and serving Christ in other people. I thought about that a lot and knew I wanted to serve Christ in this way. I love cooking and providing hospitality to other people, being a monk I can do that while striving to serve Christ in others.”
Benedictine monks are known for their hospitality. In the Rule of St. Benedict it says, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ…” “…let all kindness be shown them.” It’s a common practice that a sign is hung in Benedictine monasteries which says, “When a guest enters, Christ enters.” Seeing Christ in others is not only for guests of course. Seeing Christ in one’s fellow monk and oneself is necessary too. Daniel J. Ward O.S.B. explains: “Every person in the monastery is a guest, even the monks themselves, since each has somehow come into this house of God, this dwelling place of God. The rituals of the monastery reflect this concept of all as guests, as Christ to whom love and respect are to be shown (e.g. washing of feet of the brothers, of guests, respect in greeting one another, care of the sick). When a monastic loses this overall sense of guest, of Christ in self and in all other persons, the monastic’s view of the monastery becomes distorted. The monastery is no longer a dwelling place of God, but my place. Rules and schedules no longer exist ‘to amend faults and to safeguard love’ (RB Prol 47) but to protect my personal comfortable way of life. The monastic becomes the master rather than remaining the disciple (see RB 6.6).”
As I was speaking to him regarding hospitality, Fr. Moses shared with me his experience on a recent pilgrimage he made walking the Camino de Santiago, “At the Albergue (similar to a hostel) volunteers would be ready to serve the pilgrims as they came in from a long day of walking the Camino. They served the pilgrims water, removed their shoes, and washed their feet; it was eye opening for me to see. It was very beautiful.”
This kind of service is very possible for all of us to give. Because it is a natural part of life, most people already serve others daily and may not think a lot about it (e.g. the service parents provide in caring for and nurturing their families, the help and care given by siblings to one another, etc.) Every job people hold in some way provides service to people. Because these things are so much a normal part of life we can easily skip over and miss the opportunity to serve Christ and serve the people we see regularly with open hearts and in a prayerful manner. This is even true in monasteries.
I asked Fr. Moses what differences there are in serving his guests versus his fellow monks. “Yes it is easier to serve guests,” he explained. “Guests come and are on their best behavior. They are grateful for the food and care I provide for them while they visit. My fellow brother monks don’t always show their appreciation and I also see their faults and am affected by them.”
We discussed this for awhile. I notice the same thing for myself. The seeming lack of appreciation can make going out of my way when caring for my family hard. Whereas going out of my way for guests can be easier at times. This reveals three things: First, not only are guests on their best behavior but so are we. The more familiar we become with people, the more we reveal who we really are. Second, the acts of hospitality to guests are more enjoyable for us then the everyday mundane jobs we must do to serve our families. Third, because we are affected by our family’s sins this can make it harder to see Christ in them. But this reflects something of us and not them. Seeing God in others isn’t easy, it takes work and above all much prayer, it will only be through the Holy Spirit that we will see Christ in people.
When we can sincerely see another human being and see Christ in them, then we can provide real hospitality. We cannot do and be everything to everyone, but sometimes all that is needed by others is an acknowledgement, an honest question of ‘how are you,’ and a listening ear. Often we assume so much about other people, we are ready to give advice and offer suggestions, and we fail to really listen to what people have to say. We fail to see the true needs of others, and instead end up serving our own ego.
Love your neighbor as yourself, is the key to Christian hospitality. Our children need to be taught from a young age to see their siblings as their neighbors—that they serve Christ in serving each other. We need to model this behavior for them. Opening our homes to friends, family, and even unknown guests alike is an important step in hospitality. Sharing our lives and opening our hearts and ears to them is as well.