Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.’ (Luke 12:35)
It is possible that I drank too much at dinner. Friends were staying, more friends came to eat, and I had cooked for twelve. And a little boy had died. So there was wine to be poured and stories to be shared amidst food and grief and children and confusion.
It is possible that we all stayed up too late, drinking and talking and shedding a few tears. And then we headed to our beds, leaving the dishes for the morning.
It is possible that I woke with a hangover. My husband had left early for work. I crawled out of bed at 7.30, and crept down the hall to confront the mess. The debris of dinner covered every available surface; even the floor was a rice-scattered mess. My six-year-old was crying, ‘I don’t want to go to school.’ One houseguest stood at the sink, chatting, while his one-year-old clung to his leg, wailing. His three-year-old upended something noisy: no better way to get attention in a very full house. I grimaced and began clearing space to make school lunches.
At twenty-five to eight, there was a knock at the door. I knew that my other houseguest was being picked up for work, and so I ignored it. But then, as I stood there in a holey old singlet and saggy pyjama pants, bags under my eyes, hair standing on end, neither washed nor dressed nor caffeinated, I heard footsteps come briskly down the hall.
There was nowhere to hide.
And into the chaos bounced a bright-eyed woman, smiling, introducing herself, and naming our mutual friends.
A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, ‘Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule.’ The hermit replied, ‘My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace’ (The Desert Fathers).
I read these and similar stories, and I wonder. Did those monks exercise hospitality with children screaming at their ankles? Did they accept visitors with sinks full of dishes and eyes full of sleep and heads pulsing with hangovers?
Were I a spiritual giant, all vanity conquered and magnificent in my hospitality, I would have reached out my hand to greet this woman, and offered her a coffee. But I am not. Instead, I was a mother in a hurry, grotty, embarrassed, surrounded by chaos and clutter and screeching kids, who needed to get to school. And so I said, ‘I’d be delighted to meet you another time when I’m not in my pyjamas’, and turned my back. There was an awkward silence and a few muttered words, which I ignored, and then the sound of footsteps retreating back up the hall. Magnificent in hospitality? Not quite. Rather, it seems that I am magnificent in my rudeness.
I don’t really know what a spirituality of hospitality looks like for a family woman. We are charged with seeking Christ in the stranger, and welcoming all those who come to our door; but so many of our models and stories are monastic in origin. There is no question that I failed that morning, as I have failed so often. But compared to the humiliations and chaos of family life, I reckon the rigours of monastic life look like a walk in the park. How much easier to welcome someone when one’s house is not overflowing with friends and shrieking kids!
So I need to balance the stories of hospitality with other stories: stories of monks who fled deeper into the desert; who closed the doors to their cells and ignored the knocks of visitors. I find comfort that they too could be rude, and abrupt, and ungracious. I need to remember that it is okay to assert some boundaries, to claim a small circle of privacy in the mess, particularly when the mess is caused by hospitality already offered to travellers and grieving friends. And I need to remember forgiveness: I can seek out that person soon, and explain, and apologise.
In any case, even those monks who are masters of hospitality experience ambivalence sometimes. In one of her books, Kathleen Norris tells a story that is close to my heart. A monk, charged with perfect hospitality, sees yet another person heading his way. As they approach, the monk seeks to welcome Christ in the stranger. But he is tired, and his heart sinks, and so he can’t help but mutter, ‘Oh Christ, is it you again?