Thursday, September 18, 2014

"To be truly hospitable"

 "To be truly hospitable is, to some extent, to lose control of one’s space and time -- to be open to the disarray and interruption of embodied life. Perhaps hospitality is most nearly proleptic* when it bears the unruly wounds of the risen Christ." -- Amy Laura Hall
*As far as I can gather, "anticipatory of a future event," in this case life under the reign of Christ?

Some years ago, I gleefully (not to say pretentiously) copied this quote, from Amy Laura Hall’s book Conceiving Parenthood, into my Facebook profile, longing for such happy disarray in my soon-to-be-married life. Of course Dr. Hall’s book focuses on the “disarray and interruption” of welcoming children into one’s family, in contrast to a cultural obsession with planning and perfection. Undoubtedly, that was the way I thought about it, too, and no matter what I claimed to the contrary, the picture was terribly romantic in my mind. All the more because of its messiness (and the cleverly worded, too-pious essay about grace that would result . . . !).

The reality, quickly discovered, was that there’s nothing romantic at all about losing control in this way, whether the anticipated guests are those of an evening or of a lifetime. For me, being “truly hospitable” was all about control—more like a desperate, panicked grasping for pretended control, just long enough to fool others, if never myself, into believing that my home was a fit place for company.

As a newlywed, I heard people fret about the disheveled state of their living rooms in a way I suppose was meant to be both self-deprecating and reassuring. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Oh, but you don’t understand. My apartment is a health hazard.” No matter how far in advance I planned to invite someone over, the day would certainly find me collapsing into a tearful huddle of shame and anxiety. My failure wasn’t just that I didn’t have the “perfect” home; I didn’t even know how to keep mine decent, even if I weren’t depressed about being underemployed and out of sorts in Berkeley. My mindset was that hospitality couldn’t happen until I could demonstrate my worthiness. So my failure to reach that point wasn’t just a matter of forgetting to check a few items off my to-do list; ultimately, and more critically, it was a moral failing, too.

The problem, of course, was that as long as I was focused on the monumental cleaning job (no doubt exaggerated in my own mind) instead of looking forward to the imminent guests, my heart wasn’t in a place where I could welcome them, no matter what the condition of my kitchen. While it was true that the basic housekeeping needed to be addressed (how I wish I’d sought help with these things instead of being too embarrassed to ask!), I wound up with nothing left over to give, if and when it was completed.

Since settling in St. Louis, I've begun to know something of the joy of welcoming others into my home—at least a little. In truth, there is a very long way to go. The base anxiety still lurks. These days, the fear has moved past “I’ll never get everything cleaned in time,” to one that might be more insidiously prideful: “But I can’t have people over—my decorating scheme is ‘Books and More Books.’ Our couch is old, and we don’t even own a proper dining table!” Again, I don’t want to risk hospitality until I’ve asserted the proper amount of control over my unruly space. It is much more to do with my own self-perception than with the desire to make others feel at home.

The truth is, I’ll always find reasons to delay hospitality. I will never achieve it as if it were a set of principles to study and apply. There will always be more learning experiences, and there will always be self-doubt. I just have to risk it, and learn not to let insecurities strangle generosity.

I don’t know what Hall means by the latter part of that quote. I suspect she’s saying that real hospitality means being willing to give up an image of myself as fulfilling the right level of domesticity, as if it were ever about me to begin with. Even if what I can offer is frankly inferior, externally speaking, to what my peers might be able to do; even if it means losing face before others and not just in my own mind. I can’t be open to others when I’m jealously protecting those things. On the other hand, if my heart is open to Christ, my home will be, too—and Christ will cover all the insufficiencies of my effort. I want guests to leave having encountered the beauty of Christ here, and while that doesn't exclude the material, it goes well beyond it, too.

And this time, I won't be too embarrassed to ask. I would love to hear—what is one lesson you’ve learned about practicing hospitality, on a heart/attitude level rather than a strictly practical one?


  1. In my own experience, I used (and sometimes still do) focus too much on the cleaning/food (especially the food) to the point that I stressed out over that and forgot about the people. Looking back, I wonder if they realized what was going through my head, or thought I was upset with them. It was easier when I had my twin, and the two of us would entertain together--I'd do the martha stuff and she would do the mary stuff-- tada, multitasking. It's harder now that I'm solo.
    I'm not an expert on it, and have been muddling my way along ever since we've parted ways, and I'm still learning.

    And btw, this line made me laugh hard... " “But I can’t have people over—my decorating scheme is ‘Books and More Books.’" :-)

    1. I'm glad you commented, because I admire your sense of hospitality a lot -- you seem to find a lot of joy in it, and it's been fun/inspiring to watch that over the last year's psalm sings.

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