The Gift of Hospitality

Some ladies are said to have “the gift of hospitality”:  Lady Lovely’s home is tidy and tasteful and most of all welcoming, her food and drink fit each occasion, kings and commoners and strangers and friends feel at home with her, she facilitates meaningful and merry conversation, she rarely breaks a sweat (unless it’s from laughter or Scattergories), and her guests leave inspired by their time in her home.

I dearly love the Lady Lovelies of my world. And I’m not quite one myself. Instead, I realize, my own practice of hospitality is mostly a gift to me, a gift given from Our Lord and from my guardian angel, and from the guardian angels of my guests.

I think I have always expected that the only fun and worthwhile part of entertaining is the part that’s actually entertaining. Party time! If only, à la Beauty and the Beast, the house would clean itself, the food would cook itself, the dishes would wash themselves—be our guest! (And maybe Mrs. Potts the nanny-teapot could even get our children to sleep on time, before the guests arrive.) Then my darling husband and I could sit back, eat and drink, entertain and be entertained and have no cares for a few hours.

But, as with… well… almost all of my expectations, wrong again.

I am discovering that the most profoundly great part of entertaining is not my own “being entertained”; it’s the Christian love that hospitality draws out of the hostess. I am never more spiritually present to our guests than when I am tidying, scrubbing, planning and preparing in anticipation of their arrival, and when I am cleaning up after their departure. And domesticity and contemplation are not natural virtues of mine. I am amazed by the purity of love that I experience for our guests when I serve them unseen, before and after the main event—again, unrelated to my own virtue, because my tendencies are toward cynicism, vanity, pride, competitiveness, and plenty of other vices that taint love of neighbor. It’s as if the hours of preparation and cleanup are wordless intercessory prayer for them and spiritual presence with them, with no particular mental or spiritual effort on my part. And, through this gift, I am learning (slowly, really slowly, all by God’s grace) how to love better and more purely and how to live more in the present moment.

So, come party time, I may be disheveled, there may be dust on the endtables, dinner may be underseasoned or overcooked… but the gifts that I receive through each act of hospitality make it so worthwhile.

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  • Molly

    What a lovely way to think of it! I’m also not naturally a “lady lovely,” and it has led to conflict between my husband and I. He would have people over every night if he could, but I find the getting ready process so stressful (cleaning, cooking, wanting everything to be perfect) that I have a hard time with it. I think if I focus on it as an act of love, rather than a stress situation, it’ll change the whole dynamic. Thanks!

    ps–I will also just put in a plug for ‘Home Comforts,’ a book on housekeeping that the Builders have mentioned before, and that I have found so helpful. It does a very nice job of describing how cultivating a comfortable home–for guests and for one’s own family–is an act of love.

  • Big Mama

    Thank you so much for this little reminder! My house gets power-cleaned once in a while, and I go binge shopping when it seems like we’ve run out of everything. I am not a “maintainer” like these lovely hostesses you mention (although I am working on it- thank you flylady!).

    I get so stressed out before we have guests over, and I am usually stressed out during (is the food warm enough? are we running out of anything?), and afterwards, “It’ll take me three days to get the house back in shape.”

    I think it is important to see getting everyone together as a ministry, rather than a stressful burden. When we adjust our thinking a bit, it makes everything a little more enjoyable and worthwhile!

  • Right Said Red

    I think you hit the nail on the head, hospitality is about love and service. I am naturally very extroverted and love having house guests. Lately, since we have been in survival mode for some time, we have had very limited house parties/functions. I find that I really miss it, as service is a huge part of my love language.

    Pride (does my house look good enough? will my food taste good enough?) can often get in the way of allowing hospitality to be a true act of service to others. Constantly asking if the food is “good enough” and making excuses for dishes that didn’t turn out as planned are often ways my pride can manifest itself while serving others.

    In the first months of my marriage, Mr. Red and I were invited to dinner by an middle age couple with 10 children. They served us dinner, made an absolutely delicious meal, and their older children all helped (running in and out of the kitchen, pouring us drinks, etc). They even had different wines to go with each course! I seriously felt like I was in a restaurant, and I felt so loved and so special to them. The mom was very relaxed and wasn’t interested in taking any credit for how nice the house looked and how delicious the meal was. That evening is always a reminder to me of the atmosphere I want to create in my home. Make your guests feel special, but don’t focus on yourself, your food, your clean house, etc.

  • I think that you are right when you say that you are spiritually present to your guests when you are preparing and cleaning up, but I think that I struggle to be literally present to my guests when they are there — sometimes getting the meal to the table or the dishes out of the way holds me back from feeling like I am even there at my own party. I have recently begun to deal with this by preparing simpler food, and less of it, and ordering in what I can to cheat a bit for bigger events.

    My mother is an amazing hostess and I think a lot of it come down to flexibility, too. When something goes wrong, she seems to be able to cover it up or laugh it off and move on quickly. On the other hand, when I realized that I did not have the right number of places at table once I was so annoyed and embarrassed that I had to go into my room and cry. Perfection does not equal hospitality, and we will never be perfect, so why try? We are called to perfect love.

    You can always tell, too, when someone has prepared a meal well because they really enjoy cooking and put love into it, even if they took some short cuts, or when it was done to merely to impress. Love tastes better.

  • Big Mama

    I will also add: after two years of driving myself crazy when my in-laws visit, I finally made up my mind to relax this time and it seemed like everyone was more relaxed as well!

    We only had a few hours’ notice that they’d be staying with us for four days over the long weekend. I had no clean bath towels, and my fridge was empty. Normally this would send me into a tailspin. Instead, I just laughed and handed them clean beach towels, joking, “You caught me on laundry day!” They used them instead! Dinner was picked up from our local grocery store that evening, and we just threw it all on the grill. I didn’t sweat it, and neither did they. Obviously, they came because they wanted to spend time with us, not because they wanted a gourmet meal or clean bath towels:)

  • I have learned so much watching my mother-in-law find joy in hospitality. She will drop everything to have a party over at their place and doesn’t seem to stress about the details. She cuts corners where she can and finds gratification in the presentation of the items she’s serving. Everything is always delicious and beautiful, but mostly because the hostess is so joyful!

    I’ve found that by opening up our home to more spur-of-the-moment visitors, I’m able to entertain more freely and be more present when guests come over because I’m not stressing as much! Also, putting more effort in the day-to-day tidiness of our home also helps with entertaining stress because I can welcome folks last-minute and not worry too much about the clutter. This is always a work-in-progress, though, I must admit!

    But really, in the end, as JM so beautifully put, isn’t it all about giving of one’s self for others?! Offering one’s pride, letting go, and getting the most out of God’s people. Sign me up.

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  • AWOL Mommy

    I just want to say that JM is an amazing hostess and you will feel warmly loved and attended to whenever you are with her. Say, for example, dropping in on her in a 400 square foot apartment in Rome with your family of five on a few hours notice. She is the Loveliest of Lady Lovelies. She even loaned us a pacifier — that is way more important to me than any amount of dust bunnies or creme brulée for desert.