Purity and Hospitality

Today I thought about “Purity Rings.” They’re popular among young people nowadays. They are worn as part of a vow to abstain from certain sexual activities such as pre-marital or extra-marital intercourse. In and of themselves, I suppose they can be meaningful to those who wear them, as a sign of holding and maintaining important boundaries in a culture that all too often has no clue what “boundaries” are.

But what bothers me is not so much that we pay so much attention to purity, but rather that we pay correspondingly little attention to hospitality. And I think this might be because hospitality sometimes subverts purity.

I’m reminded of the Irish legend about St. Brigit and two of her nuns who were travelling during Lent. They were offered a meal by a pagan chieftain and when they sat at the table, they discovered that the meal included meat — in violation of their Lenten fast. The two sisters immediately began to protest that they could not eat the meat because of their religious observance. Immediately Brigit stood up, grabbed each of the two sisters by their habits and forcibly threw them out the door into the wintry cold outside! She then sat down, apologized to her host for their rude behavior, and proceeded to enjoy the meal, meat and all. Later, she explained her actions to the sisters. “You were refusing this man’s hospitality. How dare you, as women consecrated to the Lord who is the author of all hospitality?”

It’s a great story because it highlights the tension between purity and hospitality. For Brigit, honoring the dictates of hospitality took precedence over purity at least in terms of dietary observance. Of course, purity rings are not about dietary purity but sexual purity, and I suspect Brigit might have behaved differently if she was faced with an orgy rather than a meaty dinner during Lent! And this makes sense, for hospitality is not such an absolute virtue that it justifies doing away with boundaries altogether. Boundaries are important, and of course, sexual boundaries are some of the most challenging issues in our society today (hence the popularity of the rings). Far be it from me to be suggesting that boundaries (or purity) are unimportant. That said, I do think that Christianity as a religion often places so much emphasis on purity that it ends up ignoring or short-shrifting the virtue of hospitality. This is why so many Catholics are more worried about who is “worthy” to receive Holy Communion (purity) than what they can do to fight homelessness and hunger (hospitality). This is why so many evangelicals are outraged over same-sex marriage (purity) but seem to ignore questions of environmental stewardship (hospitality, in this case toward non-humans). I think we Christians ought to be living in the tension between hospitality and purity, rather than just putting all our attention on one rather than the other.

Imagine: a church where hospitality mattered as much as purity. What would it look like? How would we put the Gospel into action?

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.