Hospitality To All

Hospitality To All September 1, 2021

Rod Waddington: Hospitality in Ethiopia / flickr

Spiritual masters not only teach us that we must be hospitable to others, but we must also be aware of the context in which we find ourselves; that is, when we engage hospitality, we should do so with consideration of the needs of our guests. What is expected of us depends, in part, on the people involved. Not everyone needs the same thing. Not everyone should get the same thing. Nonetheless, there are basic principles which we must engage. Everyone deserves compassion. Everyone deserves to be loved. It is also important to note that when we treat someone with hospitality, it does not mean we approve of everything they represent, everything that they should say or do. This is also why context matters, for what a person does when they are with us should be included in the considerations as to how we are to deal with them when they are our guests. We should not give room for people to act poorly, especially if we know they are looking for trouble, because if we do, we might be found responsible for their actions; on the other hand, we should not disregard common decency, and so we cannot ignore our responsibility to our neighbor, no matter who they are.

We often find examples of how to show hospitality in the lives and sayings of known spiritual masters, such as we find in the various sayings associated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They show us that they, too, knew they had to be compassionate towards others while differentiating their hospitality based upon the person they encounter. This can be seen in the way Abba Poemen engaged heretics when they came to meet with him:

Some heretics came to Abba Poemen one day and began to speak evil of the archbishop of Alexandria suggesting that he had received the laying on of hands from priests. The old man, who had remained silent till them, called his brother and said, ‘Set the table, give them something to eat and send them away in peace.’[1]

Abba Poemen did not want to disregard his obligation to be hospitable to all. He showed basic human decency to all, even to heretics when they came to meet with him. He knew that he had to show them hospitality, especially because they took the time and effort to be with him. Thus, Abba Poemen felt it was important to take care of their bodily needs; he fed them, showing that he wished them well, before sending them away. This satisfied the obligations of hospitality without having Poemen indicate he had any agreement with what the heretics said. They were, after all, trying to find a way to undermine the authority of the Archbishop of Alexandria, and they did it in a common way, by questioning his ordination. They suggested he had been consecrated by priests, and as they were merely priests, they had no authority to consecrate someone a bishop. Poemen knew this was ridiculous and false, and he knew that the reason why the heretics wanted people to believe such a falsehood; he understood that they wanted people to believe in their own spiritual authority. For that to happen, they had to find a way to lead others to reject those who truly had such authority. This is a common tactic of heretics (and schismatics). We see this today in the way many so-called traditionalist Catholics, rejecting Vatican II, find ways to deny the validity of the sacraments of those who are not joined with them in schism (or heresy). They often treat the sacraments as magical rites which can only performed in one specific manner, suggesting those who do not follow the specific form which they claim is essential do not possess valid sacraments. Then they claim that those who follow Vatican II do not perform the sacraments in that one and only valid form so that they can then conclude that normal Catholic clergy are no longer properly ordained.  Nonetheless, their claims are erroneous. Sacraments historically have been, and will continue to be, administered in a variety of forms, so that merely changing the rite does not make them ineffective (for it is the Holy Spirit, not the words, which makes the sacraments possible).

What Poemen teaches us is a lesson which we can and should use to help us as we interact with people we do not like. We do not have to like them. We do not have to agree with them and what they stand for. But we must still show them hospitality, indeed, we must be charitable with them, hoping for the best for them, even as Poemen did with the heretics who came to meet with him. Poemen wished them well as he sent them off in peace. Wishing the best, wishing for peace, does not mean we are wishing for success in whatever someone wants to do. Wishing the best for them could mean we wish they would change their mind and not do what they are thinking of doing; showing people hospitality sometimes provides the means to make such a change, giving them the time they need to cool down and think things through. Indeed, it is often because people are not received with due respect that they often become angry and vindictive and engage in less-than-wholesome beliefs and practices. This is why, when we are not so hospitable, we might find ourselves as being one of the causes for the evils which happen later. Perhaps this is what another story concerning Poemen could teach us:

There  was a  great  hesychast  in  the  mountain  of  Athlibeos.  Some thieves fell upon him and the old man began to cry out. When they  heard this the neighbours  seized the robbers and took them to the magistrate who threw them into prison. The brothers were very sorry about this and they said, ‘It is through us that they  have been put  in  prison.’  They  got  up and  went  to  Abba  Poemen to  tell  him  about it. He wrote to the old man saying, ‘Consider the first betrayal and where it comes from and then examine the second.  In truth, if you  had not first failed  within,  you would not  have committed the second betrayal.’ On hearing Abba Poemen’s letter read (for he was renowned in all the district for not coming out of his cell), he arose, went  to  the  city,  got  the  robbers  out  of  prison  and  liberated  them  in public. [2]

Why did the robbers come and attack the hesychast, and why did the desert monks feel responsible for what happened? Perhaps, it is because the monks did not properly live out their monastic vocation; they were not detached from all things. Was there some wealth which they had which attracted the robbers, some wealth which showed they had not fully abandoned the ways of the ordinary world?  Were they too attached to themselves that they had not yet properly learned how to die to the self, so that when the hesychast encountered their robbers, he cried in fear, summoning those closest to him to come upon the robbers and manhandle them despite the fact that they would otherwise have left in peace when they found there was nothing for them to take? Were they really robbers, or just thought to be such? The monks understood that their actions had somehow brought the thieves into their midst, and so they considered themselves responsible for what happened. Likewise, it is possible those thieves were forced, by circumstances, to become thieves; perhaps they were starving and no one was showing them hospitality, so they went looking for a way to survive. This meant that the monks had not properly lived out their vocation because they let people around them become destitute. This would explain why Poemen thought it was his duty to make sure the thieves were released, because he felt that the responsibility of what happened lay with the monks and the monastic community. We must, likewise, consider the situation of those who we consider to be troublemakers in society, those who are outcast and criminals, and see how much society itself is culpable for what they have become; when we do so, we should realize our responsibility to them, so that we, too, do not seek to just lock them up and throw away the key, but rather, we should find a way to work with them, give them the dignity and respect they did not  have, so that they can transform themselves and become better.

Hospitality is important. Charity towards others is important. How we treat others will have an effect upon them. Social sin is real. Systematic evil will corrupt people, making them go astray. So long as we ignore the dignity of others, so long as we find ways to excuse inhospitality, we are a part of the problem, we are a part of the system which has gone astray.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 178 [Saying of Abba Poemen #78].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 179 [Saying of Abba Poemen #90].


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