LENT: Monday of the First Week in Lent, by Henri J. M. Nouwen

From Show Me The Way

Then the king will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome. . . .   In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matthew 23:34-35, 40)

At first the word, “hospitality” might evoke the image of soft sweet kindness, tea parties, bland conversations, and a general atmosphere of coziness.  Probably this has its good reasons since in our culture the concept of hospitality has lost much of its power and is often used in circles where we are more prone to expect a watered down piety than a serious search for an authentic Christian spirituality.  But still, if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.  It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings.  Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.  When Abraham received three strangers at Mamre and offered them water, bread, and a fine tender calf, they revealed themselves to him as the Lord announcing that Sarah, his wife, would give birth to a son. (Genesis 18:1-5)  When the widow of Zarephath offered food and shelter to Elijah, he revealed himself as a man of God offering her an abundance of oil and meal and raising her son from the dead. (1 Kings 17:9-24)  When the two travelers to Emmaus invited the stranger, who had joined them on the road to stay with them for the night, he made himself known in the breaking of the bread as their lord and savior. (Luke 24:13-35)

When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.  Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new-found unity.  Thus the biblical stories help us to realize not just that hospitality is an important virtue, but even more that in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other.

******

It remains true that loneliness often leads to hostile behavior and that solitude is the climate of hospitality.  When we feel lonely we have such a need to be liked and loved that we are hypersensitive to the many signals in our environment and easily become hostile toward anyone whom we perceive as rejecting us.  But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others.  Once we have given up our desire to be fully fulfilled, we can offer emptiness to others.  Once we have become poor, we can be a good host.  It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host.  Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends.  We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.  But when we say, “Please enter – my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness, and my life is your life,” we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.

Turning the other cheek means showing our enemies that they can only be our enemies while supposing that we are anxiously clinging to our private property, whatever it is: our knowledge, our good name, our land, our money, or the many objects we have collected around us.  But who will be our robber when everything he wants to steal from us becomes our gift to him?  Who can lie to us, when only the truth will serve him well?  Who wants to sneak into our back door, when our front door is wide open?

Poverty makes a good host.  This paradoxical statement needs some more explanation.  In order to be able to reach out to the other in freedom, two forms of poverty are very important, the poverty of mind and the poverty of heart.

Prayer

Dear Lord,
show me your kindness and your gentleness,
you who are meek and humble of heart.
So often I say to myself, “The Lord loves me,”
but very often this truth does not enter
into the center of my heart.

Let these weeks become an opportunity for me
to let go of all my resistances to your love
and an occasion for you to call me closer to you.
Amen.

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