I have been mulling over this idea of “welcome” and “hospitality” and recall an incident that happened when I was seven years old. Here is that story.
The late afternoon was humid and hot, as it often was in South Texas. I had been sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework. My mother was cooking supper, kneading dough in her floured hands for tortillas, while beans and rice boiled on the stove.
A knock came at the back screen door. Dad was at work and nobody visited us, except my tias who always barged in whenever they felt like it.
I followed my mother to the door, peering from behind her skirt.
He looked down and finally spoke in a soft voice.
“Ma’am, I’m wondering if you could spare a bite to eat?”
My mother was silent for a few seconds, then smiled. She told the man to wait and then made him three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and poured a tall glass of milk. She placed it all on a tray and took it out to the man.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” he said. “God bless you.”
I remember asking my mother about that man and who he was. She said he was a hobo and when I asked her to explain, she said he was someone who didn’t have a home, who perhaps couldn’t find a job. I then asked her why she had given him food.
“Because he was hungry. And you never know when you might entertain angels unawares,” she said, and went back to making the tortillas.
In the 1950s you could open your door to the unknown. But today, we lock up our houses, our cars, our very lives in fear. We have lost the grace of hospitality and welcome, and in the process, we have lost who we are.
I have no answer to this because at times, the level of our lack of welcome to the “stranger” or to the “other” feels all too accepted and commonplace. We cut off another person in traffic; we are curt with the cashier when she’s slow; we gossip at work because it relieves the tedium and boredom. And yet, all spiritual practices ask us to treat each other with an open and welcoming heart.
So what to do? Perhaps we start where we are, with who we are.
We can only welcome others as much as we are welcoming to ourselves — to all of our being. So we begin by offering hospitality to those parts of ourselves we have distanced.
In her book, “The Artist’s Rule,” author Christine Valters Paintner writes:
“We have forgotten how to welcome and accept those parts of ourselves we reject — those parts of ourselves we resist and numb — even though they keep knocking and simply want to show us they have gifts to bring us.”
What gifts? The fearful edges of our being that need smoothing; the inner child of old wounds that yearns for comfort; the workaholic adult who needs to give herself permission to rest. Indeed, we can learn to welcome those orphaned parts of ourselves with gentleness, without judgment. How? By becoming aware of them in the present moment.
When we start to slam the door on our own faces and hearts, we need to step back and pause. That lack of welcome or acceptance is usually our first sign — my first sign — that we need to “be with” and sit with whatever we are avoiding. Psychologists and 12 Step Programs have long offered a wonderful acronym called HALT and it’s a good one to remember when we feel off kilter: Am I too Hungry; Angry; Lonely; or Tired?
If so, we need to be gentle with ourselves. And when we learn to be more present and hospitable to whatever is happening in our inner world, I believe we then can more freely extend a welcome to our outer world.
And indeed, just as I see lack of welcome around me at times, I am also blessed to witness many acts of hospitality on any given day — a man opening the door for an elderly woman with a walker as she struggles with her groceries, and he, helping her to the car to load them. Teenagers volunteering at a soup kitchen. A woman in church, weeping for some sorrow, and a woman behind her, resting a hand on her shoulder.
At their heart, these are all acts of love. They say, “You are not so much a stranger, but you and I, we are alike.”
As Paintner writes: “… our encounters with strangers — the unknown, the unexpected, foreign elements that spark our fear — are precisely the places where we are mostly likely to encounter God.”
Such encounters are indeed then, with angels … and they give me hope.