We Must Cultivate the Art of Christian Hospitality

It’s an old adage, usually wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, that Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. It was actually Oscar Wilde who originally said that “we really have everything in common nowadays except, of course, language.”

Having lived in the United States for nearly 18 years, I pride myself on being bilingual — I can speak English as God intended it to be spoken in the Garden before the Fall — and as it is indeed spoken in heaven; and I can speak American.

In my early years, I made all the familiar mistakes — asking for a torch when it should be a flashlight, and telling people I had a smart coat, which I discovered, of course, meant my clothing was highly intelligent, when I thought it was just formal.

However, even after all this time, there are still occasions when, even if the word is not misunderstood, the intention could easily be lost in translation.

I recently spent a wonderful few days staying with a friend and her family. Following the old “fish and guests” rule – both go off after three days — I left after the required time. Several times during my happy visit, my friend insisted I come back soon.

Finally on my last morning, just as I was about to leave, I realized I had to seek clarification — and ensure which language we were speaking.

What follows is a useful tip for all prospective American tourists to the U.K., especially if you are invited into someone’s home: In England, when your host declares, “My house is your house, come any time,” the correct reply is, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly do that, you are too kind.” That is precisely the response your host wants to hear. However, quite astonishingly to me, apparently my friend — being American — actually meant it. I was dumbfounded.

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What I experienced at my friend’s home was, apart from linguistic confusion, the particularly Christian virtue of hospitality. Etymologically, hospitality is rooted in the Latin word “hospes,” meaning a guest. The friendly welcome to a guest, especially into the family home and to share a common meal, is the epitome of hospitality.

The reason it is a virtue is because it is an expression of Christian charity. Also, as with all virtues, it must be cultivated and exercised because, unlike vice — which is easy, sometimes, perhaps always — hospitality requires both effort and generosity.

We all instinctively warm to the generous and welcoming host, just as we eventually avoid the stingy miser. Do we want to spend time with Mr. Scrooge or Mr. Pickwick? The hospitable person essentially reaches out from himself or herself toward the other — and celebrates life and all its blessings.

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The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (once thought to be St. Paul, but still the inspired Word of God) addressed the Christian community with various moral instructions in the 13th chapter. He tells the early Christians — and us — “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Before mass immigration proponents, or even some clergy, seize on this quote to justify everything from open borders to sanctuary cities, this has nothing to do with politics. The writer to the Hebrews is speaking to a Christian community about welcoming “strangers” from other churches into their homes. It follows the ancient biblical principle of welcoming strangers and especially feeding them — a genuine narrative of welcome, which has been hijacked to mean something partisan and political and contrary to the Word of God.

To “break bread together,” even in the secular sense, is a foretaste of the place in which hospitality is heaven.

However, “entertaining angels unawares,” when we merely thought we were welcoming a friend or guest into our home or to share a meal, tells us there is even something of the divine involved in the virtue of hospitality.

There is a reason a transformed meal is at the heart of orthodox Christian worship. God Himself is the host at the feast, and as Christians have believed from the very first — the host feeds us with Himself. To “break bread together,” even in the secular sense, washed down with good wine and good cheer, with a guest at the family table — with no television and no phones — is a foretaste of the place where hospitality will be heaven.

As always, G.K. Chesterton put it best when he said that “comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travels; but that rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure forever.”

I will be visitng my friend’s home and family again soon. I just hope she was not speaking English.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.

Last Modified: September 26, 2017, 6:32 am

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