Something insidious is happening throughout our world that is threatening the intrinsic human nexus between stranger, guest and host, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.
Consider this scenario: Sophie hears about Josh, who up until then is a complete stranger. They’re eventually introduced by mutual friends. Sophie decides to invite Josh as a guest to a party she’s hosting, or was it that Josh first invited her? Fifty years later, on their golden wedding anniversary, Sophie and Josh may quibble over the details, but the universal pattern of human relationships is the same: a stranger becomes a guest who becomes a host.
No wonder then that the three words “stranger”, “guest” and “host” all derive from the same old French and Latin words, all connected to the word for hospitality.
When I am a stranger in a new place or situation and am offered hospitality, I also receive varying gifts of relief or gratitude, delight, surprise, reassurance and physical and spiritual refreshment. And I don’t have to go to a foreign land. On a daily basis there are countless experiences of hospitality – from a shy smile and a thank you, a please excuse me, how are you?, let me help you, or good to see you.
Hospitality is a virtue honoured and celebrated – even legislated for – within the major world religions and cultures. It is the lubricant which oils our religious and cultural relationships.
However, it occurs to me that something insidious is happening throughout our world that is threatening the intrinsic human nexus between stranger, guest and host.
At times with strident dog-whistling and race-baiting, at other times more dangerously subtle, we recognise a deliberate calibrated injection of fear. Fear of the one who is different, who doesn’t look like me, speak like me, or believe like me.
Stereotyping is a potent weapon of fear-mongering. All Muslims and all Green supporters are like this. All bishops and all gay people are like that. Stereotyping is lazy thinking, stripping an individual of colour and personality, uniqueness, mystery and agency. Stereotyping ultimately dehumanises.
Another missile in the fearmonger’s arsenal is catastrophising. We’ll all be ruined if detainee strangers from Nauru and Manus Island are allowed to set foot on Australian soil. A “caravan” is going to invade the United States, a caravan of strangers which most likely includes terrorists, and unquestionably includes people intent on taking our jobs.
One cannot be naïve. Some strangers are untrustworthy, even violent, and some guests do overstay their welcome. But by assuming that all strangers are dangerous and to be feared, we rob ourselves and others of the countless gifts that hospitality graciously and generously provides.
Our biblical tradition reveals a God who is love, a God who is hospitality. God creates out of selfless hospitable love, invites a people to be a covenanted guest, and implants within this chosen people a law of hospitality to strangers. Accordingly, Abraham, by being the host to strangers, offers hospitality to God.
Jesus, God’s beloved, the one who comes among us as visitor and guest becomes the host who offers the hospitality of acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. He tells stories about extravagant hospitality to people “not like us”, to sinners, enemies and those who are ethnically and religiously “other”.
He pictures heaven in terms of a lavish banquet where celebrities and VIPs are overlooked in favour of the outcasts of society. Offering or withholding hospitality, he says, is akin to accepting or rejecting the Gospel (Matthew 10:11-13).
The stranger is not only the guest of Jesus’ hospitality, but often the one who is sinful and corrupt, such as Zacchaeus the tax-collector who becomes Jesus’ host. The dynamic of stranger-guest-host is at the core of Jesus’ life and mission.
Hospitality is intrinsic to any Gospel-based tradition. Without hospitality, there is neither a genuine Good Samaritan spirituality nor Benedictine spirituality.
Over the centuries as Christian people have reflected on the nature of the God, revealed by Jesus, they differed from the other great monotheistic religions and spoke of a Trinitarian God of communion, a God of self-giving, self-receiving love. God’s very essence is hospitality.
For me, this rich spiritual tradition of hospitality and honouring the stranger-guest-host relationship, is a potent challenge to the politics surrounding our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. More personally, it challenges my familial, communal and work relationships.
Isn’t it true that, even in the most intimate of relationships, we continue to be strangers to each other? We are so different from each other and continue to be so. Close living and close working environments are never romantic ideals. Together with silken cords of amicability and compatibility, I also experience abrasive sand-paper living as we misunderstand, disappoint, and even maltreat each other. Why can’t they go away or at least change? Which planet does this person live on?
The virtue of hospitality invites me to be host, not only to a person, but to his way of being that persists in being so different from mine. Hospitality invites me to accept an individual and also to respect her universe and her temple of meaning, that is, how she uniquely understands or makes sense of events, relationships and herself.
And what about the stranger within me? Derek Walcott’s beautiful poem, “Love after Love”, invites the reader to “love again the stranger who was yourself” and to “feast on your life”. Offering hospitality to myself in my strength and weakness, with my gifts and flaws, makes my heart more malleable in being open to the other. Welcoming that mysterious part of me schools me in how to be host to the strangers within my world.
Hospitable people have richer lives. Indeed, they have more fun! It stands to reason. Horizons are expanded and experiences are multiplied as conversation and story-telling turn strangers into mutual hosts and guests, indeed into sisters and brothers.
As Advent approaches perhaps each of us could be more mindful of the strangers in our midst. Befriending just one stranger can bring immeasurable gifts. I know no better way to celebrate Advent, the season where we ready ourselves to celebrate the coming of the divine stranger to our world.