Hospitality is life
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, may I please have something nice?”
“Hospitality” can sound intimidating, but we humans are made for it. We learn it by experiencing it, and as we practice, we grow in honesty and trust.
I was a college freshman the first time I saw the magic in Janet Whalen’s kitchen. We were a noisy, scrappy gang of Christmas Carolers, making the rounds of our college town, being sure to stop at the Whalens’ since Janet, we were told, would probably “have something nice for us”. We expected a welcome, blithely invaded her home and were served hot cider from a giant pot on the kitchen stove. I pitched in, ladeling cider into mugs, laughing with everyone else about the Michigan cold and taking in the happy evening. Janet laughs with her whole self. She laughs at herself, at her funny kids (there are I think eleven now). She laughs at youth, at age, at absurdity. And that evening of openness, generosity, delight, acceptance sealed something that I had always known, but hadn’t put into a category yet: hospitality is life. And I learned it from Janet.
Christy Kalthoff, also a professor’s wife, wove the same magic. Their home was quieter, removed from town on a few wooded acres. They had chickens, a goat, two turkeys, four tall, strong children and a potato bin in the cellar. I mention the potato bin because it was another of those confirming elements for me. Christy thought ahead, bought a share of a farmer’s potatoes and stored them in the cool cellar so she’d always have enough to give. And every dinner to which I was invited was plentiful and accompanied by meaty conversation. Any old evening, there was a Home there. It was life. And I learned it from Christy.
My own mother is not naturally social. It is a strain for her to have evenings full of people or deep, difficult conversation with a relative stranger, but her big yearly gesture of hospitable magic is the most powerful in my life. Ask me the details later, but she began the tradition of a midnight Easter Feast in the home. Bursting out at midnight with music and light after the darkness of a long, cold, hungry Lent, Easter Feast began with a blast on the shofar (yes, the curly ram’s horn thing) and then a crowd of our friends joined us for food, drink and song to celebrate the Resurrection. This is life, let me tell you. I, my sisters, and now others keep this tradition, and it has been, it is not too much to say, transformative to those who have experienced it. It is life. And we learned it from my mother.
Hospitality is the opening of everything that is good about what you have and what you are to those around you. A hospitable life is an honest life, and as you give what you really are, you make your own life better, so that you have more to share, which makes your life better, so that you have more to share, which makes your life better, so that you have more to share … you see where I’m going here.
You can see in the three above examples that hospitality weaves a spell. It’s not fake, but it is theatrical. It requires a set, some props and a few lines. Humans are incarnate; we live in our bodies and among objects. We eat and drink and breathe and all the rest. Although hospitality is done by a person, the physical environment itself speaks to the guest and casts the spell. It teaches and demonstrates truths. Janet’s kitchen wanted the students to be in it. The smell of cider told us that. The mugs higgledy-piggledy on the counter told us there was enough for all and that we were not to stand on ceremony. “Come on in”, said the kitchen light. “Relax”, said the chairs pulled away from the table. This environment welcomed us in proportion to the welcome of our hosts.
The environment literally taught us. It was still Advent, the run-up to Chrismas, and Janet’s kids had made paper Advent wreathes and pinned them to the kitchen wall. This family watched time go by, observed and celebrated the feasts and fasts of the Church Year. Janet made pretzels during Advent, which symbolize praying arms. We had been caroling, and his home, these people, clearly supported us in that. More than supported, they enjoyed our joy.
A prayer card and a candle on her cluttered desk spoke to her own, private devotion in the midst of her busy life. I learned by seeing that card that a busy mother, wife, American woman, was still a person, a single soul in front of God. She had a hidden life. Her candle taught me to want one too. I wanted to live like that.
Christy’s home in a clearing in the woods, with piles of firewood and animals to be fed and cared for, and a large yard to be raked and mowed all spoke to the guest of the richness of labor. I worked with Christy in that yard, raking and hauling tarps of debris to the edge of the wood, and she was eight months pregnant. She was so strong, indomitable, but she allowed me to help her. Her hospitality welcomed my effort. The extra gloves, ready on the porch, told me I was good enough to help. In fact, my helpfulness was valuable. I wanted that to be part of my life.
Inside Christy’s home, where many people have walls, the Kalthoffs had bookshelves. Mark’s study was central in the house and above it was a loft surrounded by the children’s books and many others. Christy kept these spaces clear and usable. She was a powerhouse of a woman and a sharp, clear thinker. I remember learning more from Mark and Christy at their table than in Mark’s classroom. What I learned in class was so valuable, but I have carried into my own life far more daily wisdom that I learned at that table. Maybe sometimes to Christy it was “one more student meal”, but to me it was a pattern for the rest of my life. Not “how to be perfect”; I knew they weren’t. But “how to welcome them in”. Hospitality. Life.
The set and props of my mother’s Easter Feast preached a depth charge of truth and formed how I live. I think I can just describe it, and you’ll hear what I mean. We observed Lent for forty days, more or less. More prayer, fewer sweet treats, and awareness of the season. The anticipation of the feast grew as Lent passed. And then Easter – Easter was the center of our universe.
Bear with me while I paint this picture. I quote at length here an excerpt from a childhood memoir. Keep in mind, as I do, the power of objects, of meeting with acceptance and belonging in a physical space by hospitality, to make a message present and powerful, to give life.
“The sanctuary was entirely dark at the end of the Tenebrae service on Good Friday – the service of the shadows. A pair of beeswax tapers burned on the altar as the final words of Christ rang out into the silence, “It is finished.” An acolyte rises from his knees and puts out one of the weak flames with the bell of the long brass snuffer (emunctorium, I have heard it was called, though we never used the term). All eyes are on the final flame, a spark in this vast space. I will it to burn on, not to waver, not to quake. “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit.” A Father who was not listening. Don't put it out. God, let the last one stay lit. It's so dark in here. But the acolyte rises, a black shape of robes against the pool of yellow light, extends the brass bell on its long handle like a stiff tentacle, and it descends upon the final taper, suffocating it and leaving us alone in total darkness. Some weep, all are sober, all recall His every word as we stand and file silently back toward the narthex and into the dim and thinly street-lamp-lit night. “Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.” “I'm thirsty.” “Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabacthani?” I often cried in my bed on Good Friday, thinking of Him dying slowly, intentionally, with all His wits about Him.
Holy Saturday was for cleansing. We turned the heat off, threw open every door and window. The smell of dust on the metal screens being blown inward by cold, moist spring air as I crank open my bedroom window is the smell of anticipation, preparation, hard work and hunger.
We fasted on Holy Saturday, water only. Coffee for the grown-ups – every adult in my family drank strong, black coffee all day. I still can't start a day, or continue it, any other way. Little kids were given bread and milk, but the unspoken challenge was to graduate to a full fast and declare yourself an adult. And once there, you wouldn't go back, any more than you would return to diapers. “Did Emmy fast today?” “No, she's still on bread and milk.” “I'm growing!”
Windows open, we blared show tunes, filled pails with warm suds and rags made from Pop's old undershirts and our old cloth diapers, and washed everything. Until I was in college, my Dad smoked a corncob pipe, pacing the hall as he wrote sermons in his head, and the tar clung to the white walls in a yellow gradation from ceiling downward. The clean white arc that my soapy rag made through the grime was satisfying enough to make me want to clean for hours. And we really did.
When Hannah put on the soundtrack to “Me and My Girl', we all belted the numbers as we cleaned, more or less in good spirits until the hunger wore us down.
When the walls were done and all the linens washed, the wooden furniture oiled and the persian area rugs taken up for the season, we washed and waxed the wood floors. Even though we were very hungry and the work was physically tiring, it was a very great pleasure for all the senses to kneel on the clean, dry dull boards of the floor and rub in bowling alley wax with rags, conditioning, darkening, reviving the wood. And then we buffed it.
We had a buffing machine, with thick, round felt pads on the bottom for the large, main areas, but we always finished the buffing with cloth diapers tied thickly around our feet. Marta and I skated around the floor, rubbing any dull spots to shining splendor. And the smell: soap, lemon, fresh earth, the yeast of babka and kulich developing richly with vanilla and orange rind, vinegar, bacon for a marvelous pickled cabbage dish I later dubbed “Moscow kapusta”. Raisins, citron and sugar for the hot crossed buns. You can live on these smells for a day without eating.
We learned anticipation. At gatherings of friends and festive dinners, my dad always smiled, sighed, and thanked God for “this foretaste of the feast to come”. I didn't know then that I was practicing for the rest of my life. And I didn't know he was quoting the eucharistic liturgy. Holy Saturday is where we live. God seems to have left us without restoring what we thought He'd restore. We yearn. We all yearn. It is the fundamental truth in man's heart, from Gilgamesh to Siddhartha. The gnawing hunger while we work in preparation for we know not what, will be satisfied. But not yet. We are fasting, and we can do it more or less cheerfully, more or less busy along the way making our life beautiful and fragrant.
We went to bed exhausted, and I haven't described all the cooking, baking and errand running involved before evening fell. I always thought I wouldn't sleep, like the night before Christmas. Marta and I were so hungry and proud of ourselves for keeping the fast that we had already chosen what we'd break the fast with at midnight, sometimes it was already hidden beneath our pillows – a chocolate egg, a piece of bread, forgotten when midnight came.
Hannah stayed up with my parents finishing the production. Every potted lily, hyacinth and tulip that would later bedeck the sanctuary had been carried up through the frosty night from the church to the parsonage, not too early, or they'd wilt in the heat of the house warmed with baking breads. The fragrant blooms in their linen-wrapped pots sprang from any spot left between the sweet Russian breads, pickled things, boiled sausage, steaming white potatoes, cold butter shaved into curls by one lucky daughter, cabbage with bacon, kvass, preserves, rye bread, cheap caviar, sour cream, and a strewing of jordan almonds and Cadbury mini eggs, and all of it served in crystal or on glowing silver trays and platters newly polished by one unlucky daughter, and all of that on crisp and creamy linen – ironed wet so that its smoothness shone.
All of these waited in the dark. It wasn't time yet. The usual guests arrived silently just before midnight. They found their way over the little ridges of the remaining icy snow, between rows of flickering candles we’d set in glass jars to lead them to our basement door. Twelve or so waited downstairs in the dark – the signal hadn't come yet.
Then midnight – no more could be readied – the time was come. We had a ram's horn, and this was the time to use it. It called out, hollow, pure and distant in mounting harmonics and then the music played loud and the candles were lit and the friends charged up the basement stairs, and my father laughed aloud.
Marta and I woke to music and my father's cry of “Christ is Risen!” as he threw open our bedroom door. Shaking, we replied “He is Risen Indeed!” and joined the party.
The pleasures of the Feast were of every kind. My father raised a glass of ice-cold vodka and toasted his throaty, “To the King!” We downed the freezing liquid fire and willed to keep it in our empty stomachs as Pop sighed and prayed over the food we were craving.
I found my place in the candlelight, glowing with vodka and spiritual release. My people were around me; my God had conquered death; the best of foods lay before me, and I ate. And when the ache of my heart and my empty belly were satisfied, I breathed and sat back in my chair and looked around the table and listened to the talk.
“A great babka, Mom. One for the books.”
“Thank you. I got so nervous when the top was really overflowing the pan and getting so dark. I had to put foil over it so it wouldn't burn.”
“No, it turned out great.”
“What's this one?”
“Oh, that's poppyseed.”
“You know, you can make kvass out of almost anything.”
“Fruit usually, though, right?”
“Best pickled eggs ever.”
“Definitely, and did you use a thicker bacon in the sour cabbage?”
The murmur and pleasant observations didn't ever seem to stop, and I loved watching their faces. Across the table in the candlelight, you and I smiled and pretended to understand all the grownups talked about. It seems this glittering table was the point of reconnection as we grew and our lives changed.”
Do I need to explain how powerful those nights were? Every last physical detail spoke joy, pleasure, richness, peace, satisfaction, triumph and unity, The Marriage Feast of the Lamb, which is the entire point of Jesus’ mission. Our firm anticipation of our own bodily resurrection from the dead acted out by eating sweet, filled breads and caviar. And it was at a table, where there were chairs for everyone.
This example is a pinnacle of hospitality, a grand production. But powerful hospitality doesn’t need a crowd. You don’t need a big family, full table or silver serving platters. The same welcome, with the same power, exists between two people, when one gives and another receives. This back-and-forth, this conversation, is the stuff of life. And life can be small; it can be messy; it can certainly be flawed.
In fact, bringing all of who you are also means not hiding the rough edges, not pretending any kind of absolute control over self or situation. Those who have taught me hospitality the most beautifully have done it the most helter-skelter. The Whalens used the line I now use about my own family, “The train keeps rolling, but if you can jump on board, you’re more than welcome!”
The hospitable person gives out of who they are. Who they are all the time, not just when they’ve put their make-up on and cleaned the bathroom. The hospitable person answers the door in their sweatpants, welcomes their friend in and puts on the tea kettle. The visit and the conversation starts on equal footing. If your guest feels broken, they don’t want to sit with Miss America Homemaker Barbie. I think I’m much more approachable as me. And I get to give out of who I am right now. Which makes me enough, just as I am right now. Which inspires me to learn from my guest, to read the Bible more, to know more, to have more to share, and so on. Hospitality is life that gives and receives and grows and learns.
I’ve been blessed and honored by cards, texts, calls, emails over the years from young people who have been in our lives, either for a single dinner, for our three-month summer travels when Brandon was a youth camp director, or as one of the students and young friends with whom we’ve stayed connected for many years. They all kindly thank us for our hospitality and more often than not, thank us for welcoming them into our home however scrappy or busy it may have been when they popped over. They are welcome, no matter what hodge-podge we are having for dinner. They are welcome, ready or not, to sit on the porch or in the family room, to run errands with me or help do dishes. Life stuff.
On the road with a nationwide youth camp every summer for 20 years, the seasonal college staff were by necessity part of our family. They saw children behaving badly. They saw me behaving badly. They saw Brandon worn out and anxious. But they also saw the process of correction and reconciliation. I have apologized to staff half my age for my bad attitude. These things are also hospitality, welcoming others into what I have and what I am. Whatever that may be! I am enough, in that moment, to be Jesus’ hands and mouth in the world. This is what life is all about.
Hospitality is life itself. Humans need to be accepted by other humans. They need to know their life has a place and a purpose. They need something to root them to the present, to stop their whirring thoughts about the future for a moment. They need to be a guest. Sitting at a table, welcomed into a home, eating and drinking, connecting the body to the soul, these things are life, and hospitality makes it happen. The lives of the guest and host are enriched, even formed.
The hospitable person grows a life around them that is shaped by and for hospitality. Their very mode of life, down to the size of their table and sufficiency of cooking pots, has been shaped for hospitality. In my own home I have had an incredibly kind donor provide for a remodel that opens the entryway of my home by rebuilding a staircase out of planks bought from a mill near my family’s ancestral property and removing a wall. This is literally reshaping my family’s home so that guests are welcomed into the home, a feeling of lightness and beauty drawing them back to the kitchen where the tea kettle is on and the conversation is already underway. I have learned from people like Janet, Christy and my mother how physical surroundings put us at ease and send a message of welcome. Art on the walls (and framed bugs, in our case) say something about the spirit of our family and what our home delights in. What kind of life we live.
We have a prayer corner in our kitchen. It’s just a shelf with a candle on it, sometimes a post-it note or photo reminder, flanked by images of Jesus as a baby and as a man. It is there for me and for my family, but it is also there for our guests. Our kitchen is the beating heart of the home. We gather, pray, eat, laugh, talk, do school, at the kitchen table. And for these LIFE activities to be welcome, for prayer to happen with an easy focal point, the kitchen is equipped hospitably. It is equipped for living.
This reshaping and physical consideration doesn’t have to mean a remodel, or even owning a home. My cousin rented one room in a house, and she had one friend or another over for a chat so often, she needed a couple chairs and a little table for a candle and mugs placed in a cozy corner. Her life, her small room, became a spot always ready to receive a friend. Perhaps there were clothes on the floor, but there was always a seat for you and a place for your mug.
Janet Whalen had six or seven kids when I met her. Christy Kalthoff had four. I grew up as the middle of three girls. My husband has one sister. The magic of hospitality is as potent between two people as in a family table-ful of nine or a roomful of forty. It is life itself, creating trust in every direction, enriching everyone, and it must be learned.
There’s trust in learning and practicing hospitality. I learned from professors’ and pastors’ families just as well (or maybe better?) as from the very wealthy that welcoming others into our homes and hearts is life itself. We can trust that Jesus wants us to sit with a friend, and He’ll make it possible. He’ll send you biscotti and a pack of instant coffee. Or an unexpected bottle of wine. Or a candle. Physical provisions flow through the hands of the hospitable. You can trust them because they are not holding back. Not their time, not their possessions, not their very selves. They give all and accept all. They are conduits of Grace, the means God uses to be His comfort, His acceptance, His unconditional welcome in the world.
An hospitable environment and attitude creates goodwill between guests and hosts. Back to Janet Whalen’s kitchen: we expected a welcome and “something nice”. What better attitude to practice, considering it’s how we approach our Good Father. “Our Father who art in heaven, may I please have something nice?” Goodwill, safety, comfort and welcome are the seedbed of trust. Trust opens hearts on both sides and is the beginning of honest, fruitful conversation, acceptance, even love. Which is the stuff of life.