Can radical hospitality have limitations?

A reflection by Sarah

Radical hospitality seems to be a hallmark of celibate communities (e.g. monasteries). Every celibate community we have visited has guest housing. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we could visit them….. they’re committed to hospitality.) For us, in our home, the practice of radical hospitality means always being willing to host a guest. Whether the guest stays overnight in our apartment, joins us for a meal, or travels with us for a ride home, the guest is a welcome person. When we meet new people, we prayerfully consider how we might be some conduit of blessing for them. So far, God’s been pretty awesome to show up in our limited efforts.

That’s a quote from one of our earliest blog posts in which we made an initial attempt at defining celibacy as a vocation. If you’ve been following our posts for a while now, you’ve probably seen that our understanding of celibacy and its various components has evolved significantly within the past year. I hope that this growth never stops, and I’m grateful to be learning more and more about what God is calling me to as time goes on. I’m especially grateful that God has been showing Lindsey and me new ways that we can extend hospitality to others.

Today, I’m writing not because of anything bold or profound that I’ve discovered, but instead because of confusion and conviction. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about certain people who used to be part of my life but are no longer. More specifically, I’m thinking of family members, former friends, and acquaintances who are not in my life at present because I have chosen to remove them from my life. Several examples come to mind. There’s a family member who misinterpreted something I said on Facebook, unfriended me, and sent a long and dramatic letter in the same envelope as my birthday card to explain her decision. When I confronted her about this, she lashed out and neither of us has spoken to the other since. There’s an ex-girlfriend who slept around with a variety of people in two different cities while we were together, who has made a habit of contacting me once every few months to throw an insult or accusation my way. There’s a man I haven’t seen or heard from in years — my high school boyfriend, who I’m sure has no interest in ever hearing from me again because of the emotional hurt both of us inflicted upon each other when we were younger and far less mature.  There’s the friend from college whom I have avoided intentionally since graduation because of her insistence every time we interacted that I “just don’t have enough faith” that God could make me straight. There’s the girl from my second grade class whom I lashed out at for excluding me from a jump rope game at recess. I have a clear memory of shouting at her, “I’m glad you’re moving to a new school next year! I don’t like you anyway!”

If I truly believe that hospitality is part of the Christian vocation and that radical hospitality is  a basic building block of a celibate Christian way of life, how am I to live that value in interactions with people whose company I enjoy about as much as a root canal? What about people who have been out of my life for varying lengths of time not because they have chosen to be, but because I have chosen to keep them away from me? I’m torn when it comes to these questions. I believe that sometimes, it is morally justifiable to cut people out of one’s life. In certain cases, not doing so results in decreased mental health and causes one to become an open target for manipulation, gaslighting, and other forms of emotionally, physically, or spiritually abusive behavior. At other times, the most Christian approach to dealing with a person one considers difficult is to keep trying, pray about it, and watch for signs that the situation might be improving. A couple of the personal situations I listed above are less difficult to discern than others. There’s almost nothing I can do to make amends to my second grade classmate. Her name is an incredibly common one, and it doesn’t seem reasonable that God would be asking me to send an apology message over Facebook to all 3,000 women who have that name. Her name might not even be the same as it was 1991. It seems a bit more reasonable that God might be asking me to get back in touch with Mr. High School Sweetheart to say, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” But what about the instances in which my anger toward a person is justifiable, and while I bear him or her no ill will I have determined that it is best if we do not interact with each other?

What does it mean to live radical hospitality with respect to someone I recognize as an image of God, but still see as a toxic person? Really, I have no idea. Is it even possible to live radical hospitality while knowing full well that there are people I would never allow into my apartment under any circumstance? Am I just kidding myself when I say that I desire to live a radically hospitable way of life if, deep down, I hope that God never sees fit for my ex-girlfriend to show up on my doorstep with a need for someone to show her hospitality? Should I be praying that God will soften my heart toward these people? But what if hardness of heart isn’t the problem and my lack of hospitality toward certain people is rooted in important concerns about safety? Or does it even matter what the root of my confusion is? How can radical hospitality be radical if it excludes even one person?

As with most dilemmas of this sort, it seems the best place to begin wrestling with these questions is the historic Christian tradition. How have celibates lived radical hospitality throughout the ages? What did it mean to them? Did those saints who lived celibate vocations ever place limitations on their extension of hospitality to others? As I’ve been mining the tradition for answers, I continue coming up confused. St. Brigid of Ireland was one of the most generous human beings I can think of, giving nearly every bit of food she had to the poor and welcoming travelers from everywhere into the monastery she founded. I wonder if there is anyone she would have turned away, or if she did would that decision be an example of her holiness? Or her human fallibility?

The Scriptures also have much to say about hospitality. 1 Peter 4:9 reminds us to be hospitable to each other without complaining. Hebrews 13:2 admonishes us not to fail in showing hospitality to unfamiliar people because “by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In Luke 14, Jesus tells one of his many parables to help us understand the kingdom of God, instructing us to show hospitality to the marginalized. Who am I to suggest that certain people should obviously be excluded from the very small banquet table in my own dining room?

I don’t have a conclusion for this post. This is an area of my spirituality where there is a clear need for growth. Maybe there is a fine line between being inhospitable to someone and holding oneself back out of healthy concern for the safety and wellbeing of both parties. Maybe there isn’t a line at all. I welcome any feedback. And as Lent approaches, please pray for me, a sinner.

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17 thoughts on “Can radical hospitality have limitations?

  1. The only thing I can think of on this subject matter Sarah is that there is a difference between people who make mistakes and need to grow and those who have wrong motives or intentions. Radical hospitality assumes messy relations but should not allow harmful ones. A good straightforward conversation would solve those questions and end any mysteries about the person.

    • It can be difficult to divide “messy” and “harmful” especially when every interaction between any two people has potential to be harmful. We’re never going to have perfect interactions. Sometimes I wonder if the line between messy and harmful is so clear as we may think intuitively, which always leaves me second-guessing myself. -Sarah

  2. Yes! to this post and these questions. Thanks for putting the messy unfinished stuff out here in thoughtful gentle words. I am challenged and encouraged to keep living into deep hospitality, seeking God’s mercy for these conundrums. Pray for me, a sinner!

  3. I am moved by your tender heart and openness to transformation but would encourage you not to feel guilty or unChristian for setting boundaries like the ones you describe which are frequently acts of real love for all involved as well as of profound humility about our own gifts and limitations. (As well as the practical difference between a larger community with physical space dedicated to guests and a group of people to share the accompanying contact versus a small home and community of two). I adore my son and vice versa but both his personality and disability mean that we get along much better now that he no longer lives in our home or depends on our financial support — a radical choice to make at the legal age of eighteen in our middle class, highly educated circle, and one that took some serious negotiation and discernment between the adult partners–but absolutely the most loving and healthy one for everyone involved. I also find great comfort in the power of God and the communion of saints when I can’t make direct amends to someone in my past, so instead discern how to live that desire through prayer for them, opening more deeply to conversion and healing on my underlying sins and/or wounds which I may see better now, and sometimes a symbolic act of kindness or charity in their honor to an appropriate person or group.

    • It’s really tough to know what is the Christian thing to do in many of these situations. I frequently find myself asking questions like, “If Jesus were to cut people out of his life who were emotionally unhealthy or manipulative or otherwise very difficult to interact with, who among us could possibly remain in his company?” That’s what I still struggle with regarding the issues I raise in the post.

      • It is tough indeed and so easy to go too far on one side or the other in our own woundedness and sinfulness which is why we definitely need grace and each other. It helps me to remember that when I set loving strong boundaries (or someone sets them with me and I do my best to honor that) it is not to cut someone out of my life but to entrust them to God’s care and that of those who are gifted to travel with them now in order to enable healthy connection/ reconnection when that is possible (which may or may not be in this earthly life). On a lighter note I also find encouragement in the wise rabbi from Fiddler on the Roof: “God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!”

  4. If I am prone to sin with regard to another person, constantly abusing them and not finding any way to live out God’s call for my life when I am in their presence, the most loving and compassionate thing that person can do for me is to limit their direct presence. I try to remember that as I seek to “love my neighbor as myself.” *Radical* hospitality, to me, means much more than physically opening doors to somebody. What makes it radical is that I am opening my heart to the person and seeking to align my conception of the person with God’s conception of the person. I am wanting what is best for the person in the same way God would, and I am committing to be part of bringing that to the person’s life. Sometimes that does mean physically inviting the person in. Othertimes, inviting the person into direct presence with me would be quite unloving, inviting the person to sin. At those times, radical hospitality may mean opening my heart and mind to solutions for the person’s problem that won’t center me and my physical presence. Hospitality is about having a humble and generous spirit, after all, and that spirit can’t always insist that the solution to everything is my own physical presence. 🙂

    • I definitely agree that if being around a particular person is leading me to sin, then I need to do a lot more work on myself before continuing to have serious interactions with them. I struggle when it strikes me that the situation is reversed, i.e. when another person is prone to sin with regard to me. I wonder if it should be my decision or the other person’s decision to take a break from interacting for a while. -Sarah

      • Jesus told us to lovingly rebuke each other when we sin (Luke 17 and Matthew 18) –and specifically mentioned abuse of the vulnerable as the most serious case when he did–so it seems to me that either party can and should make the call as the Spirit leads and that it benefits both. When I took great pains to thoroughly report the pastor/professor who abused me in college it was not just love for myself and for his potential other victims but absolute love for him and his eternal soul. And the same is true when people have called me out for hurtful behavior and in some cases needed to bid farewell to the relationship on earth while praying and hoping that as Thomas More told his executioner we would be merry together in heaven.

  5. Hey- I just thought of something. Radical hospitality isn’t about who you let into your house. It’s about who you let into your heart.

    • I think that’s definitely true. However, it seems difficult to draw a clear separating lines between the house and the heart.

  6. Big questions. Forgiveness (giving up your right to be angry at someone who has wronged you) is a Christian imperative, yet it is reasonable to take precautions against future abuse. It is also reasonable to admit that our human frailty may not allow us to help everyone we encounter. It is ultimately God’s job to care for every person, and while he is pleased for us to play a part in his plans, we must ultimately yield every person we know into God’s hands, whether we have helped them or not.

    A small thought: Did not Brigid practice her radical hospitality within a sizable community, perhaps so that if she was ever personally unable to welcome a comer for whatever reason, someone else in the community might be able to step in? Such an option is clearly less available in your smaller community.

    • Matt, thanks for your first paragraph. It can be challenging to know what sort of precautions are good and right to take in every situation. Sometimes what we consider to be a precaution can cross the line of charity and become unchristian.

      The point about how hospitality works in community is well-taken. Communities can have considerable resources beyond an individual. My questions center more upon, “Is my own heart open enough?” -Sarah

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