This extended holiday weekend I’m sure many of us are planning or hoping to get together with family and friends for cookouts or shared meals. Maybe watching fireworks; maybe setting some off. (Don’t tell me; I don’t want to know!)
Some will be hosting guests; others will be the guests. Of course when we’re guests often we bring something to contribute: dessert or drinks or something.
When Suzanne and I lived in Philadelphia early in our marriage, when she was working as a nurse at Children’s Hospital and I was studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, we were friends with a couple who were Armenian, whose families were from Armenia in the Middle East. One time they happened to stop by our apartment for awhile, and the husband, Garabed, ran out to the car and came back with a package of salami that they had in the trunk just in case. That was a reflection of their culture; it was so important to have a gift for the host that they had emergency supplies in the car.
I like that story because it reminds me that different cultures have different expectations regarding hospitality, and I think about that sometimes reading about hospitality in the Bible — like in the first of today’s readings about Elisha the prophet and that well-to-do woman of Shunem who invited him to dinner and went on to fix up a little room for him stay in when he was passing by.
Hospitality in the Bible reminds me of our Armenian friends because Armenia is right there in the Middle East, near Iran and Turkey — in biblical terms it’s just north of Assyria. So that salami reminds me that in the cultural world of the Bible, in the Ancient Near East, hospitality was a bigger deal than it is in our world.
In that world, hospitality — generosity in welcoming strangers and travelers as well as friends and neighbors — was an important virtue and a fundamental duty, especially in less populated desert places where travelers’ lives might literally depend on the kindness of strangers.
Hospitality was especially important to God’s people, the Israelites, because they knew what it meant to be strangers in a strange land. The Lord tells them in Leviticus,
“When a stranger [or foreigner] resides in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides among you must be treated as your native-born. Love him as yourself; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33)
Abraham, the father of God’s people, demonstrated this hospitality when he welcomed three visitors as honored guests, bowing down and inviting them to stay, washing their feet, and helping his wife Sarah prepare a feast for them.
Of course those weren’t ordinary visitors; it was the Lord appearing to Abraham. But we aren’t told that Abraham knew them right away as anything more than honored guests. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament may be referring to that story when it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
Elisha the prophet wasn’t an angel, but he was a holy man of God, as the Shunammite woman knew very well when she went to such lengths to show him hospitality. Notice how practical and thoughtful she is about it: “He’ll need a bed, of course, but also a chair and a table. We want him to be comfortable. A lamp, too. It gets dark early this time of year.”
And she’s rewarded, as our Lord says: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet, will receive a prophet’s reward.” As great as it would be to unknowingly entertain angels, it’s better still to knowingly offer hospitality to a prophet or a righteous man, or even to give a cup of cold water to some lowly disciple of Jesus, because of who they are.
Hospitality is about more than food and drink, or a roof over someone’s head. It isn’t just opening our door, but opening our hearts and our lives to others. It’s a generous willingness to share our time, our attention; to take responsibility for one another; to recognize that we’re all connected and to live that way.
Hospitality and generosity begin at home, with marriage and family. “This time next year you will be fondling a baby son,” Elisha tells the Shunammite woman. So this couple, who have generously opened their home to Elisha, will generously open their lives to welcome new life into the world.
This woman will give a generous welcome to another, not only in her home and her life, but in her body, in that little room within her. On this generous welcome, all human life depends, like the lives of travelers in the ancient Near East depended on the hospitality of strangers.
But hospitality and the sense of connection that it depends on and fosters are in decline in our culture. For all our connectedness, our technology and social media, isolation and loneliness are increasing rather than decreasing. Why is that?
Just over the last 30-odd years, the number of people with no close friends has tripled, according to the General Social Survey. Marriage is also in decline, of course. The generosity and connection of marriage are becoming harder for young people not only to achieve but even to imagine. So many don’t know how to give themselves to one another as husband and wife, just like they find it hard to connect as close friends.
And of course when people do marry, the vast majority can’t imagine not using contraception, birth control, which is a refusal of the generosity that husbands and wives are called to, beginning with total gift of self between the spouses, sharing their lives and their bodies with one another, keeping nothing back, open to life with generosity of spirit. Contraception is a form of self-isolation — a closing of the door not only to new life, but even between the spouses.
Isolation and loneliness are not how God means us to live, and so much science has found it’s not good for us, emotionally or physically. Having friends protects our health as much as good habits like not smoking and exercise.
Studies have even found that the best friends are church friends. If you are committed to your faith, and if you have close friends that you see at church and worship with, this is good for your happiness and wellbeing like no other social experience, according to a study by political scientists at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Of course many Catholics worship week after week in a crowd of strangers, either because there’s no sense of community at their parish or because they just wind up going to whatever Mass is most convenient for their busy schedules or their plans for the day. There’s nothing wrong with that once in a while, when it’s necessary. But if we’re lucky enough to have church friends, we ought to try to order our lives so that we can worship together regularly — and we ought to try to get to know the people we worship with.
With our technology, you’d think we would be the least isolated people in history! But it’s more complicated than that. Our technology and connectivity is good in itself, and it can connect us powerfully with each other. Suzanne and I text each other all the time. But any good thing comes with potential drawbacks, especially if we don’t use it wisely.
People are lonelier than ever partly because we’re never truly alone, even in our own heads and with our own thoughts. Our screens are always with us, on the bus and the train, at the dinner table, in the bathroom.
If we’re never alone with our thoughts, we never really have to face ourselves, to really learn who we are. We never have to face God. And we never have to make the effort to really connect with others. We may not even know how, because a deep sense of oneself is necessary to make deep connections with one another. Our screens can be drugs sedating us in lack of self-knowledge and lack of connection to one another and to God.
We need to make space in our lives for silence and emptiness, no screens, no distractions. Then, when we’re with others, we need to really be with them, to put away our devices and turn away from our distracted thoughts.
Right now my kids, if they’re paying attention, may be thinking of conversations I’ve had with them with a phone in my hand. I’ve said it before: The homilist preaches first of all to himself.
So often we divide our attention among multiples distractions. We need to learn to give the gift of undivided attention — to one another; to God; to the homilist; to the celebrant offering to God the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for all of us. Our Lord offers us the hospitality of his table; we need to offer him the hospitality of open hearts and minds, praying the Mass and not just sitting passively in our pews.
The Christian philosopher Simone Weil said that “the rarest and purest form of generosity” is attention. Just really paying attention to someone, she said, is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent, alone with his thoughts, when he looked up and saw those three visitors. Would he have looked up if he’d had a smartphone?