“Can you come in?”
My grandma’s favorite question is one we now discourage her from uttering.
The impulse to swing open her door and her arms, honed over nine decades and stitched into her Irish-Catholic DNA, is not easily thwarted. Yet we have attempted to do so this year.
She’s doing her best, but she doesn’t like it one bit. Social distancing goes against every fiber of her being.
At 90, Grandma still lives in the two-story brick home where she raised her six kids. It is the hub for our sprawling extended family. We all gather there on Christmas Eve, when she’s perched at the piano, plucking out carols we sing along to across the living room.
Individually, we flee there on bad days, when we need a sympathetic ear and a soft place to land. She sits by the fireplace, a candy dish at one elbow and a basket of newspapers and magazines at the other. She listens so wholeheartedly, with appreciative sounds and interjections, and instantly everything seems better.
That is hospitality in its truest sense. The word originates from the Latin word for hospital. Grandma’s expression of hospitality does indeed turn her home into a hospital: a refuge for the sad and lonely, a place for healing.
I’ve been reflecting on the virtue of hospitality, which feels more needed than ever and also harder than ever to exercise amid a pandemic. How are we to practice hospitality now, when our faces are covered and our reserves are depleted? How are we to embrace the stranger while keeping six feet of distance?
If hospitality is defined as kindness toward strangers, the friendly reception of guests, then the opposite is judgment. It’s forming unfair and unfavorable ideas about others based on our own insecurities and ignorance. This means hospitality is not so much an act as a disposition. It is recognizing the opportunity to be Christ to others and to receive Christ from others.
It does not require uncluttered counters. It does require an uncluttered heart.
Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of “The Catholic Table,” taught me this back when visions of immaculate Pinterest boards held me back. “When we think of hospitality not as impressing people but as loving people, it’s easier to let go of all the extras that make welcoming people into our home stressful or expensive,” the Pittsburgh mom told me.
The Biblical command to care for those in need does not exclude times of pandemic, Emily pointed out. It does require greater creativity and greater courage. “What God calls us to, he always gives us the grace to do,” she said.
The Benedictines consider hospitality a charism, a special spiritual gift. St. Benedict explored the topic in a chapter of his book “Rule of Benedict,” written in the year 516. He believed guests should be warmly received upon arrival and departure. Doesn’t it feel good when a host grabs your bag as you enter or walks you out as you leave?
St. Benedict emphasized the humility at the core of hospitality, and he described it in action: a host should bow to their guests to adore the Christ within, pray with them, sit with them and wash their hands.
The spirit of those gestures can be done from a distance, even remotely: listening well, affirming others, praying for them, checking in, mailing cards, leaving banana bread at the front door.
We can smile with our eyes even when our mouths are masked. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for hospitality in 2020: We have less to work with, but we’re doing what we can. We’re trusting that, once again, God will give us the grace.