A few weeks ago, a friend reached out to me because she and her mother were looking for a place to stay while in my city for a week-long training. I offered to host them, since I had the space to offer and I was happy to have the chance to catch up. As I was preparing their bedroom, making the beds and laying out clean towels, I thanked God that I had the ability and means to open my home to them. I offered up the work for their safe travel and for blessings on their time in Nashville. As a single person, I don’t often have the opportunity to care for someone in this way (it’s usually only my own bed that I’m making!) and I thanked God for the opportunity to make this work a prayer.
I think sometime “singles” get a bad rap for being selfish, and perhaps that stereotype is present because it’s often true. But don’t rush to judgment – there are many of us who are happy to have the opportunity to serve God in these daily actions – we just often don’t have the chance. If you’re single, you might have to look harder for ways to make generous gifts of self to your friends and family. But they’re there.
One of these ways all of us can do this is through practicing hospitality. There are dozens and dozens of references to hospitality in the Scripture. One of my favorites is in 1 Peter, when he tells us, “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (1 Pt 4:9). I think “ungrudgingly” is key. There’s no virtue in making the recipient feel as if they’ve inconvenienced you or that you are performing the deed out of obligation. Whether it’s a car ride, a meal cooked, or a bed in your house, the hospitable action should make the person feel welcome or at home.
While Martha of Bethany gets a bad rap sometimes, we have to remember that Jesus scolded her not because she was making dinner for him, but because she was preoccupied and angry with Mary for not helping her (cf Luke 10:38-42). How does it make your guest feel to complain to him that you’ve been working in the kitchen all day? Martha wasn’t exactly practicing hospitality ungrudgingly. However, in John’s Gospel, we hear of a later visit of Jesus to Bethany, and the evangelist tells us, “They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him” (John 12:2). There is no harsh rebuke for Martha here. She has learned to serve Jesus in love. She has learned the virtue of hospitality.
The deed doesn’t have to be dramatic or extraordinary. In fact, sometimes our hospitable actions can be so small they’re practically overlooked! When we think of the corporal works of mercy –feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick – we can tend to think of the dramatic ways to fulfill those callings. And while volunteering at soup kitchens or doing prison ministry are much-needed and valuable ways to serve God, for many of us, we only have to look close to home to see hungry, naked, and sick. Are we living lives of hospitality with our friends and family? The virtue of hospitality doesn’t have to always be grand and extraordinary. Sometimes it’s a small as giving a friend a ride to the airport.
Several years ago, a friend of mine set a goal to always have a “hospitable car.” That’s when I began to realize that the virtue of hospitality could consist of small things that might be written off as insignificant or not even noticed by the recipient. It’s easy for me to have my backseat full of books and papers and things I throw back there and never remember to take into my house. What does that mean when a friend unexpectedly needs a ride somewhere? I need a few minutes to tidy up, to move things to the trunk, to make room. It can result in a delay, or worse, my friend feeling like they have inconvenienced me. But a “hospitable car” is one that is always ready for a visitor, always ready to help a friend. It seems small and insignificant, but it is an act of mercy (and can be a sign of a well-ordered life, which is part of the recipe for peace!).
Perhaps you know a married couple that needs an evening away from home but can’t afford to eat out. Invite them over for dinner. Host a game night for friends. Offer to throw a shower for a mom in need. Make your home one that people feel comfortable being in. It doesn’t mean having the perfect house or a spotless home. When my friend and her mom came to stay with me, I began to stress about whether the spare room was good enough, whether my baseboards were clean enough, and whether they would judge the stacks of papers on my kitchen counter. Luckily, I soon remembered that I was providing them a home – not a five-star hotel. While it is important to have a clean bathroom, everything doesn’t have to be perfect. It is about making your guests comfortable and feel wanted. (Pro tip: The small things go a long way. A three-dollar bouquet of flowers in the guest room can make your overnight guests feel like they’re wanted and not just endured.)
My model for this is a married couple who lives about three hours away from me. Their house has become a bit of a retreat for me, where I know I will always find open arms when I need to escape the demands of life. They have a sign in their kitchen with a quote from the Irish poet, Thomas Osborne Davis: “Come at evening or at morning / Come when expected or without warning / A thousand welcomes you’ll find here before you /And the oftener you come, the more we’ll adore you.” I never feel like I inconvenience them. Sure, sometimes I do the dishes. But that just makes me feel more at home! That’s the key to hospitality. It doesn’t necessarily mean treating your guests like kings and queens with posh meals and expensive treats. It’s about making your guests feel at home, not endured.
We tend to think of the good works of the saints as being big, dramatic things. But often the works of sanctity are the small things, even the things that might go unnoticed. One of my favorite saints, Frances of Rome, at first resisted her vocation as a wife of a wealthy Italian nobleman. It was difficult for her to throw herself into the life of the rich and famous in Rome, attending and hosting parties. This holy introvert much preferred fasting! But she realized the sacrifice God was asking of her was close to home: to provide hospitality. Together with her sister-in-law, she threw parties, received visits from dignitaries and noblemen, supported her husband in society, and ran the large household with poise and charity. For some, throwing a party would not be a sacrifice, but for Frances, it was! Holiness is found in submitting to what God’s will requires in your own path of life and doing it with love.
St. Paul tells us, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Remember, it doesn’t need to be dramatic. Very often it simply means responding to the needs of the people God has already put in your path according to your state of life. But it does need to be done ungrudgingly. No matter how you feel about the request to help a friend with a ride to the airport, do it with a smile. Make them feel loved, not endured.