Hospitality and Marriage

by Nancy Forest

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah -- detail of a sixth century mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

When I was growing up, hospitality was something that had a ring of social class to it. It suggested entertaining at home, hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and leisure wear – a lifestyle of “gracious living” that my parents, shy people of modest means, did not share. Even today, we tend to think of money and charm when we think of hospitality, or the “cordial and generous treatment of guests,” as the dictionary still puts it. (Search “hospitality industry” on the web and you’ll come up with millions of hits for hotels, restaurants, fashion and home decorating.)

So when my husband and I married and Jim suggested we try to “practice hospitality,” I wondered what on earth was in store for me. But Jim had been educated in what might be called the Dorothy Day School of Hospitality, which has nothing to do with affluence.

After more than twenty-five years of welcoming people into our home and our lives – from friends to strangers, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming, from the friends of our children to my 91-year-old mother, who now lives with us – my own understanding of hospitality has grown, deepened, and endured testing.

Far from an optional pastime, hospitality, I’ve learned, is an essential part of the Christian life. Indeed, hospitality is the Christian life. We can no more do without hospitality than we can do without prayer and the Eucharist. It’s that important.

This kind of hospitality, of course, is a far cry from the leisure class idea of popular culture. For Christians, hospitality is not the acquisition of elegance but the decision, made in freedom, to open your heart and your life to whomever God brings to you, and to welcome them with joy and gratitude. Hospitality is the constant effort to break through the various walls we build to protect ourselves, and to approach the Other in love.

For some people hospitality comes easy; for others it takes a lifetime of prayer and ascetic exercise, and even then it may only manifest itself in a kind word to your next-door neighbor. Hospitality, like Christianity itself, is not a “place” but a “way.” It’s the determination to get beyond the fear, or the distrust, or the distaste for the Other and to get beyond the desire to look out for Number One (which our culture holds up as the meaning and purpose of life). And not only because being open to others is a moral good, although surely it is, but also because it is the key to salvation, the key to true freedom. It is the sole content of the Last Judgment.

In Matthew 25, the great Gospel chapter on the Last Judgment, Christ says that to practice hospitality is to enter into the Kingdom “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” As St. Maria of Paris wrote,

At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.

Having dedicated our marriage to the practice of hospitality, Jim and I have begun to see that hospitality is really at the heart of Christian marriage. It isn’t just something we decided to do as a Christian couple; it is the sacrament of marriage itself made manifest in everyday life.

Marriage is a sacrament, Fr. John Meyendorff explains in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, because to be married is to participate in the eternal Kingdom of God. Marriage is the prototype of breaking through the walls of our selves and fully accepting another person in love. In St. Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians, the text read at every Orthodox wedding service, the mystery – the sacrament – of marriage reflects the sacrifice of Christ: “The husband becomes one single being, one single ‘flesh’ with his wife, just as the Son of God ceased to be only Himself, i.e. God, and became also man so that the community of His people may also become His Body.” The mystery of marriage is that the door through which I welcome another into my life is the same door by which I enter into the Kingdom. By its very nature marriage is a denial of self. Husband and wife offer hospitality first to one other, turning from the exclusive pursuit of their own personal concerns and deferring to each other in self-giving love. Yet at the heart of their mutual submission is the Eucharist.

Fr. John also points out the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of Christian married people. “When in marriage a man and a woman become ‘one flesh,’ and if both are members of the Body of Christ, their union is being sealed by the Holy Spirit living in each of them. Now the Eucharist is what makes them members of the Body of Christ.” The early Church, he explains, did not have the kind of wedding rite it has today. Until the ninth century, the normal practice was for a Christian couple to enter into a civil marriage, then partake of the Eucharist together. Communion was considered the seal of the marriage.

So the Eucharist forms the model of hospitality – of sacrifice, self-giving love and submission – upon which Christian marriage is based. Just look at what we do when we approach the chalice, and see how true this is. After preparing for the reception of Christ through fasting, prayer and confession – like a young couple making their wedding preparations, making their bodies ready for each other – we approach the chalice with our arms folded on our chests, literally disarmed, putting up no defense whatsoever to protect our selves. Christ the bridegroom, whose love is unconditional, open and ever-sacrificial, bursts forth from the Royal Doors and receives us into His Kingdom. And we, in turn, humbly take Him into our bodies in a stunningly physical way that is beyond rationality and analysis. We pray for Christ to receive us: “Receive, therefore, O Christ who lovest all men, even me, as the Harlot, as the Thief, as the Publican, as the Prodigal.”

If we understand ourselves to be the “worst of sinners,” we understand that true Christian hospitality knows no limits, for if I – the worst – can be received, then no one can be excluded. And we pray that despite our wretchedness we may be deemed worthy to receive Christ – “so now take it upon thee to enter into the manger of my dumb soul and my soiled body.”

Hospitality in marriage begins there, but it doesn’t end there. As Fr. John put it, the “Great Mystery” (in St. Paul’s words) of marriage is “the possibility and the responsibility given to both husband and wife to transfigure their ‘agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom.” Hospitality in marriage opens out like a series of concentric circles, and the responsibility given to married people to “transfigure ‘their agreement’ into the reality of the Kingdom” involves a real effort to move further and further outward. At the center of the circles is Christ in the Eucharist. Then beyond that are the couple themselves, loving and supporting each other. Within this context, the wedding reading from Ephesians (which continues to trouble so many people) makes perfect sense: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord…. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

We don’t happen to live in a world that looks favorably on submission and sacrifice. Ours is a more rights-based world, where we’re encouraged to demand what’s coming to us, to make sure we don’t get cheated, to exert an enormous amount of energy protecting our precious selves from what we regard as the injustice of others. Focusing on rights, and insisting on equality, forces us to look at each other, and our neighbors, in a certain way. It forces us to adopt a constant attitude of comparison: how do I stand in relation to my husband, my wife, my neighbor? Does he have more than I have? Is he getting a better deal than I am? Should I try to get what he already has? Am I being fairly treated?

In his journal, Fr. Alexander Schmemann addresses this in an entry about the ordination of women to the priesthood. He writes:

There is deep falsehood in the principle of comparison which is the basis of the pathos for equality. One never achieves anything by comparison – the source of envy (why he, not I?), protest (we must be equal), then anger, rebellion and division. Actually, it is the genealogy of the devil. There is nothing positive; all is negative from beginning to end. In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. (February 11, 1976)

Marriages that operate on this principle are doomed. If a married couple are unwilling to disarm themselves and to receive each other, based on the model of the Eucharist, there’s no hope at all for living a life of hospitality. And if hospitality is the key to our salvation, this is a very serious problem indeed.

The next circle beyond the couple themselves are the children with which they may be blessed. It may seem odd to speak of practicing hospitality towards one’s own children, but in a sense they really are strangers, and very demanding strangers at that. They come into your life fully convinced that you have been put on earth to tend to their every need, and they’re right. But as they grow you’ve got to help them become selfless and hospitable themselves, without withdrawing too much of your active support and care. It’s not easy to strike a balance. We found that one of the best ways to do this is simply by your own good example.

When our children were small, due to Jim’s work with an international organization, we often had guests come to dinner or stay overnight. These were the next concentric circles in the life of hospitality: family and friends, and even total strangers. They came from all over the world. We kept a world globe next to the dinner table (it’s still there) so our guests could show the kids where they came from. They loved having such interesting people in the house. One evening when we were going to have a rare dinner without guests, our disappointed daughter asked if we “couldn’t call the office and have them send someone over?”

Not everyone has the opportunity – or the inclination – to practice this kind of heavy-duty hospitality. But children don’t need the world at their table every night to learn what it means to open your door to strangers. Hospitality, as I said before, is not just a particular way of running a household. It’s simply the Christian life. It doesn’t take much to show children, by your example, that the world is not full of threatening strangers, and that your mission in life is not to protect yourself from them. You may have little money, or time, or room; you may be terribly shy; you may have disabilities and other kinds of special difficulties to deal with. But none of these should prevent you from being determined to open your heart, and your life, to the people God puts in your path.

Nancy Forest is an translator, editor and writer living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Her essay is reprinted with permission from Handmaiden magazine. She is co-editor of In Communion.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50

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