The second installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by The Revd Clint Wilson, associate rector for Christian Faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
Let’s play a game. When you hear the word ‘hospitality,’ what pops into your mind? A hotel, a conference center, a cruise boat, or a theme park? Perhaps this seems like a strange question to you, but I’d like to follow the lead of several other writers who suggest that hospitality should actually be associated primarily with the Church and the cross of Christ. It’s ultimately through the cross and the Church that human brothers and sisters are turned from hostility to hospitality, but more on this in a moment.
A few weeks ago I found myself at a conference listening to the actor Tony Hale, who is famous for playing Buster Bluth in Arrested Development and who currently acts in the HBO comedy entitled, VEEP. Someone asked him if “fame is all that it is cracked up to be,” to which he provided a profound response. Simply put, he affirmed that the desire to be famous is rooted in the need to be known, and yet ironically, famous people are so often the least known, and the least able to trust others (who knows if fan or friend might be after their money, or seeking to use them?). Inevitably, Hale affirmed this state-of-affairs often leads to the adoration of the celebrity even as he or she lives in isolation with the illusion of community, friendship, and belonging.
In the heart of every person exists the need to belong—to know others and to be known—and ultimately, to become at home in God’s love. And there’s the rub, for this need and desire of the heart so often goes unfulfilled. As Henri Nouwen recognized,
“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and community can be found” (Reaching Out, p.65).
Convivium is committed to fostering a community that’s in stark contrast to the world by embodying a robust tradition of hospitality, as articulated in the following Convivium Principle: “There is no love without a delight that creates deep bonds of affection, a communion in which the lover seeks to dwell beneficially with and for the beloved. Such love arises when we seek to seek opportunities to practice hospitality.” This reality is reflected in the very meaning of the word convivium, which means to live together; feast, banquet.
The challenge before Christians and the Church is the reality that hospitality has at points been abdicated precisely by many in the Church as it has been farmed out as a specialized discipline, one that has now ballooned into an industry, such that it is largely un-tethered from the life of everyday Christian ministry and discipleship (“isn’t hospitality for those in the hospitality services?”).
As demonstrated by Dr. Christine Pohl in her excellent book, Making Room, hospitality has in the past functioned as a rich theological and pastoral tradition of the people of God. From Abraham’s hospitality to angelic messengers at the Oaks of Mamre, to Jesus’ invitation to Zaccheus, and the Messiah’s eye-opening meal with the Emmaus Road disciples, Pohl traces out the rich tradition of hospitality practiced by God and his people. Indeed, what is Jesus’s Last Supper and his body broken and his blood shed for us, but a redemptive banquet meal that continues to animate the life of the Church into the present day, and that turns us from hostility to hospitality, from being a stranger to a friend? It is precisely this vision that fueled and funded the early Church’s establishment of hospitals, hostels and more.
It is no accident that meals and hospitality have so often been at the heart of healing in race relations, in dialogue around ideological divides, and in diffusing tension amidst cultural differences. Indeed, our human family—our cities and rural communities—could use some hospitality. And the Good News is this: the promise of hospitality is endless for those who seek it out and for those who share it, because the God of hospitality who spread his arms on the hard wood of the cross, and who spreads a Table for the life of the world, will also work through our efforts too. Indeed, in welcoming the stranger we live as him, but more importantly, we receive and welcome him, the one in whom we know most fully, and are known most fully (Galatians 4:9).