Hospitality, presence, and being personally attentive. All of these are qualities of character that should be a part of our living in relationships with others.
In the readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the theme that comes to my mind is that of hospitality, hospitality in the sense of personal presence, an openness of heart that allows guests into the inner home of our hearts and souls. In my years of pastoring souls I have come to recognize that the way we treat others is the way we treat God and the way we treat God is the way we treat others. The Gospel account of Martha and Mary along with the Old Testament account of Abraham meeting God in his three guests give us an occasion to examine the notion of personal presence to others, and our personal presence to God in Jesus Christ.
Abraham, as you may remember, felt that God was absent from him. After Abraham’s initial experience with God we find him in today’s first reading in his old age. Unable in her younger years to have a child, Sarah now in her old age was obviously sterile. Yet Abraham was constantly aware of God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation of people dedicated to God, a nation as numerous as grains of sand along the shores of the world’s oceans. Abraham was also painfully aware that God’s promise was hardly able to be fulfilled, he and his wife Sarah in their old age now being unable to have children. For Abraham, God did not seem to be present. How could God’s promise of numerous children possibly be fulfilled?
The remarkable thing about Abraham was the fact that, in spite of the seeming failure of God to respond to him, in spite of all of the catastrophes and misfortunes he and Sarah had met, in spite of all of the sufferings they had endured, Abraham was still actively searching for the presence of God in his life. He had not given up. He had not been defeated by apparent failure. He was still a pilgrim and a disciple of God. His mind still searched the events of his life for traces of the finger of God writing on the shifting sands of his life’s history. His eyes and his soul were still waiting for the hand of the Lord to give an indication of the presence of God. It was because of this persisting faith that Abraham in his hospitality was able to perceive the presence of God in the three strange men who suddenly appeared in his life. Christians are able to see in them a veiled foreshadowing of the Trinitarian God, the God who said let us make man in our image and likeness, and also a veiled foreshadowing of the three Wise Men from the East who point to the presence of God in our lives.
Presence is a quality of soul, a character trait, a habit of mental alertness, an openness of mind that allows us to integrate our lives and our very selves into the lives and selves of others. It is a prerequisite for intimacy and it is an essential characteristic of discipleship. It is this that Mary chose and that Martha did not understand. Presence means making space for an other in your soul, for the person and spirit of another to be whom they really are for you to admire, respect, and for you to receive with hospitality. This demands the active awareness and the mental and spiritual attention of the disciple, the host, the student, or the friend.
Some people allow others to come deeply into their presence only upon set pre-conditions. The other is allowed into that inner circle of deep awareness only if the other will meet our requirements or fulfill our needs. Discipleship, on the other hand, just as friendship and the intimacy of love, is unconditional. Martha was all too concerned with the social requirements of polite hospitality.
Another practical application can be discerned in the way family members treat each other. Sometimes I’ve watched couples talk at each other rather than really listen to each other. While one is attempting to communicate, and the other is only half listening, all the while trying to think of the most compelling response to make. TV talk shows are good examples of that. The talking heads only talk at each other. Sometimes husbands and wives talk at each other as if they knew beforehand what the other was going to say without hearing what was really being said. Parents can treat their children that way and children sometimes treat their parents that way. There’s no true presence, no real understanding, only hidden agendas that each side compulsively seeks to get out in the discussion.
Presence means withdrawing part of one’s self in order that the other can fill in the space created by that self-withdrawal. Attentive presence is real hospitality, the sort of hospitality that allows the other to enter and be healed of the wounds of isolation and loneliness. It is a hospitality that is unconditional and total.
Hospitality is a virtue, a strength of soul that should perdure through all of one’s life. It cuts through any categorizations of others. Just as religion is not merely a part of one’s life but rather one’s life is a part of religion, so also presence and hospitality are states of mind that should be found in all of our relationships with others. Sometimes we think of hospitality as a virtue that we will haul out of storage only when we have to endure the presence of another. We sort of offer it up to God as a cross we must carry when we are obliged to deal with a person whom we consider to be unpleasant. Genuine discipleship helps us overcome that sort of categorization because through discipleship we develop a mental habit of always trying, like Abraham, to discern the hand of God working throughout the whole of our lives. We should always be talking and listening in the presence of the Lord, trying to see Him in the mysterious strangers who come into our lives, trying like Mary to be receptive without conditions and without any attempt to meet our requirements hidden within us.
Hospitality, presence, and being personally attentive, all of these are personal qualities that are a part of our living in relationships with others. They are essential to living in relationship to God. The critical question you must face and I must face is how welcoming am I to God? How conscious am I of His presence in my life? How personally attentive am I to God’s presence, power, and love in my life?
You and I should be challenged by these questions. Out of love God made us to love not only each other but above all to be open to and accepting of His love… and to love Him in return. Hospitality isn’t simply “nice.” Being personally attentive to God each and every day is essential, something far more profound than good manners.
We may feel we are too busy to pay much attention to God. What if God had the same attitude and was too busy to pay much attention to us? How we treat others is an indicator of how we treat God. Something for us all to ponder.