Question: When is the last time you threw a party? Hosted a shower? Invited a neighbor over for tea?
What’s that you’re mumbling? I’m afraid I can’t hear you. And why won’t you look me in the eye?
Oh, been a while, has it? Don’t worry. You don’t have to justify yourself to me. I get it. Guests can be a hassle. Hospitality is hard. I mean, who has time to invite friends over for a cookout when there are soccer games to referee and presentations to plan? How can you host a baby shower when your babies have turned the living room into a jungle gym? How can you ask someone to share a family meal with you, when Chef Boyardee is your go-to guy on weeknights?
And why would you want to invite those new neighbors over for dinner anyhow? They’re sure to raise their eyebrows at your half-finished bathroom makeover, the pile of clutter on the kitchen counter, and the dust bunnies lurking in every corner.
Besides, they probably wouldn’t come. Or if they did come, they wouldn’t enjoy themselves. Or if they did enjoy themselves … well, I’m sure that would somehow turn out badly too.
Again, I get it. You’ve got a 101 excuses why the china your grandmother gave you is gathering dust.
And you’re not alone. Everybody’s doing it. Or, not doing it as the case may be.
According to data collected by Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone” (Simon & Shuster, $16.99), over the last 25 years the number of evenings that people invite friends over for dinner, drinks or a chat has dropped by 35 percent. The number of evenings people spend socializing with neighbors has dropped by about the same. Given numbers like that, it’s little wonder that Pope Benedict XVI, in his address in Cologne, Germany, on World Youth Day in 2005, lamented that “the virtue of hospitality … has all but disappeared.”
But just because the rest of the world has grown too busy to entertain, doesn’t mean you can do the same. Don’t roll your eyes at me. I’m serious. As Christians, we have a religious obligation to practice the virtue of hospitality. In short, it’s our duty. The Bible tells us so. See 1 Peter 4:9: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” See also Romans 12:13: “Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality.”
If we fail to heed those injunctions, St. Paul warns us that we’ll be sorry: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2).
Then there’s that fearful scenario Christ lays out in Matthew 25:41-45: “Then [the King] will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome. … Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’”
Christ seemed to take the virtue of hospitality pretty darn seriously. And with good reason. As Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said: “The biggest disease [in the world] isn’t leprosy or tuberculosis. But rather the feeling of being unwanted.”
We live in a lonely world, you and I. And it’s a world growing lonelier by the day. According to data cited in Peter Lovenheim’s book “In the Neighborhood” (Penguin, $23.95), more than a quarter of all U.S. households now consist of a party of one. That translates into nearly 30 million men and women with no one to go home to at night.
Likewise, Maggie Jackson reports in her book “Distracted” (Prometheus Books, $18) that while the average American might have 586 Facebook “friends,” a quarter of them still report having no close confidant. That’s twice as many as those who claimed the same in 1985.
Expanding your world
People need people. If Barbra Streisand could figure that out, we should be able to do at least as much. Someone needs you. It could be the guy in the cubicle next to you, the single friend you think would never want to dine with a bunch of screaming kids, or the mom you carpool with every Tuesday.
They need your friendship, your time and maybe even your barely edible meatloaf. A night with that meatloaf and the aforementioned screaming kids might sound deadly to you, but to a person in need of a little companionship, it sounds downright heavenly.
Don’t worry though. You get something out of the deal too. Hospitality isn’t all about altruism. When you invite someone into your home, you get the benefit of their company and conversation. You learn more about them — where they’ve been, what they’ve done and what they care about.
Your world grows a little larger, and so does the world of your spouse and children. Your friendship with your guest grows all the stronger for your willingness to be vulnerable, to let them into your home, dust bunnies and all. And you have one more person to turn to when sugar runs out, roofs leak or real disaster strikes.
Ultimately, hospitality is what gives rise to community. It’s one of the basic building blocks of what political philosophers call “civil society.” Entertaining and being entertained by those who agree with us and who disagree with us, who are older than us and younger than us, whiter than us and blacker than us, is part of what keeps us civil. We learn to converse with those who are different.
Even more important, we learn to serve and honor them. We learn humility, the inevitable byproduct of putting the needs of others before our own and a necessary ingredient for genuine dialogue.
So, how do we put this all-important virtue into practice?
As it turns out, the Bible has a thing or two to say about that as well.
According to the Good Book, hospitality starts with who you invite. It’s pretty much a given that when you throw a birthday bash, host a dinner party, or ask someone to share your supper, close friends and family will make the list. But when God throws a party, he doesn’t just invite his buddies. Rather, as the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22 tells us, God invites everyone: “Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.”
Obviously, most of us aren’t kings with unlimited budgets and cavernous banquet halls. Nor are we under any general obligation to invite the whole town over for beers.
But we should at least occasionally issue an invitation to someone outside our intimate circle of friends. And we should always keep our eyes open for someone who needs a friendly fireside chat or a good home-cooked meal.
And when those someones show up, we should look to their needs first. At its heart, hospitality is about serving and honoring others. Think of Jesus washing his disciples feet. Or Rebekah, who, when asked by Abraham’s servant for a drink, responded by offering him water for his camels as well.
Fortunately for us, foot washing has gone out of vogue. But greeting guests with warmth and enthusiasm, offering them something to drink, making sure they have enough to eat, that they’re comfortable and included in the conversation, is still very much the order of the day.
Sometimes doing that might mean dinner comes out a little late or the dishes don’t get cleared away as soon as you’d like. At a larger party it often means you don’t get to spend your time with the most interesting person in the room, but rather with the shyest. But, even when you have to sacrifice what you want for the sake of meeting your guests’ needs, you’ll come out a winner. Rebekah scored a husband and an honored place in salvation history. At the very least you’ll earn some time off from purgatory.
To shorten your stay in purgatory even more, however, you need to take a cue from Abraham and Jesus, and give your guests your best. When angels came knocking on Abraham’s door in Genesis 18, he pulled out all the stops to throw them a swanky dinner. And when Jesus decided to try his hand at wine making in Cana, the end result wasn’t “Two Buck Chuck.”
Presence of mind
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who enters your home needs to be served caviar and champagne. A well-made cup of tea or a hearty bowl of soup can serve just as well.
Hospitality doesn’t require a lot of money, just a lot of love. A good host offers guests the first slice of pie, the biggest piece of meat or the last cookie on the plate. And whether it’s by lighting candles in the living room, using the good plates instead of the paper ones or simply turning off the television and instead playing Mozart on the iPod, good hosts also find some way to make their guests feel special, like they matter. Which, of course, they do.
Nothing, however, makes a guest feel as special as your attention does. That’s the Martha and Mary principle. In Luke 10, Martha tried so hard to honor Christ with a nice dinner that she forgot to honor him in the most important way: with her presence. Mary, on the other hand, left to her own devices, might have served dinner late or forgotten to put flowers on the table, but the attention she gave to Christ still would have made her a stellar hostess.
The same holds true in our own homes. Having the house shipshape when the guests arrive is a good thing, as is serving a tasty meal. But if doing either gets in the way of you being a happy and hospitable host, it’s time to make compromises.
You don’t have to be Martha Stewart or Julia Child to excel at hospitality. But you do have to be present. That covers any number of housekeeping or culinary sins.
For now, however, don’t worry too much about the sins. Pope Benedict called hospitality a virtue. Which is another way of saying “good habit.” And good habits don’t happen over night.
So keep (or start) practicing, remembering that practice really does make perfect.
And, eventually, an angel is sure to show up.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. She hosts dinner for more than 30 people one night a week.
Practice Makes Perfect (sidebar)
Looking for easy and inexpensive ways to practice the virtue of hospitality? How about some of the following?
- Throw a monthly dinner party at your house. You cook the main dish and ask your guests to bring salad, dessert and beverages.
- Ask a different friend, co-worker or neighbor to join your family on one night each week for dinner.
- Invite another mom over for coffee and a play date.
- Next time someone new moves onto your block or joins your parish, make sure to include them in your next big get-together.
- Take new neighbors some freshly baked cookies and give them your phone number and email in case they have any questions or need any help.
- Instead of hosting the traditional dinner party, which can get expensive, host a dessert party or a cocktail hour.
- Have a birthday party for Mary — or whatever other saint you feel like celebrating — and invite one or more families to join you for cake and ice cream.
- Have a movie night with the girls (or guys) after everyone’s kids have gone to bed. You provide the popcorn. They bring brownies and beverages.
- Organize meals for the new moms on your block or in your parish.
Receiving Hospitality (sidebar)
Hospitality is a virtue, but it’s a virtue that’s a whole lot easier to practice when those on the receiving end know how to behave. And with fewer families entertaining guests these days, fewer children are learning about the rules of both hosting guests and being guests, rules like…
Always RSVP: Whether the invitation comes by mail, Facebook or in person, always give your host plenty of notice if you’ll be attending.
No BYOG (Bring Your Own Guest): Unless you’re specifically told you may bring someone along, check with your hostess before asking someone else to accompany you. And again, give them as much notice as possible so they can plan for the right amount of food/chairs/beverages, etc.
Skip the Stilettos: Unless you know your host and hostess have stone floors or carpeting, leave the stilettos at home. Few things do more damage to wood floors than sharp, pointy heels, and no nice hostess ever wants to ask her guests to remove their shoes. Don’t force her to do just that.
Communicate Special Needs: Let your hostess know before hand if you have any serious allergies, if you’re a committed vegan, or if your doctor has you following a special diet.
Never Show Up Empty-Handed: When you’re invited over to someone’s house for a meal or a party, ask if you can bring something. Even if the answer is “no,” a bottle of wine, a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates will always be welcome.
Don’t Be a Picky Eater: Unless you have a deadly peanut allergy and Shrimp Pad Thai is on the menu, eat what you’re served, with no complaints and lots of compliments. Your host made a sacrifice of time and money to prepare food for you, and you need to honor that by eating what they’ve prepared with relish.
Don’t Be a Glutton: You may fill your plate sky high when you’re home, but when you’re dining with others, exercise a little portion control. If there’s plenty to go around, you can always have seconds.
Be a Servant: When it’s time to clear the table and clean up, at the very least offer to help. And if the offer is accepted, do it joyfully.
Return the Favor: One of the best ways to thank someone for their hospitality is to invite them over for a meal or a party. But you can also show your gratitude by doing something kind in return, such as dropping a meal off when the household is sick or volunteering to help with a project at their house. The important thing is to not just stay on the receiving end, but to practice the virtue as well.