The Hope of Hospitality

A tiny home, a little budget, and big dreams.

 

There’s something about company. A knock on the door, the clamor of feet, cheerful voices, the music of laughter.

I grew up in homes that delighted in hospitality: my mother hosted countless wedding and baby showers, Bible studies and dinner parties. My grandmother invited family over at least once a month for a grand Sunday dinner. Under their influence, I grew to love the adrenaline rush associated with the imminent arrival of guests, the process of tidying a home, the concocting of company meals.

As my husband and I have fostered our own space, we’ve experienced a good deal of joy and delight in having people over. But as I’ve studied the history of hospitality, my passion has transcended the simple aesthetics of cozy afternoon teas or elaborate dinner parties. Hospitality has become a spiritual vocation and calling.

The history of Christian hospitality dates back to the beginning of the faith. In her excellent book Making Room, Christine D. Pohl notes the rich heritage of hospitality in the early church:

“Jesus urged his human hosts to open their banquets and dinner tables to more than family and friends who could return the favor, to give generous welcome to the poor and sick who had little to offer in return. … For most of the history of the church, hospitality was understood to encompass physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of human existence and relationships. It meant response to the physical needs of strangers for food, shelter, and protection, but also a recognition of their worth and common humanity.”

Pohl argues that hospitality “is central to the meaning of the gospel,” enriching our understanding of Christ’s welcoming of us into fellowship and his Kingdom. It shows us what it means to have a place prepared for us, as he promised to do for his disciples.

So while we enjoy having family and friends over, my husband and I are also trying to find new and inventive ways to open our home to the alien and stranger, to the people who—as Poehl puts it—need hospitality most.

It’s important that, as part of this preparation, we cultivate a mindset and ethos in our homes that affirms the tenets of biblical hospitality. In her book The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer describes this in a powerful way:

“We are an environment, each one of us. We are an environment for the other people with whom we live, the people with whom we work, the people with whom we communicate. … We produce an environment other people have to live in. We should be conscious of the fact that this environment which we produce by our very ‘being’ can affect the people who live with us or work with us. The effect on them is something they cannot avoid. We should have thoughtfulness concerning our responsibility in this area. We should be artists in doing something about the environment we are creating—artists before God, of course.”

Similarly, in his wonderful new book You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith speaks of cultivating the “hum” or “imaginative wallpaper” that lend meaning and telos to our homes. “We might say that the sacramental power of Christian worship ‘enchants’ our everyday lives, reminding us that the world we inhabit is not a flattened ‘nature’ but rather a creation charged with the presence and power of the living Spirit,” he writes. “The world into which we are sent is a world that calls for our culture-making, inviting our mercy and compassion.”

Simple things such as reading, prayer, worship, and devotion give our homemaking potency and power: they can “enchant” our quotidian rhythms and foster an environment that is truly other-worldly. They can transform and animate our own hearts, giving us the strength and virtue necessary to be hospitable and compassionate.

But as Smith points out, if our hospitality is to be truly Christian, it must also be “sacramental”: tangible, embodied, and physical. Hospitality can’t just be about cultivating an “environment” or a “hum.” We are, after all, welcoming physical beings into a physical space. As Schaeffer writes, “it is not just aspects of your character, personality, attitudes or spiritual state which will affect the lives of others working or living by your side. It is also your appearance and the way you care for the things in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen!”

This means we ought to ready our homes in a physical sense, too: tending to the cleaning, cooking, and (if applicable) gardening that make our spaces more welcoming. Every home can and should be different. One will be tidier than another; one will feature more sophisticated dishes or a more elaborate garden. But even the smallest space, even the humblest offering, can be a gift.

At least, I hope so—my husband’s and my house is just over 800 square feet, and generally spilling over with gadgets and books (oh so many books). It isn’t grand or spacious; even when tidy, it’s never “roomy.” We don’t have a huge budget, so when it comes to our house, our meals, and our garden, we have to keep things simple.

But this doesn’t mean our home has to stay empty. It shouldn’t deter us from having people over. Indeed, being creative with little is perhaps one of the great joys of hospitality. And I’m learning that an attitude of readiness (spiritual and physical) is perhaps the greatest means to transcend these considerations in the cultivation of a welcoming home.

So here are some of the things I’m learning and trying to practice, when it comes to hospitality.

Be ready at any hour

Since we want to be ready for unexpected company, I’ve built a daily chore list that leaves our home feeling relatively orderly and clean. It involves sweeping, doing dishes, wiping down the kitchen and bathroom, doing a load of laundry, and weeding the garden. Every other day, I dust and take out the trash. Nothing complicated—just simple tasks that give our home a poised and prepared feel, while also giving me time to pray for God to open our hearts and door to whoever might need a place to escape. If I don’t get anything on the list done, that’s also okay. I’m learning to let go, let live, and welcome people into a house piled high with laundry and dishes!

I’ve also been thinking through easy ingredients to have on hand, in case company arrives unexpectedly. My current list:

  • Chocolate chip cookie ingredients
  • Fresh veggies and hummus
  • Pretzels, pita chips, or crackers
  • Apples or grapes and cheese (brie, cheddar, or smoked gouda)
  • Various teas (earl grey, English breakfast, herbal blends, Good Earth, and chamomile)
  • Coffee and cream

Cookies are easy to whip up and bake in under 20 minutes. And when guests arrive, I can use the above ingredients to assemble an appetizer spread with only minimal chopping and preparation.

Light some candles

When I know guests are coming, I light all the candles. It sounds funny, but this is perhaps my favorite company ritual. Whenever I walk into a room with a candle lit, it feels as if it’s been prepared for me. Its scent and glow makes everything cozy and sweet. So whenever guests are coming, there’s a candle lit—in the bathroom, in the guest room, and in the living room. (Overkill? Maybe…)

Set the table slowly

For dinner parties, I’ve started instituting a ritual I learned from my grandmother: she would always set the table the day before. I would help her iron linens, polish cutlery, straighten the tablecloth, assemble a centerpiece, and choose a china pattern. We would make sure everything was clean and sparkling.

On a practical level, this meant she could focus on cooking the next day. But on a larger spiritual level, it’s a beautiful way to prepare your mind and heart for company: to pray for arriving guests, consider how to bless the people walking through the front door, and maybe brainstorm ways to facilitate and foster conversation.

Embrace the simple and easy

On the flip side: I’ve also learned there are times when it’s best to use paper plates and napkins, as it takes all the difficulty out of cleanup, and doesn’t make your guests feel guilty if they can’t stay and help you wash up (especially in a dishwasher-less home such as ours). There are times for the slowly-set table, shining and elaborate—and there are times for plastic cups and paper plates piled on a table. Whatever makes your guests feel most at home, and makes the time most meaningful.

Goals for the future

I’m hoping to put together a collection of music playlists or favorite albums for company days—with different genres or artists for different times and styles of gathering. I also want to start buying sparkling water and chocolate for overnight guests, a practice my in-laws have instituted in their own home.

We’re hoping to start hosting music fests (aka jamming and improv sessions), movies on the lawn in the summer, holiday parties in the winter. We want to invite over coworkers and neighbors down the street, new faces from church and old friends from college.

When I think about the magnificence of my grandmother’s dinner table and the easy grace of my mother’s parties, it’s easy to see how far I have to go. But where there is a home, there is space for hospitality. And we hope all our present and future guests will see our home as a place they can “crash,” regardless of the day or hour, regardless of whether they’re “expected” or not. Because they will always be expected, and welcome. They will always have a place.

Gracy Olmstead

Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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