Contemplation and hospitality

Published on 17 Jul 2019
A child and a washing line

When we open the door to the other, we find fulfilment of our longing to know more of God. Peter Gallagher SJ helps us reflect on the different welcomes of Martha and Mary.

We welcome strangers to where we live as hospitably as we can. We treat the visitor as a representative of God. Old stories of humble-looking travellers who turn out to be kings and queens encourage us in such warm welcoming. The truth about the identity of the one who knocks at the gate comes to light eventually. Despite appearances, the stranger at our door is God himself.

The Lord encourages us to treat those who are in need as if they were his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25.31-46). We are expected to see Christ in the stranger at the door. To detect the Son of God in a visitor is a test not so much of our ability to see through appearances to the reality as of our general attitude and behaviour towards other people. We are kind to those in need. We explain this kindness by reference not only to the need but also to our obedience to a divine command. We honour the creator in all his creatures.

The heart of another reveals the heart of Jesus

We long to know more of God. We are all the time seeking to deepen our connection to Jesus Christ who is the source of such understanding. Our hospitality is a generous welcome and also an openness to what might be being said to us in this person by the one who made us all.

There is mystery in every human being. A secret is shared with us by each stranger who comes to our door. This hidden truth may be some need or suffering to which it is our privilege to try to respond. The heart of another, opened to us, reveals the heart of Jesus. In our welcome of this individual we glimpse divine purposes and providence. God loves us and our impulse to love him back focuses on those in need who he puts in our way.

Our longing to know more of God is different from other sorts of curiosity. It is a desire for God which he himself has planted in us which makes us want to know him better and more deeply.  Christ came to reveal the Father, to confer knowledge, to show us mysteries which might easily be overlooked or forgotten or ignored. Getting the right vantage point is not easy in the spiritual life. Certainly, we need the habit of looking. Father, Son and Spirit are all around us. The Holy Trinity underpins our whole life. However, we are often distracted by other things. The grace of God pushes us to see each person as God sees that beloved whom he has made and sent to us.

Contemplatives and workers

Martha and Mary receive Jesus into their home. They love him. Their welcome is sincere and deep. They want to hear him, to know him and to understand his teaching. Yet things are not entirely plain sailing. There are questions of emphasis. How precisely are they to welcome God incarnate? Is Martha right with her myriad hospitable activities? Is Mary right with her more contemplative attitude, her attention and her focus? And what about her willingness to let her sister get on with the domestic work? Common-sense tells us that not everyone should fuss over the visitor. There is, even in abundant hospitality, a sensible distribution of labour. However, surely it cannot be, simply, that some of us are contemplatives and some of us are workers? We all have our part to play in both of these activities. God is in all things. Everything we do can be prayer. Nevertheless, we cannot find God in all things and we cannot allow everything to be made into a prayer unless some time and space is devoted to prayer alone. There must be some moments which are consecrated only to praying, just to listening to the Lord.

Lord among us

God has made us all contemplatives. Our souls are hospitable to God. We are called first of all simply to be with Christ. There is some hard work in practising this being with. However, in praying we meet a need in ourselves as well as doing one of our duties to God. If there is a sacrifice of time in our turning to prayer then it is one which we make without protest or regret. Fulfilling the duties of hospitality conceals its own dutifulness. Our prayerfulness includes the discovery of the joy of treating other people as if they were the Lord-come-among-us. 

Like Martha and Mary, we combine the arts of contemplation and hospitality. Those who knock at our door are the beloved Lord come to where he is sure of his welcome. Sometimes, like the three mysterious strangers whom Abraham and Sarah met (Genesis 18), they provide the resources for their own welcome. We receive more than what we give. What we are able to give, we gratefully learn, has been given to us in our turn. We treat visitors very well for our own sake as well as for theirs. God is in each one. Father, Son and Holy Spirit underpin every situation. Our appreciating the divine presence is not so much a stripping away of a disguise as a delighted realisation of what at the deepest level we have always known. Little by little, in all its richness, the presence in the world of God is making itself known to us.

Peter Gallagher SJ

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