The Gift of Hospitality
By: Sue Spirit
Degrees of Freedom, the little women’s retreat center that has sheltered me for 27 years, is my place of hospitality. It welcomes me to grow in caring for the earth, and inspires me to be a better writer, friend, and giver of gifts. Somehow, miraculously, it embraces the women who come, giving them an important place to be and to emerge. Degrees inspires me to think about hospitality, what it means and what it entails.
A sense of “being home” is perhaps the most important element of hospitality. Marie, a longtime retreatant, describes the “being home” feeling of arriving at Degrees: “Coming home to Degrees of Freedom at Christmas, there are candles in the windows, a full moon, the smell of wood smoke, the crunch of my footsteps in new snow, and indoors a blazing fire and quiet, peaceful, comfortable surroundings. “ She adds, “It’s coming home to yourself as well. You’re accepted.”
Hospitality involves the sharing of gifts. We trudge for an hour across the baking hot Sahara Desert to a low charcoal gray woolen tent belonging to a family of nomads. Fatima welcomes us, smiling shyly, and ushers us to low seats on fabric-covered straw bales. She wove the tent herself, she tells us. It took her a year. She pours us hot mint tea from a silver teapot ceremoniously held two feet above our glasses. It’s the birthday of the Prophet, she says, so we are to have a special cookie. In this dark, low tent of a poor Moroccan itinerant family we’ve been given a precious gift. Hospitality!
Providers of hospitality allow recipients time to just be. She “be’s.” She is Hermit-tina, our very own hermit, in her nineties called to a life of solitude at Degrees of Freedom. Each morning she walks out to a small bench by the pond and sits in silence for hours. When she first came to Degrees and saw her small blue bedroom she cried. She knew she had arrived. It was too much, too beautiful, too overwhelming. She communes with dog and cat, with fresh-from-the-garden veggies or the hot tub. She inhales the beauty of pink roses, and drinks in the deep blue sky and the white pines. She says, “When you sit alone on your bench, your silence will come and sit with you.”
Hospitality often means a table, a banquet. It’s still here! We breathe a sigh of relief as we push open the door of Tay Do Vietnamese restaurant. Perching on green vinyl seats in a cozy booth, décor nonexistent, we breathe in the aroma of hot jasmine tea as Nu, the owner, greets us each with a warm hug and pours us a cup. We always order the same thing: the tofu mei appetizer and bun gai mao, curried tofu and onion with coriander and brown sauce. Nu is radiant. We are her very special guests. If one of us is having a birthday she brings out a cold can of Sprite and presents it ceremoniously. It’s the heavenly banquet, hospitality at its finest.
Those who offer a listening ear give the gift of hospitality. Bitter cold late winter day, snarled raspberry canes, the burned-out shell of a long-forgotten cabin, bleak landscape, no signs of spring. As I walk with my dogs, despair creeps into my heart as surely as the cold invades the rips in my jacket. How is my life any different from this dreary scene? What do I have to hope for? What dreams do I dream? Near panic, I contact my grounded, hopeful friend Evelyn, who invites me for lunch. Thinking grilled cheese sandwich, I’m blown away when I arrive to find the table set with a tablecloth and napkins, Ev’s finest china, and a beautiful bouquet of flowers. A five-course dinner follows, dessert and all. But best of all Evelyn turns to me, wanting to hear of my despair and gently coaxing me into hope.
Making space available for something new to happen, allowing for the possibility of transformation, is an important component of hospitality. For a long time I have felt the desire to go on a solitary journey , but have no idea what that will entail. When I mention it to my spiritually-wise friend Dia, she offers to be my guide and hospitality person for a three-day trek. We set up base camp in Findley State Park, a nearby wilderness with tenting areas and a beautiful lake. Every morning Dia fixes me a packed lunch, blesses me for my journey, and off I go to hike around the lake, a feat made difficult because of my arthritic knees in need of replacements. All I’m allowed, besides the lunch, are my journal and pen. I start out with fear and trembling, not even knowing if I can make the four miles around the lake, steep and rocky as it is in spots. As I go I’m greeted by monarch butterflies, crows, chicory, teasel, milkweed, and other familiar friends. When I’m tired a shelf seat magically appears, where I can sit and journal. At lunch time there’s a picnic table beside the lake. I realize that I am thankful. Even my lunch of dry, jam-less peanut butter on rye somehow seems just right. I’m transitioning from being a dark, fearful person to a buoyant, thankful one.
Hospitality can, and often does, embrace all these ingredients.
Homemade molasses bread, corn on the cob, pizza with vegetables from the garden, and steaming cups of tea. Quaker meeting for clearness. I’m surrounded by a small group of Friends present for my acceptance into the Society of Friends this August evening. Joyce and Phil’s cabin built by hand, each window revealing a woodland scene like a painting, the orange setting sun, dusk descending, last of the birdsongs, full moon rising, crickets, silence. Oh, the silence! Gratitude, wholeness, completion, coming full circle, mystical moment. I’m in exactly the right place. Quiet, loving space, time for sharing my deepest truth. Hospitality of hearts making a place for me.
The mystery of sacramental things: Teapot and cups, then. Why not? Or a long, clear drink of water. What else? Woodstove fire, or maybe breezes off the lake. Table set for a banquet, or maybe a backpack with sandwiches. Sacred space, bread for the journey. In places where peace enters, where rest is possible, where one feels truly at home, where one can see visions and dream dreams, hospitality is truly found.