Several years ago I read the book by Father Daniel Homan, OSB and Lonni Collins Pratt titled Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. An easy book to read, it offers real stories of regular people following the example of Jesus by welcoming “others” among us. In its simplicity, the book entices the reader with real-life examples of hospitality and it tacitly challenges the audience to be more Christ-like in daily living.
In the chapter “listening: the deep truth of hospitality” the authors write, “There is nothing more human than our desire to be heard. It is our cry for permission to live.” Elaborating that folks who complain, tell the same stories over and over, or speak only of their ailments and strife are difficult to be around, the authors remind us that all too often these same individuals are simply “looking for someone to affirm them and give them permission to be.” The authors then boldly conclude that the simple act of listening “is the most hospitable thing we can do.”
After reading this book for the first time recently, my friend Kathryn shared that she has been avoiding communication with her neighbor because the neighbor had nothing but complaints, despair and frustration in every conversation. Kathryn made a decision to open herself up to listen to this woman. She was intentional to look her in the eye, acknowledge within her heart that this grumpy neighbor was also a sacred child of God. Kathryn was determined to try to listen, even when it would be difficult with all the hurt and bitterness being spewed.
What began an intentional decision to really listen to someone became a life altering experience not only for the neighbor, but for my friend also. When intentionally listening, Kathryn learned that the angry, bitter woman before her was once a celebrated ballerina in Eastern Europe. After a near-fatal car wreck, the once beautiful, graceful ballerina was reduced to poor posture and an inability to care for herself easily. Now a widow, she lives in near seclusion with only her pain and her lost dreams.
Prompted by her commitment to live a life in tune with Christ’s own radical hospitality, Kathryn cautiously asked if the neighbor would accompany her to a local ballet performance. The neighbor politely accepted and the plans were arranged, but as the date drew closer, Kathryn privately expressed fear at being worn out by the woman’s grumbling all night. What happened next was nothing but pure transformation –the kind that we read about in the Bible…and it was happening right here, in our town, in our circle.
Kathryn wrote me in an email the following week: I’m pleased to tell you that she didn’t complain once….When the program ended, she asked, “Is it over already? I could sit here another hour!”
My friend and her neighbor are planning another excursion together –at the neighbor’s treat. What took place between them some may say was all about spending money and treating the neighbor to a fancy event, but what my friend really did was listen. She intentionally listened and acknowledged, even through her own discomfort, that her neighbor was a human being, a fellow child of God, and one with broken dreams and a hurting heart. The transformation was radical.
For Lent this year, I am not giving up any food at all; instead, I want to take up living more radically…like Jesus. For those who know me, they know that I am comfortable in talking when others are not. But I wonder if I can become comfortable in listening when others are not as well. I’ve heard with my own ears now, not just read it from a book: intentional, radical hospitality can be transforming. It is the kind of transformation that we read about in the Gospels. Transformation like that in the Gospels sometimes gets us using the word “miracle” and that is something profound…and yet something as simple as listening to another human being. It makes me wonder…if the Kingdom of God is really like the tiniest mustard seed that grows into the greatest shrub, what great things might happen if I actually try to listen to someone like Jesus did? Perhaps I might even see a beautiful glimpse of God’s Kingdom on earth – a Holy transformation –a miracle in action – just like my friend Kathryn did.
All quotes used are found on p.216 in the 2002 edition of the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. The revised, expanded edition, published in 2011, has the same chapter, but the page number is different.