Allison Backous Troy: Hospitality is more than entertainment
Andrei Rublev's famous icon showing the three angels hosted by Abraham at Mamre. Wikimedia Commons
While writing about hospitality, an author wrestles with questions about who belongs at the table.
The first icon I ever bought was Andrei Rublev’s famous “Hospitality of Abraham.” Even if you are unfamiliar with this icon, you have probably heard the story behind it, from Genesis 18:1-16.
Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch, finds himself greeted one day by three strangers. They come to his tent door in the heat of the day. And in the heat of the day, Abraham prepares his table.
What stands out about the icon is Abraham’s urgency in welcoming these mysterious strangers. He slaughters one of his finest animals; he calls for the best of his flour to be made into cakes. He gives extravagantly, without question and with great speed. It is as if these guests, whom he does not know, compel him to give of himself completely.
As he does this, he fulfills what the writer of the book of Hebrews describes as “entertaining angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2) -- he is welcoming God himself, the Trinity, into his home, and what we see in the icon is humankind meeting and welcoming God, and God himself, three in one, receiving and blessing the ancient father of Israel.
Hospitality is a popular virtue. Search on Amazon for books about hospitality, and you will get dozens of pages of results; enter the same search on Pinterest, and you will get images of table decorations, Mason jar candleholders and “ways to welcome on a budget.”
While there certainly is no harm in finding creative ways to host, being hospitable, for Americans (and yes, Christians), often turns into a display of privilege and excess, more orchestrated entertainment than radical inclusion.
Abraham didn’t choose his guests; nor did the desert fathers and mothers, who often found their cells filled with pilgrims from distant cities. The hospitality preserved in Christian tradition is not only about the wedding feast but about the cup of cold water, the Samaritan on the roadside, the angels appearing to an old man in the middle of an ordinary afternoon. It is less curated, and more mystical, than we realize, and the guests I find myself welcoming these days are also ones I have not chosen. But they keep coming, bringing with them both shock and revelation.
Over the past year, I’ve written toward a book project about the virtue of hospitality. I’ve pored over Christine Pohl’s seminal text and the writings of the desert mothers and fathers; I’ve collected stories from saints both famous and quiet, the ones in the icons on my church walls and the ones preparing meals for the young widows in my church pews.
I’ve collected anecdotes about hospitality in my ordinary life, like the time a young friend at McDonald’s pulled up a seat by my 6-year-old and explained a soccer game to us entirely in Spanish, unaware that we weren’t fluent but compelled to welcome us to watch his beloved game alongside him.
But the project has been slow going. I have spent a lot of time staring at my books and my notes, without much to say. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of welcome, but I have a hard time believing that I’m a guest at all. It is easy to think of opening the door for others, but who would open the door for me? Who would want to give me a cup of cold water or prepare me a feast or invite me in?
These are the fears that I carry with me, and they’ve been with me a long time. I suspect that these fears come alongside all of us, at some point, but with my particular life story, the belief that I am unwelcome and unloved -- that there isn’t a seat at the table for me -- is a constant ache in my throat. It is my woundedness, my spiritual illness, the paralyzed heart that I keep trying to lower down to Jesus, afraid that he won’t see me.
And yet Jesus sees the paralytic coming through the ceiling, Zacchaeus perched in the tree. He sees the woman at the well, and what does he give but living water? In his encounters with the people who seek him, Jesus gives himself, his body and his blood, his heart and his life. In his life, we receive life, and in encountering him, whether at a chalice or on the couch of a therapist, what we find is our Lord preparing to set us a table, to wash our feet and heal what is dying inside us.
One of the first places I received Christ’s welcome was at the table of my friends Aron and Karen, for whom I bought Rublev’s icon in the first place. If I called, they answered; if I needed them, they opened their door. They offered themselves to me as I found myself facing the facts of my abusive childhood. Throughout my 20s, I spent many evenings weeping at Aron and Karen’s home, unsure of who I was and what my life would be.
And what Aron and Karen did, in response, was to let me sleep on their futon and then make me coffee in the morning. They drove me to church; they bought me kitchen appliances; they invited me over for pizza and movies with their young children. They listened deeply and spoke sparingly, my grief a guest at their merciful table. They not only welcomed me; they loved me.
And now, 10 years later, I’m brought back to Abraham, and Jesus, and my own fears. Is the pulse of hospitality not communion and love? Could it be that in making room for the heartache that follows me, I might see the heart of the One who bids me welcome? Am I able to let myself be received at the same table I tell others about, God’s table, where we are known and loved, received and blessed?
In my pilgrimage, these are the questions I carry. I will make room for them as I keep journeying. And in my making room, I hope with my whole, fractured heart that I will find the seat prepared for me, the one that has been waiting all along.