catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 16 :: 2008.09.12 — 2008.09.26


At home alone hospitality

There’s a lot of rhetoric in the North American Christian community lately about the spiritual discipline of being around people a lot, and I’m no stranger to the benefits. I spent years living with roommates, and I’ve visited many a monastery and intentional community. Several of my friends have joined intentional communities, and I admire them for doing so.

But I’ve lived alone for the last three years. Most of the time, I quite enjoy living alone.

For a while I felt guilty about this enjoyment. How was I to avoid becoming self-indulgent and eccentric with only myself to rely on?  Who would keep me accountable? Yes, my cats woke me up in the middle of the night, but they had short-term memories, which means it was easy to get upset, then to forget I should forgive them.

The thing is, I’ve been noticing more and more lately that I don’t leave community behind me when I lock my apartment door. If I’m attentive, opportunities for me to extend forgiveness and hospitality abound inside that locked door, even if I disconnect the Internet and the phone and ignore the cats altogether. I just have to look a bit more closely for them when I’m at home.

But they’re there, because I’m constantly surrounded by communications. 

As a grad student, I spend hours and hours reading journal articles and scholarly books—communications from other scholars. On my breaks, I’ll flip on the TV and see a story communicated to me by a group of screenwriters and producers. Or I’ll sit down to read a communication from another creative writer in the form of a novel. When I need to focus again, I’ll turn on my iPod, listening to a communication from a composer and lyricist while I try to focus back on that scholarly communication I’d put down earlier. 

One thing I love about these communications is that they are made at a distance. This fact gives me a chance to develop my response gradually: to think and figure out how best to respond, and then to hone my response. And by the time I push my response out there where others can see it, it can look all pretty and polished.

But, as the advocates of intentional community point out, there’s a potential downside to this distance. Even more than the cats, the communicators have no clue how I’m responding to them within my home. And even if I do respond to them outside of my home, through an essay, a book or movie review, through comments to a friend, it’s easy to feel that the original communicators may never see my responses. Even if they do, there’s a good chance I’ll never develop a personal relationship with them of the sort in which I could know whether I’d hurt them by a careless word. And even if I am careful in my final responses, it’s easy for me to be mean or judgmental to them in the in-between stages, in the name of critical thinking or authenticity.

The thing is, as both Jesus and the Apostle Paul pointed out, I’m accountable for more than my public actions: I’m accountable for what I think and do privately as well. Jesus said that a man doesn’t have to actually commit adultery to commit a sin—if a man looks at a woman lustfully, it’s a sin, too (Matthew 5:27-28). Maybe that’s why Paul said that slaves should work hard, whether or not their masters were watching (Ephesians 6:6). 

These principles, when applied to my situation, mean that I don’t have to agree with the communicators who come into my home, but that I’m not off the hook towards how I treat them because they may never hear many of my responses to them. In many ways, I’m as much their host as I would be to my guests at a dinner party.

So in my time at home lately, I’ve been asking God to help me remember the most important parts of being hospitable to those I invite into my home, whether or not their bodies actually enter in. I try to be present when they’re talking to me. I try to listen carefully to their perspective and try to understand it. I try to appreciate whatever work they’ve put into the communication. I try to give them space to be themselves. I try to remember that, if they’re sinners, so am I, and that they are also children of God.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I let everyone in all at once—there are many voices and only so much space and time. Nor does it mean that I won’t be amused by my guests’ unintended humor at times, or frustrated by the things they do and say. And of course it doesn’t mean my disembodied guests aren’t accountable for their own actions, and that I wouldn’t kick them out if they weren’t acting appropriately. But it means I should be careful to lace my laughter with more delight than disdain. I should voice my frustration with care, as I would in addressing a co-worker or dear friend. And I should take that final step carefully, with prayer and with a full awareness that judgment belongs to God, not me.

Being more mindful of my responses to the communications I receive when I’m home alone has perks: beyond the other benefits of distance, it strips down any exte

rnal motives that might tempt me if I were to pursue these actions first in a more public venue. Like Jesus’ listeners who were asked to pray alone in their rooms where no one would see (Matthew 6:6), I’m left with the awareness that I’m ultimately responsible to God, not to others. 

This discipline—of being a gracious host to those not physically in my presence—is going to be hard to keep up at times. But if with God’s help I’m able to develop constructive responses to the absent when only His eyes are on me, I’m hoping I’ll also be a better neighbor when I unlock that door and go out into the world.

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