The Jubilee Year of Mercy is just around the corner, and I am dedicating Wednesdays on the blog to getting ready for it. Specifically, I am doing a series on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are at the core of Christian moral practice. We are not supposed to just spend our lives staying out of trouble and avoiding sin—we are meant to dedicate ourselves to doing good.
Last week we discussed that most essential work of mercy of ‘feeding the hungry’. This week’s work sounds so much like it that it may seem hard to know what to say about it. ‘To give drink to the thirsty’ – isn’t that just part of feeding the hungry? You can’t give someone food without giving them something to wash it down with, after all.
Well, there is always the question of social justice, and access to clean water. There is the tragic reality that, according to the United Nations, about 10% of the people alive on the planet do not have access to safe drinking water. And in our almsgiving, whatever else we may wish to support, we may think about that statistic, and what it means in terms of disease, infant mortality, and so forth… and may wish to give some support to groups trying to reduce that number.
Let’s leave that aside. I am not any kind of expert in global resource management, and so while the essential point is simplicity itself—help people drill a well for their village, for crying out loud!—I am not qualified to discuss it beyond that, and have no wish to lead people astray with bad advice. If anyone reading this knows of a good organization doing this kind of work, perhaps you could leave a link in the comments.
Let’s talk about something more immediate and personal about this, though. It is true that feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are inter-related. But with the latter, it seems to me to pertain even more directly to the direct hospitality of the house. You can (and should!) support a soup kitchen, a food bank, or that needy neighbor who could use a casserole or a pot of soup.
But to offer someone a drink—this seems to pertain to welcoming someone into your own home. It is a norm of hospitality—so typical that it goes unnoticed except for when it is neglected—that when someone enters one’s house the first thing to do is to offer them something to drink—be it water, or juice, tea or coffee or whatever. There is something fundamental about that – to welcome a guest to your house is tied up with that offer.
Conviviality, in other words. Water is life, and so to offer that glass of water to the guest is to establish friendly relations at the most basic level, even more basic than food.
So the Year of Mercy should be a Year of Hospitality. In Madonna House, the word ‘hospitality’ is so important to us. I would argue that, one way or another, it sums up virtually everything we do in our apostolate. There is something so fundamentally loving and Christian about welcoming another person to come into your space, your world, your home. It is what God has done for us – our whole understanding of salvation is that God has welcomed us to share his table, to eat and drink from His life, to be part of His world.
So we should readily invite others to be part of our world, too. To come into our homes. To sit at our tables. Pope Francis has called Christians to go out from our churches to extend to the periphery of life and society. Translating that into practical action may at times elude us—are we supposed to troll around alley ways or do sidewalk evangelization work? Maybe… but not everyone is cut out for that kind of thing.
What about inviting people over? For dinner, or for lunch, or for this or for that. I think that for families in particular, the practice of hospitality is one of the most powerful ways to be an evangelizing presence in the neighborhood.
Oh, I know the objections. ‘My house is a mess!’ (Absolutely nobody but you cares about that, you know.) ‘My kids aren’t exact perfectly well behaved!’ (People need to see that Christian families are flawed and human like everyone else.)
We live in a world—especially we North Americans—where the normal pattern of life is for people to draw apart from one another, to only have the social intercourse that is absolutely required and then to withdraw into the fortresses of our homes. For those who may have little ‘home’ to withdraw into, who live alone, say, or who live in difficult and painful situations, this pattern can make the world a cold and deeply lonely place.
The open door, the welcoming hand, the cup of cold water, or coffee, the extended invitation to come in and sit with us awhile, maybe have a meal together—all of this makes that cold lonely world considerably less so. And all of that proclaims Christ and His hospitality to a depth and a degree—without a word being spoken about it—that we can scarcely imagine.
So let’s try to find ways to do that this year, OK?