Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shelter vs. Hospitality

Last weekend Leia and I attended the Catholic Worker Gathering in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In preparation for working with Robert Schuller III to start a seminary built along the lines of the Rule of St. Benedict, I opted for the Benedictine Spirituality workshop. I got my head handed to me, so I’m reaching out to you for consolation.
After joining into “silent prayer” with the others I asked about a Benedictine Monastery that “never turned anyone away” I desperately needed to know how this miracle was being worked. Were it true, I would count it among Medjugore and Fatima as a miracle for our millennia.
“Are they above the Arctic Circle?” I asked. Not quite, but it did develop that they were in an outpost so remote that no one had ever heard of the nearby town.
“How do they exit guests?” I asked, and my heart sank in my chest as it was apparent that the bearer of these glad tidings was unclear about that reality as well.
I said that, rather than boasting of some distant mirage, it would be a lot more instructive to examine how the Rule of St. Benedict might help us to discern who to exit when our shelter was full: Did we honor the ongoing claim of the longest-staying guest, or exit them in favor of a newcomer. Or did we do what most government shelters do, and simply post a sign saying “Full” and turn away everyone, regardless of their circumstances?
I proposed that the “Preferential Option for the Poor” and the Parable of the 99th Sheep argued for at least something more interactive than a “Full” sign. I’m afraid I went on a tad too long about our travails here in Orange County, so much so that I exasperated my counterpart from the Midwest, who cried out, “I think some of us don’t know the difference between shelter and hospitality.”
I stand convicted, and I find myself in complete agreement. After 20 years of helping my wife run the largest CW in the country, I must admit that I know very little about "doing" hospitality. I am haunted by the idea that the definition of “neighbor” in our exegesis for the Greatest Commandment might include people who don’t actually sleep under the same roof, and that the poor wretch standing on the porch dismayed at our “Full” sign might actually be much poorer than someone who is too proud to accept their parents’ (or children’s) insistent and repeated offer of lodging.
As the lawyer in the Parable of the Good Samaritan “plea bargains” for our souls, the economist in me recalls that reality dictates that we can do less (per person) the wider our definition of neighbor becomes. But less is not worse, because no part of reality is bad.
Bad is when we decide that holiness happens more readily when we close the door to our houses, and then our hearts, so that we can appreciate and control what happens, as if we were doing hospitality, instead of God.
We offer shelter, and, like our guests, we pray God will reward us with hospitality – in this world and the next. What startles me is how easy it is to see how my "spirituality" could result in an increase in the suffering of some wretch I would turn away. The man questioning my holiness had dropped his census from 40 each night down to 5, and recommended we do the same.
This isn't the first time truly holy and soulful people have told us that merely sheltering so many folks was a recipe for disaster - so I must concede the possibility that our adoption of the Kirwan legacy is mere ego, and that God might be better served if we were to examine the possibility of shrinking our numbers.
I'm throwing open the door of our hearts, and I'm fully prepared to accept a lack of comments on your part as a roaring commendation: No news is good news, indeed!
The more of you who don't write comments asking us to throw folks out, the better. So please, instead pray for us, and for all Catholic Workers, and encourage us to stay alive to the cries we cannot hear: for the people on our porch who have never seen a "full" sign, and for the donors and volunteers who sustain us by remaining a silent majority.
Those are the people from whom we shall learn the difference between shelter and hospitality.