I learned hospitality in college.
I had intended to learn about it too. I had heard a sermon about hospitality, about how the ancient definition is not inviting your best friends over, but opening your home to the stranger, the pilgrim, the sojourner. Xenia, Homer called it. According to xenia, you feed the people who have no other place to go. The role it held in the early church was rich with mysterious, sacred possibilities, all tied up in that cryptic message in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Maybe I could host an angel someday too.
The summer before school started, I lingered in my mother’s kitchen, describing my aspirations of extending hospitality to bewildered freshmen. “I can bake bread for them,” I said. My fantasies included an immaculate dorm, delicious food, and precise plans of when it should happen. I prayed about it once or twice too.
It was more difficult than expected to find the sojourners, the strangers, the bewildered people who I thought needed me. Those who ended up in my one-room apartment were my friends.
Fortunately I was graced with a roommate who wanted to invite people over just as much as I did. In that one-room apartment, with bunkbeds in one corner and the kitchen in the other, we hosted ten, sometimes fifteen, people at a time. We cooked stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, volunteered every mug we owned, and refilled the faithful French Press again and again. Across the night the group depleted to six or seven, and we talked until the early morning. The question was not what topics we covered, but what topics we didn’t.
Sometimes I remembered to take pictures from the top of my bunkbed: it’s blurry in the lamplight, and students are standing, balancing on the sofa arm, or sometimes lying flat on the carpet in exaggerated angst. Those nights, you were lucky to find a seat on the ground where you could rest your back on the wall.
Often, the visitors were limited to a couple friends or my and my roommate’s boyfriends. We laughed, shared other music videos, and resented one another for talking while we were trying to study. In a one-room apartment you can’t get away from one another. There’s only so much space, and people take it up.
Despite the towers of textbooks, the limited floorplan, and the clumps of hair in the carpet (college girls shed, sometimes a lot) people came. Once my friend Sarah told me, “The place I feel most at home is in your apartment.”
The word “home” became a tremulous, weighty word. I listened for it from the lips of my friends, waiting for it as a sign that maybe I was doing one thing right.
Turns out more people feel far from home than you would expect—people who want a place of being, not doing. One friend got kicked out of her house for dating the wrong guy, and for a week she lived on the couch. Her towel, body spray, and hair straightener spilled across the much-coveted floor space. That added another boyfriend to the mix: now there was six of us pretending to ignore one another’s PDA. My boyfriend commuted two hours to school via bus, and told me, “Your apartment—it’s kind of become home to me.” He made PBJ’s on my counter and fell asleep on the floor, head pillowed on his arm.
Providing a pretty space with fresh flowers and baked bread was out of the question. My room was messy; I was messy, especially emotionally. Once, when my roommate invited over twelve people—many of whom I didn’t know—for an impromptu party, I hid in the only private space: the bathroom. I heaved deep gut-tears because I was exhausted and wanted to be alone. Louisa May Alcott said, “‘Stay’ is a charming word in a friend’s vocabulary.” It’s a charming word to hear; sometimes it’s a harder word to say. That minor break down exposed the line between sacrificing selfishness and sacrificing self-care. (I don’t recommend the latter.)
Those nights, our AC dies: bodies all together drive the temp into the 80’s, plus Houston humidity, and we spill out on the balcony and look across the shoulders of the city at the moon rising slow. As the hours pass, stories are awoken, insecurities voiced, fragile hopes for the future brought into the lamplight like hand-knitted lace.
Hospitality is a literal sharing of space. It seems obvious, but you feel it more in a one-room apartment. Physical bodies bump into each other, step over each other, rest on one another’s shoulders. Hospitality is sharing time, sometimes hours late at night when you wish you were asleep.
I learned the ethic of hospitality when I couldn’t sit on my couch because someone else was. Opening my one-room, AC-deficient apartment to my friends may be the closest I come to ancient hospitality, and it was worth it even it if meant my boyfriend and I had to find some out-of-the-way corner of our Baptist campus if we wanted to kiss each other.
“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling,” Peter said. He knew there is always reason to grumble with hospitality, knew the pragmatics of welcoming physical beings, knew our natural tendency to use idealism as a crutch. So he prefaces with: “Love deeply.”
Deep love must intersect with the physical, and the point of contact is hospitality: sharing space, sharing time, sharing stories. It’s putting yourself aside so a friend can breathe deep and stretch out full length. Love is the invitation: “stay.”
I haven’t hosted an angel yet—I think. I expect that when I do, the angel will sprawl on the couch, eat pancakes, maybe leave the door open to sweaty Houston heat. It will be sacred, and I won’t know it until afterwards.
“When I think of your apartment, I think of home.”
Corrie McCloy is a senior at Houston Baptist University, studying English and Writing. She is a gardener, violinist, and the proud aunt of fourteen nieces and nephews. She has published in Writ in Water and Satellite.
Want more on hospitality? Check out To Remember a Stranger: On the Hospitality of Thought.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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