Letter from the FSJ – Fall 2021

Hospitality Over the Years at SSJE

I am one of the lucky ones who has experienced hospitality at the hands of the Society for nearly fifty years now. It was as a young Masters student at Harvard Divinity School in the Fall semester of 1973 (recently arrived from a first degree in Theology from Cambridge University), that I first stepped most tentatively over the threshold of the Chapel for a Tuesday evening student Mass (they were new then, and controversial), and entered for the first time the strangely evocative colors and transcendent atmosphere of the Ralph Adams Cram Chapel. My own mood that evening, I should say, was not promising: I had been more or less ‘shoo-ed’ in by a former teacher at Cambridge who had insisted that I visit the Monastery; and I had hoped to satisfy his insistence with a light-hearted post-card confirming that I had done what he had asked, and then sign off for good. I was then in a late-adolescent phase of (to say the least) almost obsessive rational deconstruction of the faith. But something caused me to come back, increasingly for the early morning weekday Masses where no conversation was required, but simply quiet and prayer. ‘Hospitality’ in those days at the Monastery, then, was for me nothing less than eucharistic hospitality, in all its multivalent, symbolic power: to quote Oliver Goldsmith, I “came to scoff, and remained to pray.” I had little converse with the brethren at that time (not least because, in those days, they all seemed quite terrified of women!). But perhaps it is important to note, out of this memory, that Christian hospitality can transcend social interaction of the worldly sort in all kinds of wordless ways, and do so in a way that plants the seeds of the gospel deeply in the soul.

Fast forward twenty years from that first encounter with SSJE, and I was back at Harvard as a professor of theology, encountering fresh personal difficulties as Harvard Divinity School struggled to decide whether or not it would be a genuinely Christian, ministerial institution, and if so, of what sort. New and important friendships were built with the community at that time; and I recall, with deep gratitude, the then-superior’s ‘hospitable’ insight in sizing up my rather desperate state of soul and offering me a place of refuge in the Guesthouse every Friday morning in term-time, just for three precious hours of quiet and prayer, reflection, and re-balancing. I came and went wordlessly, again, and without even ruffling a quilt in the room to which I had been assigned! Once more, it is hard to assess what this ‘hospitality’ connoted; but I do know it spoke to depths that were largely beyond words. The same was true when I visited the Monastery trans-atlantically a few years ago for Midday Office and lunch, whilst en route to an academic conference: one of the senior brethren came over, welcomed me, and gently reminded me of the right place in the office book; something about his loving demeanor touched a place in me that was in need, at the time, of healing, and it was profoundly affecting.

What, then, can we conclude theologically about what Christian hospitality connotes in these desperate days of pandemic, cultural and political anxiety, and deep fear of face-to-face encounter? Others in this issue of Cowley make many apposite and important and practical remarks, but here is what I’d like to add in closing, for what it’s worth. 

Perhaps it is always good to remind ourselves that Jesus’s views on hospitality were almost completely inverse to what the world now (and also then) assumed: Christian hospitality is not about social control and stratification (see Luke 14:7-24), but about openness to surprise and even displacement: why else would angels come at one “unawares” (see Gen 18:2, Heb 13:2), and with such significant divine impact? True Christian hospitality, that is, is deeply inconvenient, humanly speaking, and therein lies its power beyond human words – it represents the space where God, with unique generosity, does something that only God can do. Learning how to lean into this divine generosity is a life-time’s endeavour for us all; but it has always been a particular charism of the SSJE, and these days they are learning once more how to do it afresh.

Sarah Coakley served as Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, 1995-2008, and Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, 2008-2019. She is now assisting priest and theologian in residence in the parish of St Monica and St James, Capitol Hill, DC.

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