In our moment in western culture, we assume self-sufficiency. Yet in the desert of contemporary life we are all wayfarers, dependant on the generosity of strangers for survival. None of us can make it alone. Br. Luke Ditewig invites us to the practice of hospitality, which is not simply about sharing meals or shelter, but about receiving and offering sustenance of a much deeper kind.
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Serving much at a remote island camp shaped Br. Luke Ditewig, and he loves to be on a beach or a boat. He finds the monastery like an adult silent camp, where he enjoys cooking and creating welcoming spaces with simple beauty.
welcoming the stranger
Traveling in the desert is dangerous. One may faint from heat or be blinded by light. Caves provide safe shadows. Fellow travelers also provide essential help. In the desert cultures of Abraham, Jesus, and today, when meeting someone you share provisions. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35). Generosity may save a stranger’s life.
In our moment in western culture, we assume self-sufficiency. Doing so obscures our need and our past. Remember the children of Abraham spent 400 years as resident alien slaves in Egypt. After our ancestors were rescued and had received land, God instructed them, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-4). Ancient Israel was an agrarian society where land was essential and usually inherited. Those who did not own land – foreigners, strangers, aliens, or tenant farmers – were powerless and vulnerable. Being a stranger should shape behavior. We know what it feels like. God said: “You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). Having been strangers, we are to welcome strangers.
Hospitality, welcoming the stranger, is essential in the desert. We are all in the desert, bearing the challenges and difficulties of our journey. None of us can survive on our own. God welcomes us, offering sustenance and companionship. The Psalmist prays, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry…For I am but a sojourner with you, a wayfarer, as all my forebears were” (Ps 39:13-4). Another translation reads: “For I am your guest, a traveler passing through” (NLT). Once our ancestors had received land, God reminded them: “…the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). No matter what appears to be ours, what we claim to possess, all is a gift. We are God’s guests.
As Brothers, we welcome many on retreat alongside us five nights a week most weeks of the year, and many come to worship with us. Welcoming and caring for guests is a big part of our ministry. That’s part of what drew me here, and I much enjoy offering welcome. Monastic life keeps teaching the harder truth that we Brothers are God’s guests, even in what appears to be our own home. We are not self-sufficient. We need divine sustenance.
All, including Brothers, come to the monastery not for what we can give, but for what we receive. In silence and solitude, in prayer and community, we are being healed by encountering Jesus. Like he did at the Last Supper, Jesus keeps coming round to wash our feet, and then he tells us to wash others’. Letting ourselves be washed, be seen, is saving generosity, as we are welcomed into God’s heart. Blessed, we bless. Loved, we love. As guests ourselves, as wayward children welcomed home, we reach out as hosts to share welcome.
Hospitality is about inviting people into our hearts. The most difficult “guests” we have to welcome might be those closest to us: family, housemates, coworkers, friends. How would it change your experience with others to admit that you are a guest here, as much as they are? To receive your own identity as a wayfarer and to perceive others as fellow travelers, who may barely be making it through the desert?
On life’s challenging journey, we need companions. God is in the fellow strangers on the road. Who is with you on the road? God invites them and you to a banquet where there is a place for everyone at the table. Will you exclude or welcome? God has welcomed us, and we in turn welcome others. Hospitality is not restricted to place, person, or provision. Each of us can offer welcome. We can do it on the street, in a coffee shop, in a studio apartment, or in a house. We do it with whatever we have, wherever we are.
Hospitality is not about entertaining, not about impressing others with our stuff, nor is it only expressed in sharing meals and shelter. It is about saving lives, for our journeys are challenging and we need one another. The word hospitality has the same root as hospital, hospice, and hotel, places of safe lodging and healing. Before there were such, monasteries were some of the first shelters along dangerous roads, where anyone would be welcomed for safe, healing lodging.
Hospitality becomes healing when I am so present to another that they are able to be fully themselves. Who are you? How are you? Hospitality means my attentive response to you, making space for you to show up as you are. Henri Nouwen describes hospitality as “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
We are all longing to be seen, heard, and known; to be vulnerable with someone who will accept us and give a loving response. True hosts are those with whom we can be honest, who give us the safety to share the story of our journey. Beware of words getting in the way. Be present and open. Silence honors the mystery of the other. Hospitality is the shelter offered in an open heart. Its sustenance is the nourishment of being respected, listened to, and seen.