"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

The Double Whammy of Welcome

As I interact with the world around me, I see that “Welcome” is a contested concept. Generally, we begin with the operating assumption that few things are more important than to be perceived as welcoming. With the world vastly estranged from one another, pursuing reconciliation means being a people of welcome.

But the double whammy of welcome is that we often expect people to come to us. That is to say, we posit ourselves as being the welcoming rather than the welcomed. Being the welcomed can be challenging and hard. Being the welcomed requires taking a moment to pause and see what’s going on.

For instance, monasteries in the Christian tradition tend to focus on practising hospitality. They have a sacred duty to welcome the stranger without expectation of return. But when one goes to a monastery and receives their welcome, one has an opportunity to learn to be a guest. And I love being welcomed by a monastery. Yet, the more I receive the welcome of the monastery, the more I want to be accepting as much hospitality from them as I can. I want to express authentic appreciation for the food they serve me, I want to breathe deeply in the space of silence and receive the silence in joy, I want to join them in their life of prayer (even as that means crawling out of bed before sunrise for at 0300 or 0500). I  hope they forgive me for being sleepy while they pray and can see my intention of engaging with them in their life.

But if I were to say that monastics would be more welcoming if they did not choose to pray at O-Dark-Thirty, then I think I have violated the sacred trust that makes hospitality possible. It is true that I do not have to go join the monastics at prayer, although I have gone to visit monasteries that make an explicit request at the outset that travellers to the monastery make every reasonable effort to attend the prayer services. With the plethora of options afforded to me as a traveller in the modern world, I am not exactly forced ever to accept the hospitality of a monastic.

Receiving the welcome of others often requires surrendering aspects of one’s own preferences. When a vegetarian friend offers to make me dinner while I have a meat craving, I have a choice: I can forgo temporarily my desire for meat to accept freely my friend’s hospitality or I can constrict the available options for my vegetarian friend’s hospitality to the point where my friend is forced to accept my hospitality. I can even go so far as to assert my meat craving, my desire to cook meat (and only meat), and reach the conclusion that I simply must pass on my friend’s invitation for dinner all together.

As an ideal, “You are welcome here” sounds absolutely amazing. I’m welcome! I’m welcome! I’m welcome! But to be welcome, I’m required to receive something. Being welcomed requires joining myself, at least temporarily, to another’s experience. Being welcomed means turning off the intrinsic complainer to accept the gift for what it is.

So, on the balance, being welcoming requires creating space to accommodate people. Sometimes it is physical space. My current living space means it’s really hard for me to welcome more than one person… and even that’s awkward because the table in my kitchen doesn’t sit two comfortably. To welcome someone to sit around my table, I honestly have to bring my table into my bedroom.

Yet, being welcoming requires having something to offer. The hard part of being welcoming is that someone might absolutely refuse what you’re offering. People might have good reasons to refuse what it is that you’re offering, but ultimately you need a space to be yourself. Someone might choose not to receive the hospitality of a monastic community because they experience difficulty breathing in a desert climate. Placing a monastery in the desert does not mean that the monastery is unwelcoming; it means that the monastery invites guests into the desert. If I extend hospitality to another person by offering them a meal, I am constrained by my cooking abilities and my budget. But to extend someone the hospitality of a shared meal, what I have to offer is my shared food. My friend might need to refuse for a health reason (like they will puff up like a balloon if they eat shrimp), but I cannot be faulted for trying to offer my friend shrimp.

Life happens at the pragmatic interface. Extending a welcome really does not mean much without some authentic giving. If all we give is a statement of “Everyone is welcome” then we wind up with a collection of people who can receive that statement. It sounds great. It really does not help people understand what welcome means. I could say “Everyone is fantastic.” Without some effort to say what I mean in word and deed when I say “fantastic,” the phrase will ring empty. From my vantage point, welcoming requires providing some translation.

I’ve also discovered that welcoming sustains itself when otherwise autonomous folks decide to stick around to be welcoming. One of the reasons why monasteries can be welcoming places is that they have monastics do to the welcoming. Those people at the core of any group focusing on extending “welcome” need to have a sharp vision of what that welcome looks like. Does it mean that the group stays in one geographic place so others can come? Does it mean that the group travels together to go towards others? What is the rhythm of life associated with being welcoming? Welcoming is nearly worthless without some concrete reality.

In the English language, it is customary to say “You’re welcome” after someone says “Thank you.” It’s one of the first things parents tend to teach their kids. To say “Thank you” one needs to express gratitude. Welcoming, giving, receiving, and gratitude get lumped together in a package. In teaching please, thank you, and you’re welcome, elders invite the younger to become people who can give and receive hospitality. Giving and receiving hospitality involves a growth trajectory. We can (and we do) grow and change in how we receive hospitality from people.

The double whammy of welcome is that to welcome we need to be in relationships characterized by giving and receiving. Giving and receiving involves concrete whats that can absolutely be refused. If we actively refuse someone’s hospitality, it strikes me as a categorical error to say that person is not welcoming. Generally, I think we use the phrase not welcoming as a way to go after someone for not accommodating us. Seeking accommodation is a different space than seeking hospitality. But I think people often confuse the two, demanding that a host give the guest something the host is unable to give.

If all I have in my house is lemonade, I’m not going to be able to accommodate your desire for Diet Coke. If you can accept my hospitality, I’m happy to share my lemonade. But I have lemonade to offer.

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