On Avocados, The Dark Knight, and Radical Hospitality

By: Kate Wallin

I heard about Friday’s shootings in Aurora as I walked into the 1:15 matinee showing of The Dark Knight Rises. It shocked me, the mindlessness and cruelty of the murders. It made me scared, as I adjusted my eyes to the darkness of Cinema 4. There was a rush of emotion as I realized that just last night one hundred people crowded the theatre like we did, their evenings and twelve lives cut short by the violence of one man. How do we make sense of something so senseless?

In an age of school shootings, subway bombings, and violence like that in Aurora, it’s antithetical to even consider opening up yourself or your space to the stranger. It’s easier to practice suspicion and mistrust than to welcome and accept a stranger. But a resurgence in interest in monasticism, particularly the way of one monk – St. Benedict – is leading many in our generation to consider what a radical view of hospitality may have to offer our hurting and haunted world.

Sometimes referred to as “New Monasticism” – or a re-tailoring of monastic tradition to the modern world – the way of Benedict is an life orientated towards love. Radical Hospitality by Father Daniel Homan explains it like this, “Benedictine hospitality prevents us from living either desperately or indifferently. Hospitality requires not grand gestures but open hearts. When I let a stranger into my heart, I let a new possibility approach me. When I reach past my own ideas, I begin to stretch myself open to the world, and this opening of my heart could change everything. That’s pretty frightening stuff. You can’t ever be the same again if you start doing that kind of thing.”

When I let a stranger into my heart, I let a new possibility approach me. When I reach past my own ideas, I begin to stretch myself open to the world, and this opening of my heart could change everything. That’s pretty frightening stuff.

-Father Daniel Homan

This definition of hospitality assaults me, all of my fortified defenses and every inclination I have to fear. It illuminates the truth that fear is a thief. It steals from us the gifts of friendship, understanding, diversity and growth. Receiving and giving hospitality are two sides of the same coin, and fear is a thief of both. It is interesting to look back on the time I spent living in northeastern Malawi, where I always spent my lunch in the same place: at Mama C’s simple bread stand.

I tasted this kind of fearless hospitality there, waiting under the overhang of the thresh roof. The dried palms and long grass would tickle the tops of our heads as we waited for the earthen oven to bake the simple breads. Mama C was always positioned by the frame of the door on a mat; Papa C’s singsong “Jambo! Hello!” always reached us before we could speak first. In three months, they never let me pay for an avocado and only charged me a smidgeon of what I owed for bread and Fanta. Asking to pay what I owed, Papa C took on a stern look, the only time a smile escaped his face. “No, you cannot buy my avocados; I don’t have want for your money. I have need for your friendship.”

He understood this fearlessness, and his hospitality was radical because of it. Even though rations were small and the days were dry, he let me enter his home, eat his food, and take in his time because he understood the way of Benedictine hospitality, even if he didn’t label it as such. It was his open heart, not any grand gesture of generosity, which taught and shaped me.

So I think again on that dark theatre. I think on what it could have been to set someone off, what could have prevented such violence. And then I stop myself. We could ask “what if?” until the sun burnt out. Really the question should be “what can?” What can I do to stop living desperately or indifferently? What can I do to prevent grand (but hollow) gestures and instead cultivate an open heart? And what can happen when because of that stranger a new possibility approaches me, and I stretch open to the world. What can we do with just this little, simple, radical understanding of hospitality?

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