The Virtue of Hospitality: An Attitude of Heart

welcome mat

Hospitality is much more than a simple welcome or an offer of food or drink. Hospitality is an attitude of heart that opens us to others and receives them on their own terms. Henri Nouwen speaks of hospitality as a move from hostility to friendship:

“Hospitality, therefore, means primarily 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. . . Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.”

The challenge is to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving them alone. “The real host is the one who offers that space where we do not have to be afraid and where we can listen to our own inner voices and find our own personal way of being human.” It means providing space where new life can be found and everyone’s gifts can flourish. To do so, we have to be at home ourselves and be willing to lay down our fears of change. We have to be willing to be vulnerable and open to new ways of doing things. We have to let go of our narcissism and exaggerated individualism.

Hospitality means openness to what guests and strangers bring to us. We receive a revelation from the guest which can change us and enrich our lives and open us to new possibilities and ways of thinking and living.

Hospitality implies attentiveness to the other and to the needs of others, even anticipating their needs. As Gula explains, “The key to hospitality is ‘paying attention.’ . . . When we pay attention, we divest ourselves of self-preoccupation. To be hospitable we have to get out of ourselves and become interested in the other.”

Often our lack of hospitality is simply the failure to notice and acknowledge others and their needs—the needs of the larger world and the needs of those closest to us. Jesus models that attentiveness. He noticed the sick, the excluded, the hungry, those that others passed by. God continues to be attentive. As we contemplate the ministry of Jesus, we are called to heighten our awareness of others so that we can carry on the ministry of Jesus.

—Excerpted from Putting on the Heart of Christ by Gerald M. Fagin, SJ

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  1. I am always confused when I read an exhortation to receive someone “on their own terms”. I’m not sure I understand this statement. I don’t think Jesus ever received anyone on THEIR own terms, He received them on His own terms, which were the Father’s terms: Repentance and Obedience to the extent possible. He was never hostile to anyone, but rather, invited everyone to friendship with God. But friendship with God has specific characteristics, requirements, such as humility, gratitude and love. And anyone who refused to enter into that friendship, on God’s terms, where by default, hostile to God.
    To bring the theoretical into the pragmatic – My sister, who left the church 22 years ago after having an abortion, and is now going through a divorce, is now living with me and my family. My wife and I were adamant that she come live with us (she didn’t really have any other option) and have no doubt we are being hospitable. But we are not receiving her on HER own terms. She is here because she needs a clear and powerful lesson on how to live in friendship with God. Her opinion that Jesus is “one of many spiritually enlightened people”, in the same league as Buddha, the Dali Lama, etc, are completely inconsistent with friendship with God. Jesus emphatically declared that He is the ONLY way to the Father. And we have not, and will not, accept her beliefs. If she requires that we receive her on her terms, accepting her beliefs as legitimate, we can’t accept her on those terms because to do so would be to tacitly support a lie. She is not living with us on her terms, she is living with us on our terms, which, are God’s terms. We pray to Jesus, not Buddha. We go to Mass, not the Hindu shrine. etc. etc.
    So when I read a statement that we should receive others on their own terms, I interpret that as a mandate to disregard God’s terms of friendship, and pretend their terms are acceptable to God. So can you please help me understand where I’m missing the point?

    • Hi MarkS, God really sets no terms for love, life, and friendship… Even the Hindu and Muslim are loved by God without asking them to convert, even as He offers them the ability to come closer to Him in our Church. God’s hospitality imposes no conditions, as a matter of fact, God loved us, even while we were still sinners… And so, as Fr Fagin declares ” Hospitality is a posture of openness and welcome that finds a place for ALL God;s people.”.. not only to those who agree with us…


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