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Wendy May Jacobs is a curate in Portsmouth, and a participant on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage created by Reconcilers Together. In this blog she reflects on her learning from the most recent module hosted by the Rose Castle Foundation and Place for Hope, focusing on radical hospitality and host-guest dynamics.

You can find out more about the Journey of Hope pilgrimage and all the partner organisations involved on the Reconcilers Together website.

My husband is a very wise man at times. In my needier moments he reminds me of something very important: that it takes grace to give, and grace to receive. I need to be reminded of this because, like many fortunate people, giving often comes quite easily to me. Receiving means that I need to lay hold of some extra grace.

I have just returned from three days in Cumbria where a group of us was being mentored in reconciliation through the network Reconcilers Together. Our theme was “radical hospitality” and we did a very interesting exercise.

Each corner of the hall was labelled with a different aspect of hospitality: hosting, co-hosting, being a guest, and hosting myself. We were instructed to put ourselves in the corner which sat most easily with us.

Out of 20, only one inhabited the “being a guest” corner. There were three or four in the “hosting myself” corner, and the remainder were crowded into the “hosting” and “co-hosting” areas. I found this astonishing. Granted, all of us are “reconcilers” so perhaps in some ways similar types, but even so. Giving was more comfortable than receiving for the majority of us who were there, and that included giving to ourselves, caring for our own souls. It has left me deep in thought ever since.

We paid close attention to that classic hospitality text in Genesis 18, in which the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. It is a seminal text for Jews, Christians and Muslims (the story occurs three times in the Koran), in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob comes “disguised” as three strangers passing by – men? Angels? We are not sure.

Bedouin hospitality

As Christians, familiar with Rublev’s icon of the Trinity based on this scene, we cannot help being put in mind of the Trinity – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – three persons in one fully open to each other in love: welcoming us – each of us – to join them.

Displaying the famous Bedouin hospitality, Abraham entreats them to stay. He arranges for water to be brought to bathe their feet, for fresh bread to be baked, for a calf to be killed and prepared, for curds and milk to be brought (oh for a wife and a servant, such as Abraham had!). It was not a Kosher meal, but then the dietary laws had not yet been given.

Andrey Rublev’s Trinitarian Icon

One of our group who has lived with the Tuareg people confirmed that this practice continues today. In the harsh desert, unfailing hospitality is a matter of life and death, and indeed shows enlightened self-interest. Visitors are rare and precious. They bring outside news into the seclusion of the tribe, and provide an opportunity for the tribe to remember and express who they are, in the presence of an “other”. It is a joy and an honour to be able to lavish themselves on their guests.

True hospitality

The understanding is that a stay of three days – no longer – is about right. Apparently Benjamin Franklin’s quip about guests, like fish, beginning to smell after three days even applies in the desert.

I love to be a guest, but it is not a passive role. Like hosting, being a guest is holy. In the sacred dynamic of hospitality, what is the guest’s work? The guest brings news, some kind of life from the outside, receives what is offered with gratitude, and thereby helps the host to make sense of their life. True hospitality is about being authentic, willing to offer and receive simply who we are and what we have, seeking and finding grace to inhabit this space peacefully.

Without the guest there can be no host. Without the host there can be no guest. This mutuality is at the core of hospitality and, for Christians, at the very heart of God, who is himself love.

Wendy May’s blog was originally published in the Irish Times here.