What Good is Hospitality?

The world is falling apart. Sexual promiscuity, personal indulgence, greed, gluttony, and irresponsible choice are rampant—and that’s just our culture. Elsewhere, political and religious wars rage, while scandal and corruption abound. With so much at stake, what good is a little hospitality?

The consumption of food is an intrinsically communal act—relationship is an ingredient, not the accidental occasion of a common hunger. Consider the presentation of 10 different kinds of bread and grains to the Pope on his most recent US visit, presented not to curb his hunger or satisfy his needs but to communicate a relationship, some shared appreciation—human, but more than a bestial satiation. Nearly all sacrifices of the Old Testament Jewish world were edible in nature—demonstrating more the basic necessities of the worshiper than the worshipped.

Whereas some want to make the case that healthy and unhealthy dietary patterns begin with the food, I would suggest that it beings with the company and conversation. People who eat alone are more prone to unhealthy dietary habits. They eat too much (no one to share with), they eat too fast (no conversation to break up speed of consumption), they eat too little (no one else to serve or pace with), or they eat the wrong kinds of food (no one to encourage otherwise).

In fact, much evidence points to a deeper human hunger which, when absent from our meals, lends to patterns of neglect and abuse (of food, that is). It isn’t a vitamin or mineral or ingredient—something to be printed on the side of packaging. Simply speaking—it is the hunger of relationship.

Lonely, we feed ourselves for comfort. Disgusted, we punish ourselves with denial. Angry, we abuse without consideration of consequences—“a moment on the lips…” In each, food is but symptom—in each case some deeper need remains unsatisfied.

The link between the physical realities of food—the body’s need for nutrients—and the non-physical, spiritual (mystical if you prefer) qualities is inseparable. In most religions, patterns of feasting and fasting portray the posture of the adherent before his divine. Somehow, that humanity’s first parents fell from grace over food; somehow—in some way utterly absent in other animals as they consume food—our consumption of food is linked to the condition of our emotional and spiritual needs. Like the birds that mysteriously fly back to a long-abandoned birthplace in order to hatch another generation—we, men and women, in our eating somehow taste the longing and bitterness of those first human parents; and our connection with them.

We may silence the voice of certain understanding with a second helping of dessert, or dismiss the hope of a joyful, full-family meal as some antiquated practice that lives on only in black and white movies. But in our dreams, in our longing for food, we find that satisfaction is fleeting when the fellowship of good company is the absent ingredient of our daily meals.

What good is hospitality? An opportunity to unfold the wrinkles of dismality and partake of a meal of care, of fellowship, of love—like a walk in a garden, in the cool of the day.

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