2. Hospitality and Hope
Mary Wickham rsm
Every so often the familiar, unheard words of the liturgy leap out at you and reassert their mystery. Have you ever noticed that towards the end of the funeral mass these words appear?
the Mercy of God will gather us together again in the joy of the Kingdom … [i]
I was attending a large country funeral in the small Victorian town of Elmore. Kathy Nihill had been a friend of my aunt for fifty years, since they did their nursing training together.
The service affirmed that Kathy was much loved, much appreciated, and
would be sorely missed not only by her family and friends but also by the entire community of nine hundred residents. She was known to many through her work at the bush-nursing hospital in the town and more recently as thoughtful neighbour, good friend, soup-maker and cake-maker and general soul-soother to the sick and frail elderly and bereaved in the town. Her care reached out to others. Her hospitality welcomed and warmed. Her kitchen was a place which gathered people in and which they left feeling amplified not only by her food but also by her spirit.
Driving the long road back to Melbourne that day, I had time to ponder the meaning of that phrase “the Mercy of God will gather us together” and to think about its relationship to the hospitality of Kathy Nihill and the hospitality of the God of mercy. I invite you to travel the road with me in my pondering.
The phrase “the Mercy of God will gather us together” taken apart piece by piece, declares that mercy is a quality of God. I know that, but how easy it is to forget it. Again and again, there are voices external and internal which attribute to God a decidedly unmerciful manner: voices which portray a punitive, calculating, derisory, disaster-causing, pain-condoning God. This is a god in which I do not believe, yet a god whose image is firmly etched in collective Church consciousness. “God’s will” is a phrase much abused.
If Mercy is an attribute of God, then what does mercy do? If I listen to the phrase, which the minister utters at the end of a funeral, I hear that one of the roles of mercy, the graces of mercy, is to gather… It has a particular poignancy there at the end of a funeral of course, where separation and loss are acutely felt. It is offered as a consolation, a hope for the future, when all that has been separated shall be united, the scattered and broken harmonized and made whole within the everlasting life which we call
Heaven. Mercy will render the sorrowful full of joy.
One of the chief purposes of mercy then is to gather, to reunite. The God who gathers is a God who welcomes, who brings rejoicing, and by implication reconciles. The God whose Mercy gathers is non-partisan and all-encompassing. A truly magnanimous God.[ii]
I think again of Kathy, and her hospitality. She was a great gatherer. I think of the image of heaven as a great gathering place. I am reminded of the wonderful image of heaven, which comes from the Celtic world of the tenth century and is called St.Brigid’s Prayer:
I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from
the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with
Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick;
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.[iii]
Heaven is the perfect place so it figures that its hospitality is seen as remarkable,
an ideal to which earthly hospitality can only aspire. Yet the fact that the very image of hospitality is used, the very choice of the metaphor of the gathering in of the world’s poor to the great feast is worth pausing over. It is of course a strong Old Testament image, and it is a pivotal reality in the life and death of Jesus himself. [iv] It is easy to take it for granted as an image and to neglect what it reveals to us about the kind of God who sets Mercy to work. It also reveals much to us about the vocation of the merciful Christian, someone like Kathy whose unpretentious yet potent hospitality will not easily be forgotten. That this prayer of St. Brigid strikes a chord with us eleven centuries on also suggests that the whole idea of being gathered in and welcomed to the feast is very close to the depth of human need and desire, that it reaches the depths of our spirit.
I am reminded of a man called Peter Leach who lived and died at Corpus Christi Community, Greenvale, a home for homeless, alcoholic men. Peter was one of the younger members of the community. His brain-injury had been caused by a horrific motorbike accident and exacerbated by alcohol. It was a miracle that he could walk around at all. Peter was not able to speak very well, and his constant dribbling made him difficult company at table. Yet of all the things in the world Peter just loved to be able to sit around with a group of people at the end of a meal and chat and joke, argue or philosophize.
Peter had a mischievous glint in his blue
eyes that made you think he understood more than we sometimes gave him credit for, and when drawn into the conversation he would invariably express himself with a hard-won, elongated and resounding “Yeah” In that one word was captured Peter’s sense of belonging and his affirmation of his place in the community.
Peter taught me a valuable lesson that hospitality is not necessarily, or at least not merely, about being welcomed to a place: in essence it is not about the trappings of table and house and food. It is more about inclusion, about being invited, about being considered fit company. There is no doubt that Peter had known the pain of being considered unfit company at times in his life. The flip side was that for all his disabilities Peter was one of the most hospitable people I have ever known, always ready with a crooked smile and welcoming eyes.
Which brings us to that most hospitable of all men who was also homeless: Jesus. His hospitality was an attitude of heart, a largesse of spirit. I come back to the image of mercy that gathers in, and I ask myself about my own attitude of heart, about the world’s values of what is fashionable, and of who is fit company. I think about Church and societal structures and policies, the subtle and blatant practices of inclusion and rules of exclusion. If I think of those whom I exclude from my life and my living-room I find ample challenge to my complacency. If I think about those excluded from official communion with the Church I see many friends and colleagues and I feel great sadness.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to us is how to allow others to be hospitable towards us. At our Melbourne Congregation Chapter last year we acknowledged some of the challenges and callings of the Spirit to us in a Vision and Mission Statement. Part of the Mission Statement acknowledges our call to celebrate Mercy as dynamic, relational and mutual.
Mercy as mutual is an idea at least as old as Shakespeare, and is a thread which runs through our Constitutions:
Catherine and her first companions…
met God’s Mercy in courageous service of the poor…[v]
That little word met is a powerful one, yet very easy for the eye to skip over. Mercy is not a commodity to be given; it is not a possession to be dispensed; it is a grace, which presents itself in the dynamic of relationship. We don’t give or receive Mercy. It is generated around or from the experience of meeting, whether that is hospitality at its simplest, or a long-sought reconciliation, or an instance of emergency nursing care in the most acute of circumstances where it might appear that the patient is the sole recipient of mercy.
My aunt’s friend Kathy knew about mercy as mutual and dynamic.
I want to end with a little story. It is a true story, and it speaks to me about hospitality and the mutuality of mercy. It also hearkens back to the heavenly feast.
For some years a man called Brian used to call each day to the front door of our Mercy community at North Melbourne, ostensibly to ask for a cup of coffee, but most likely just to say hello to a human being. Brian was one of the inner city’s eccentrics and marginalized: in former times he would probably have seen out his days in a mental institution. He had family who cared about him and worried about him, but one suspects that his behavior was probably beyond their capacity to cope. So he ended up living in the high-rise flats by himself, under the supervision of various agencies.
Brian got sick and died. Amongst the mourners at his funeral were most of the Mercy community from North Melbourne, we who had given Brian countless cups of coffee and a listening ear.
Some time later his sister was clearing his few possessions out of his flat. She asked that we accept a gift from Brian, on her behalf, in gratitude for our kindness. What she gave, what Brian left to us, were six china cups, with saucers.
One of the cups had a slight chip, but that seemed right for Brian.
What does it mean, this story? That Brian had cups at home all the time and needn’t have bothered us? The irony
that we who gave him coffee in disposable cups were gifted by him with real china? That the daily ritual of human contact was the essence of Brian’s involvement with us rather than any actual physical, nutritional needs that he might have known? That those meetings at the front door were important for us all, maybe more than we had ever appreciated? That our relationship with Brian was mutually enriching and grace-giving? Yet that at the same time we were wisely cautious about some of Brian’s volatile behaviours and right to be wary about letting him inside the door?
All that, I think. All those things are true.[vi]
In the muddle and complexity of human experience it is not easy to be a person who graciously gathers and is free to be gathered: mistrust and betrayal, fear of intimacy, workaholism, concern about prestige or propriety and a hundred other factors can hinder us and stifle that remarkable grace which is Mercy, God’s agent of hospitality in our lives. It is not easy.
I reckon at this very moment though, that my aunt’s friend Kathy Nihill is sitting at the kitchen table of heaven with Brian and Peter, and St.Brigid for good measure, while Catherine McAuley makes the tea. And that gives me hope.
[i] One of the alternative introductions to the Final Commendation in the Order of Christian Funerals.
[ii] See for example Ezekiel 34:11-16 or Luke 13:34.
[iii] from the Irish circa 10th century.
[iv] See for example Isaiah 25:6-10 or the Gospel instances of meal encounters such as Luke 7:36ff; Luke 10:38ff; John 13:1ff. etc.
[vi] With thanks to the North Melbourne community.
This article was first published in the journal Listen, Vol 19 No 2. 2000.