Hospitality for Modern Pilgrims
Nobody has seen the trekking birds take their way toward such warmer spheres as do not exist, or the rivers break their course through rocks and plains to run into an ocean which is not to be found. For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them, but our longing is our pledge, and blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.
—Isak Dineson, “The Diver”
Modern day twenty-somethings may be the young and the restless, but they are also the young and the homesick. Miranda Lambert had it right when she sang about returning to her childhood home: “I know they say you can’t go home again.” If the home places are destroyed, how can we come home?
I had my own Miranda Lambert moment last August while passing through my old hometown. Gravel crunched under the tires of my Jeep Grand Cherokee. It had been years, but the road home felt familiar, instinctual. I rounded the bend. The landscape was much altered, but much the same. The lilac bushes. The climbing tree. The old pump well. At the top of the hill would be the castle house, my dwelling place from kindergarten to college.
To borrow from C.S. Lewis, it was a “glorious ruin” of a house. It had been my mother’s dream, several thousand square feet of gray stone and wrought iron, an architectural anachronism in our small suburban township. But like most do-it-yourself projects, something was always being done, or in need of it. Even in its prime, the castle house was flooding, collapsing, or suffering invasion from pests. Yet despite its structural petulance the castle house was truly magnificent. Christmastime was the best. Miles of white lights, evergreen garland, crystal candelabras, and not one, but three Christmas trees. No one could throw a holiday party like Mom, and no one missed a party she threw.
But on the day that I returned home, the castle house was more ruin than glory. The years, and the new management, had not been kind. It was smaller than I remembered, shriveled and ill. Construction equipment was parked haphazardly around the property. A gaudy water nymph sculpture had appeared in the courtyard. Tall grasses swallowed the retaining walls. But the inside was unbearable — the cherry corbels ripped off the molding, the Italian tile floors pulled up, walls knocked down, chandeliers sold. And the grand kitchen island, home to countless buffet dinners, to acres of custard pie and divinity at Thanksgiving, to the laughter of women over coffee and leftovers — gone.
Perhaps I should not have visited the castle house at all, instead leaving it immortal in memory. I got in the car and drove away, as T.S. Eliot wrote so piquantly, “familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.”1
Something is wrong with ruined castle houses. Something is wrong with returning to our home places only to find them destroyed. Even those who never had homes, or had absent parents or unhappy experiences, still seek to find or create places of love, acceptance, and stability. But the individualism and hyper-mobility of modern culture work against the creation of these home places. This is especially true for young people for whom the mark of maturity is not just leaving home, but leaving town.
In August of 2010, The New York Times published an article called “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” In it, Times contributor Robin Marantz Henig explored the unprecedented phenomenon of “emerging adulthood,” a new phase between 18 and 30, created by an overwhelming number of young people delaying the traditional milestones of adulthood. After university, instead of settling down, getting married, and having children, young people travel internationally, earn advanced degrees, pursue unpaid internships or temporary yet socially minded opportunities like Teach for America, and even move back in with their parents.
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. . . . And marriage occurs later than ever.2
For most, instead of leaving home in order to create a new home, the ideal state is a mandatory period of extended rootlessness. The few acceptable long-term commitments are to university or other career-advancing opportunities, and even those commitments may not last more than a few years.
Not all twenty-somethings have made peace with their cosmopolitan lifestyles. “I don’t want to start over again,” she said. Haley, 26, has the world at her fingertips. On her desk, twin letters of acceptance from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools. Her résumé is sterling: Business Honors at UT-Austin, four years at a top consulting firm, an internship with a San Francisco non-profit, and three months in the wilderness with the National Outdoor Leadership School. But for her, each bullet point also represents cardboard boxes, a U-Haul, and a dozen goodbyes. Whether she chooses Boston or the Bay Area, it will mean starting over. Another new beginning. Another transient community.
Mobile cultures are nothing new. Nomadic people groups existed long before Abraham pulled up tent stakes in Ur of the Chaldees. His heirs rumble through history in camel caravans, wagon trains, and even motor homes. Today, transient twenty-somethings, crowded in cramped urban flats, more closely resemble the ancient near eastern Bedouin communities than the nuclear homes of Norman Rockwell’s Americana. Yet even Bedouin communities moved around in community. More often than not, twenty-somethings are isolated in their pilgrimage.
Photo: Meredith Schultz
The homesickness wrought by modern mobility masks another, deeper homesickness. The desire to come home is, at its root, the desire to go to a place we have never been. Created to live in perfect, eternal communion with God, the expulsion from Eden was exile from our homeland. The character of Psyche in C.S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, expresses this desire to her unhearing sister Orual: “My country, the place where I ought to have been born!” Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”3 Even if I had returned to find the castle house perfect (a state it never reached, even in my long residency) it would not be the fulfilling reality that God created my heart to enjoy.
It was through my own sense of profound homesickness, exiled from both my earthly and heavenly homes, that God called me to the practice of hospitality. During the periods of my life when I was most displaced, when my family was most fractured, I received extravagant love and generosity from the hands of gentle, loving people who welcomed me not only into their homes, but into their lives. Hospitality speaks to us in our homesickness, acknowledging our desires for place and relationship. Hospitality points beyond itself, creating brief moments of homecoming that reflect the ultimate host and eternal feast of heaven. In this way, hospitality gives us, in Isak Dineson’s iconic words, “one hour of the millennium.”4
I once considered the transience of our culture to be an obstacle for true hospitality, as opposed to the more stable periods of history. It seemed that the only remedy for the ache was to turn back the clock, and return to a more rooted and humane era. This is shortsighted. The problem of modern mobility is a potent opportunity for hospitality. If hospitality is an act of welcome, a self-giving reception of a guest into place and relationship, then it is welcome indeed in a city of modern pilgrims. In a culture of profound homesickness, where everyone is coming and going, we have a unique calling to create home places, which point to the final homecoming of the world to come.
But how do you practice hospitality when you aren’t a homeowner? How do you practice hospitality when you are the pilgrim? When you are a graduate student, a traveling consultant, or a poor artist?
Hospitality from the margins is a widow’s mite welcome, made abundant by its sacrifice. Perhaps it means simple spaces. Tuna sandwiches around an undressed card table. Popcorn and cocoa by candlelight. Makeshift beds on the floor of your dorm room. Family holidays open to those who are far from family. Hospitality that is “real and costly,”5 not because it required a $300 grocery bill, but because it came out of your poverty. Extravagant generosity with financial, physical, and emotional resources, regardless of the social standing of the guest.
Perhaps it means shared work, allowing the guest to help with cooking and chores. After a point, catering to every need only serves to highlight that one is a guest and not a friend. Some of my sweetest experiences and richest conversations have occurred while preparing meals with others and cleaning up afterwards. This may be a new thought for traditional practitioners of hospitality, but shared work is shared life. And life together is what modern pilgrims desperately need.
Even the decision to meet at home, instead of at Starbucks or another third place, is tremendously countercultural. It may not seem significant, but meeting where you live (dorm rooms included) is an act of sacrifice and vulnerability. When you open your home, you open up part of yourself, dirty dishes and unfolded laundry included. And that self-disclosure makes a way for your guest to do the same.
Real and costly hospitality requires a paradigm shift for Westerners because it endangers certain sacred cows: time, money, privacy, autonomy, and especially choice. Hospitality is a drain on your free time, discretionary income, emotional energy, and independence. It may mean we have to limit our career opportunities to maintain roots and relationships. It may mean that we have to stop scheduling every last minute of our lives, so that we can leave space for unexpected guests. It may mean that we have to place ourselves intentionally in situations and communities where such encounters might occur. It may mean we have to open our hearts and shut off our smart phones.
Hospitality for modern pilgrims may look different than the hospitality of our parents and grandparents. Technology, mass-transience, globalization, and “emerging adulthood” have permanently altered the landscape of the traditional home place. And hospitality is not an ultimate solution. It cannot rebuild ruined castle houses, permanently resettle modern pilgrims, or cure our mortal nostalgia. But it can teach us, in the words of Parker Palmer, “to deal creatively with broken hearts.”6 In working proximately, yet creatively with the distinct challenges of the twenty-first century, we can recover home places and bring the homesick, be they twenty-five or fifty-five, into place and relationship.
I’ve put a few thousands miles on my Jeep since I revisited the castle house. This past May I turned twenty-five, the midpoint of twenties-in-transit. And just this month I moved into my first real flat: a brown brick row house with a golden door in the heart of Washington, DC. It is a city of modern pilgrims, where everyone goes, and no one is from. My flatmate and I have diligent and rooted dreams for our “pleasant inn.” We hope it will be a place of rest and relationship, wisdom and openness. We hope for simple feasts, shared work, unexpected guests, and life together with our fellow pilgrims.
A brown brick row house with a golden door, open to the world, yet wise to its ways, is a creative way to deal with heartbreak. It mirrors the creative work of Christ, who is at this moment preparing a place for His people. But like most things in this world, the flat is a temporary lease, a passing oasis. Heaven is what makes the homesickness bearable. One day, a golden door will open, and I will come into the castle house of my heavenly Father. Blessed are the homesick, for they shall indeed come home.
Photo: Bobby Kelbe
The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis
Homesickness: An American History by Susan G. Matt
Making Room: Rediscovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl
The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart
“The House That Built Me” by Miranda Lambert
“So Far Away” by Carole King
“I Am a Pilgrim” by Johnny Cash
“I’m on a Journey” by Hiram Ring
“Heaven” by Ordinary Time