This reflection is part of a series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastics of the early church. In the second and third centuries these individuals left society to pursue lives of prayer and holiness in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Seeking inner transformation through the concrete practice of their faith in love and service to the neighbour, their wisdom was recorded in collections of their sayings and stories about them. This literature comes down to us as a precious guide to the spiritual life, showing us in rich, practical detail what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself.”
In Scetis there once went out an order that they should fast for a week and then celebrate Easter. During the week some brothers happened to come into Egypt to visit Moses, and he cooked a little vegetable stew for them The nearby hermits saw the smoke and said to the clergy of the church, “What is that smoke? Moses must be disobeying the order and cooking in his cell.” The clergy said, “We will talk to him when he comes.” On Saturday the clergy, who knew the greatness of his way of life, said to Moses in front of the whole congregation, “Moses, you have broken a commandment of men, but you have kept the commandments of God valiantly.”
Cassian said, “We came from Palestine to Egypt and visited one of the hermits. After he had welcomed us, we asked him, ‘When you receive guests, why don’t you fast? In Palestine they do.’ He answered, ‘Fasting is always possible, but I cannot keep you here forever. Fasting is useful and necessary, but we can choose to fast or not fast. God’s law demands from us perfect love. I receive Christ when I receive you, so I must do all I can to show you love. When I have said good-bye to you, I can take up my rule of fasting again. “The sons of the bridegroom cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them; when he is taken from them, then they can fast.”’” (Matthew 9:125)
A certain brother came to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis. He arrived at the church and asked the clergy if he could go and visit Abba Arsenius. “Have a bite to eat,” they said, “before you go to see him.” “No,” he replied, “I shan’t eat anything until I have met him.” Arsenius’s cell was a long way off, so they sent a brother along with him. They knocked on the door, went in, and greeted the old man, then sat down; nothing was said. The brother from the church said, “I’ll leave you now; pray for me.” But the visitor didn’t feel at ease with the old man and said, “I’m coming with you.” So off they went together. Then the visitor said, “Will you take me to see Abba Moses, the one who used to be a highwayman?” When they arrived, Abba Moses welcomed them happily and enjoyed himself thoroughly with them until they left.
The brother who had escorted the visitor said to him, “Well, I’ve taken you to see the foreigner [Arsenius] and the Egyptian [Moses]; which do you like better?” The Egyptian for me!” he said. One of the fathers overheard this and prayed to God saying, “Lord, explain this to me. For your sake, one of these men runs from human company and for your sake the other receives them with open arms.” Then two large boats floating on the river were shown to him. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in complete silence. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God: they were all eating honey cakes.”
Abba James said, “It is better to receive hospitality than to offer it.”
Abba Anthony said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbor. If we do good to our neighbor, we do good to God; if we cause our neighbor to stumble, we sin against Christ.
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up?” He said, “As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the Office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.”
Two elders asked God to reveal to them how far they had advanced. A voice came which said, “In a certain village in Egypt there is a man called Eucharistus and his wife who is called Mary. You have not yet reached their degree of virtue.” The two old men set out and went to the village. Having enquired, they found his house and his wife. They said to her, “Where is your husband?” She replied, “He is a shepherd and is feeding the sheep.” Then she made them come into the house. When evening came, Eucharistus returned with the sheep. Seeing the old men, he set the table and brought water to wash their feet. The old men said to him, “We shall not eat anything until you have told us about your way of life.” Eucharistus replied with humility, “I am a shepherd, and this is my wife.” The old men insisted but he did not want to say more. Then they said, “God has sent us to you.” At these words, Eucharistus was afraid and said, “Here are these sheep; we received them from our parents, and if, by God’s help we make a little profit, we divide it into three parts: one for the poor, the second for hospitality, and the third for our personal needs. No one has known of this until now.” At these words they were filled with admiration and went away giving glory to God.
Hospitality: a Sacred Duty Long Neglected
a short devotional reflection from LCNA
One area of our Christian faith, although strongly rooted in the Holy Scriptures — is sadly neglected: hospitality. The ancient Hebrews considered it a sacred duty, and it became a central sign of community life for the early Church.
Examples abound in the Bible: Abraham and Sarah received unknown visitors (who brought a divine message that a child would be born to them in their old age). Lot received visitors into his home, and protected them against the violent assault of the townsmen of Sodom.
Without question, a sojourner, traveler or stranger was to be received as an honored guest. One could always find food, shelter and basic needs, and no one was turned away. Elijah prevailed upon the hospitality of the widow of Zarephath, and as a result a miracle occurred.
So, too, Jesus was received into the homes of the people he encountered. He taught his disciples to accept whatever hospitality was offered to them, and in turn to offer a greeting of peace, which conveyed the blessing of peace upon the house. Yet he reminded his disciples that, in some places, they would be refused hospitality. Those who closed their doors to his disciples would find the gates of heaven closed to them,. . . “Things will go better for the men of Sodom...”
Two examples from the New Testament are among the most beloved stories in the Christian Scriptures. The Feeding of the Five Thousand, retold in all four Gospels, is a paramount illustration of hospitality. Even when we have no idea whether our resources will meet the needs of the crowd, we are instructed to pray for blessing and offer our hospitality anyw ay.
So also, the story of the Lord’s Supper is also an act of hospitality, in which the sacrifice of Christ is summarized in the command “Do this.” As we break holy Bread and share the divine Cup, it is Eucharistic hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ to welcome all to the Table of the Lord.
As hospitality is a strong background theme in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teachings of the New Testament church broadened the Christian duty considerably.
We are commanded to love others, and to share what we have. The greatest gift we have to share is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In faithful obedience, we offer an embrace to anyone who comes to us seeking Christ’s consolation and welcome.
But Christians do far more than welcome strangers into church. We feed the hungry, and visit the sick and imprisoned, offer healing, take in the homeless, the widow and orphan, the cripple and the eunuch.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shames his listener with the mercy and hospitality offered by a Samaritan (a despised foreigner in Judea) to a man who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead. One only need remember the beating and murder of Matthew Shepherd, as a tragic contemporary reminder of inhospitality turned to evil.
And in the story of the Prodigal Son, the younger son is received with an incredible display of hospitality by a father who overlooked his son’s reckless squandering of family wealth. Ironically, it is the older brother who reveals the shallow and mean spirit of his scrupulous obedience when he refused even to be a part of his father’s hospitality.
As the Good Samaritan answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” the Prodigal Son answers a similar question for us today: “Who is my brother? Who is my sister?”
The Gospel invites and impels us to offer hospitality as a community, and to exclude no one. To welcome either strangers—or friends in faith whom we had not fully known or understood before—calls for the same signs of hospitality which Christians have always used: warm welcome, handshakes and hugs, food and shelter, a listening ear, sanctuary for the weary and fearful, a readiness to go the extra mile in the stranger’s walk of life.