Nicole Conner is a narrative therapist working in Fitzroy North and Berwick, Australia.
Hospitality is a universal practice – an attitude, an act of life that speaks of welcome and belonging. It is a global language spoken across cultures, religions, and timelines. It is a way of finding meaning in human connection, a way of being with one another. In its nature, it is a constant amongst impermanence and transition. Hospitality is transformational – turning strangers into friends, fear into understanding, exile into belonging, and, potentially, hostility into peace. It is an island of reprieve amidst the rapids and sharp rocks of life. We can easily place hospitality into the ‘cake & tea’ basket – sentimental, syrupy, and impotent. However, I would argue that hospitality in its truest sense is radical, scandalous even! And it can be a source of comfort and healing for those who find themselves exhausted, lost, and disillusioned between the threshold of ‘goodbye’ and the not yet realised ‘hello’.
My parents and I arrived as fresh immigrants to South Africa in the early 1970s. We had migrated from northern Germany. It is hard to begin to describe the overwhelming feeling of ‘lostness’. South Africa was so very different from the place and people we had left behind. The heartache of goodbye felt like a heavy burden, and with every new person we met, and every new experience, it felt a little bit heavier – reminding us we were far from ‘home’. Perhaps, the biggest thing that reminded us of our ‘outsider’ status was the language barrier. No one in my family spoke English or Afrikaans or Zulu – so every form of communication in our new world took an enormous effort, filled with trepidation and a sense of shame.
A young Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that the ‘limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ (Tractatus, 1921). This thought, of course, became a key part of the philosophical movement of the early 20th century known as the ‘linguistic turn’. I don’t want to get caught up in the arguments that surround his assumptions or whether our lives can be limited to what we can verbally explain. However, as a young girl I did discover that my language, my mother tongue, was foreign to the country we had migrated to. Yet my language defined my world and brought sense and meaning to my life and existence. That language, and therefore my meaning and world, did not translate and was not understood in this new, strange country. We were locked out because we could not understand the way this new world functioned. Our ‘mother’ was another country, culture, and tongue. We had said ‘goodbye’ to her and our ‘hello’ to Africa was lost in translation.
Our neighbours next door were Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, and across the road lived English-speaking South Africans. What they had in common was their love to share a meal with others. So our ‘lost’ little family found itself around their dining room tables, eating, drinking, and communicating with hands and feet … and laughing. Slowly we began to learn the languages that were ‘mother’ to our new home. We were able to share experiences and even decipher the many nuances of humour. Our neighbours had set a table for us and bid us welcome. Their table was like an anchor in the restless, and often stormy, oceans of change and transition. Amidst all the other experiences, it was their kindness and hospitality that provided the first whisper of hello. It was their table that turned strangers into friends. It was their table that spoke a language we understood.
Henri Nouwen writes, ‘Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines’ (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 1986). Gracious, radical hospitality is a reprieve from the often arduous liminal path. To be welcomed and invited to enter and be, not come and change, brings with it a notion of sanctuary and safety. It reminds me of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus invited himself to the table of an ‘outsider’. A table that was despised by the religious powers of the day. A table that had room for the messiness of what it means to be human – a coming together, laughing, drinking, being … and in the mystery of those moments Zacchaeus said goodbye to some actions and paradigms. It was in this table moment that he recognised things about his life that were no longer valuable or meaningful to him. This awareness also allowed Zacchaeus to say hello to a new way of being, and a new way of treating those around him. It seems to me that the table is not only a strategic shelter between goodbye and hello, perhaps it is the very instrument of the transformation, the great interpreter of all languages, or the language itself.
I am forever grateful for the many tables of radical hospitality I have sat at over my life. They have changed me, challenged me, and reminded me that even in confusing, transitional times in my life I am still connected because someone has made room for me around their table. So I look at my ginormous dining room table and the many folks that have sat around it over the years, laughing, crying, telling stories, and recognise what a privilege it is to have a table in the threshold, where we find the other, and differences are no longer obstacles.
“Hospitality should have no other nature than love.” Henrietta Mears