855: Welcoming the stranger is, for us, a practice of the faith.
Day 855, Tuesday July 19, 2022
Welcoming the stranger is, for us, a practice of the faith.
In the first reading today, the Church gives us one of the great stories from the Torah: Abraham welcoming the three strangers at the terebinth of Mamre. A terebinth is a tree that has traditionally been understood as a mighty oak and Mamre was not far from the biblical city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem. The storytelling is clever. The account of the visit of the three strangers begins by informing us that,
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre,
as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot.
In the next verse, however, we are told, without explanation, that
Abraham saw three men standing nearby.
Who is at the edge of camp? The Lord or three guys? This is a common motif in the Torah. For example, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, has a famous wrestling match with an adversary at Jabbok brook. This story is never quite clear if his opponent is an angel or God Himself.
In any event, Abraham is extravagant in his display of hospitality to the three strangers. Bowing to the ground, Abraham says,
"Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.
Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet,
and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves;
and afterward you may go on your way."
Sarah bakes rolls and a steer (no less) is slaughtered and put on the BBQ so the three strangers can be wined and dined. Such traditions of extravagant hospitality can be observed among the
Bedouins of the deserts of the Middle East down to this very day.
And the point of this story in the Torah is important indeed. After welcoming the strangers and showing them hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are surprised to receive a blessing from them:
They asked Abraham, "Where is your wife Sarah?"
He replied, "There in the tent."
One of them said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son."
Is it the three strangers who bring this blessing to Abraham or is it the Lord God Himself? Or perhaps, we need to ask a more sensible question: Is it not that the Lord God likes to visit us and, indeed, to bless us, under the guise of strangers who appear at the edge of our camp, just as the day is “growing hot”?
Welcoming the stranger is, for us,
a practice of the faith.
God can be visiting us when strangers appear at the edge of our camp. Welcoming the stranger may turn out to be welcoming the Lord Himself. At least, this is the teaching of the Torah. In welcoming the strangers, Abraham and Sarah received a blessing of a son: Isaac would be born to them within the year.
I want to tell you another story about the importance of welcoming strangers. It’s about a fine old woman who, despite her wretchedness, learned from her mistakes and gained wisdom in her old age.
This woman had a son who went off to the Korean War in the early 1950s. Her son only got as far as Japan. When his tour of duty was over, he came back to his parents in the Mid-West with a Japanese girl in tow.
His parents were appalled. Interracial marriage was unimaginable in those days. What would the neighbors say? Besides, hadn’t we incarcerated people of Japanese ancestry during the previous War as dangerous and untrustworthy?
“How could you think of marrying a Japanese girl?”
I am sorry to say that the young woman was sent home summarily. The woman’s son went on to marry “a nice Catholic girl” and live unhappily with her for many years. The mother suffered to see the unhappiness of her son. Decades later, in her nineties, the woman told me her story burdened with regret.
Then she said something remarkable.
“I should have welcomed that girl as if she were my own daughter.”
I hope that, when I am in my nineties, I have the grace to look back on my shame and foolishness with the wisdom of this old woman. Here was a woman who had learned from her mistakes. She had come by her wisdom the hard way, through much suffering, but I have no doubt that her wisdom was a blessing that comes only from God.
I wonder what kind of blessing the Japanese girl might have brought to this old woman if she had only welcomed the girl as a daughter.
Showing hospitality to the stranger is an ancient Christian spiritual practice. The great masters of the French School of spirituality wrote of acueil as a spiritual practice. For Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Francis de Sales, Pierre de Bérulle and Jean-Jacques Olier, acueil means welcoming or receiving another.
It means to be skillful in making a space within our hearts for the Lord by making a space within our lives for those who are strangers to us and, oftentimes, unwelcomed by others. Hospitality is a spiritual practice.
We can trace this practice back in time through the Benedictine monks of the Middle Ages to the Desert Fathers and Mothers out in the wilderness of Syria and Egypt before them. The story of Abraham and the three strangers shows us that this practice goes back into the Jewish roots of Christian faith. The Torah tells us that Abraham, the Father of Faith, welcomed the three strangers at Mamre and, to his great surprise, received a blessing from those he welcomed.
Welcoming those who are strangers to us is a virtue we need to cultivate these days when there is so much mistrust. Let us dedicate ourselves to learning the skill of creating a space in our lives for those who are strange and unfamiliar.
In doing so, we will create a space within our hearts for the Lord who is always standing at the edge of camp waiting to bless us.
- Jim Fredericks