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Radical Hospitality

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


I am very grateful for the many thoughtful comments and emails I received in response to my post from Monday on Wonder and Despair.  If you haven’t read all of the comments I encourage you to do so.

The poem above by Rumi has been one of those core life poems for me for several years — a poem that speaks to me so beautifully and simply about what I believe to be one of life’s central and most difficult tasks. 

Over time, as I lived into the poem’s imagery, I began to discover a connection to the Benedictine concept of hospitality that plays a central role in my spiritual life and practice.  St. Benedict wrote in his Rule: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for him himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  The core of his idea was that everyone who comes to the door of the monastery, and by extension the door to our lives—the poor, the traveler, the curious, those of a different religion, social class, or education — should be welcomed in, not just as an honored guest, but as a window onto the sacred presence.  For Benedict, our encounter with the stranger, the unknown, the unexpected, the foreign elements that spark our fear, are precisely the places where we are most likely to encounter God.

I began to see how we could apply this kind of hospitality to our very selves, to all of the elements about us that we fear and reject — the painful and dark feelings, our shadow side, the things we do and long for we don’t want anyone to know about.  I began to see this as a kind of radical hospitality of the soul.  The word radical comes from the Latin word radix meaning root.  Radical hospitality might be seen as hospitality that proceeds from the very core or root of who we are, an invitation to extend a welcome to the stranger that dwells inside of you.  We are made up of multiple inner characters and voices and some of them get invited to our inner table, while others are standing out in the rain waiting to be let in to feast and share their wisdom with us.

Rumi’s poem commands us to make space for the whole range of guests who might arrive — the feelings we experience that we push back, resist, numb ourselves to — which might come bearing gifts. 

How do you welcome in the range of your feelings without being swept away by them?  One way to do this is by cultivating an inner witness. Meditation practice can nurture our ability to sit and observe the rise and fall of our inner lives without resisting or seizing any particular moment.  When we offer ourselves the space to simply be with whatever is happening inside, without judgement, we begin to see that each of those feelings passes with time.  The inner witness is that part of ourselves — described in different ways by many traditions — that can be fully present without anxiety, that can offer radical hospitality to whatever knocks at our inner door.

We are called to be a witness to each other as well — to be fully present to the sorrow and despair of another without rushing to console or offer hope to circumvent our own discomfort.  It is because I have treasured friends and other support in my life who provide a safe container for me to explore the depths of my experience, that I am able to walk into the feelings of despair when they come, rather than run the other way.  It is because I make a regular practice of nurturing the ability of my inner witness to be present to the guests arriving at my inner door welcoming them in.  When the difficult feelings arrive, I breathe deeply and make space so I can listen to what messages they have to offer me rather than resist and leave them banging on the door. Some days this is easier than others, some days I still want to pile the furniture to prevent their entry. But as Rumi said so wisely 800 years ago, treat each guest honorably as a guide much wiser than myself. In that act of hospitality I will walk in solidarity with those who are shrouded in pain. I will come to know how essential kindness is. I will discover moments of wonder. I will come face to face with a different kind of hope, one that rises like heat from wrestling bodies.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

(photo of door handle taken in Ireland last summer)

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12 Responses

  1. Christine, I had downloaded this post and had it by my elbow for reading later – some posts are too “filled” for me to reach the depth and wonder of a quick reading. I took it to my bedside reading last night and although you might not ever get back to reading this response maybe your inner self will know that it moved me deeply. I found it inspirational, relative, practical, sad and happy – all at once. Thank you for sharing such an amazing post. The radical hospitality you’ve outlined is a rule to live by.