This is the third year my AP Literature classes have chosen to read Cormac McCarthy's award winning novel, The Road, an apocalyptic story that juxtaposes survival in a horrific world with the love between a father and his son and the necessary sacrifices to keep that love strong.
One year, Professor Philip Snyder, a Cormac McCarthy expert, spoke to our class. He introduced the "Paradox of Hospitality," a completely new idea to me.
The man and the boy, who are never named, travel south with hopes of finding "the good people." The world is a gray landscape devoid of animal and plant life. Gray hovers over the earth and ashes blow in the wind. While on the constant search for food and shelter, they come upon a house once grand: sweeping porches, a door with large brass hinges that swing open for the man and boy--ironic imagery that symbolize long-gone hospitality. They cautiously creep inside to peeling wall paper, bent and falling crown moldings, a large walnut buffet with missing drawers, too heavy to cart off and burn for warmth; the hospitality the home once offered is apparent; to step inside now brings fear, but still they enter in search of sustenance or anything good and desirable they might find and salvage.
Henri Nouwen was an influential Catholic Priest, a spiritualist, a professor, a writer of 39 books. He was influenced by his love of Jesus Christ, love of mankind, art and other philosophers. He was an advocate of peace and peacemaking, and criticized the Cold War and America's intervention in Vietnam.
He also wrote about the Paradox of Hospitality. He recognized that we are all searching, continually for a hospitable place where "life can be lived without fear and where community can be found." This can be a difficult search in an inhospitable world--yet it's our responsibility to "convert the hostis into hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced."
Hospitality is a diminished term, its potency a fraction of its meaning in biblical times when it was requisite to welcome the stranger into one's home.
Hospitality is meant to be an open space, an invitation of safety and discovery. But more often than not, that empty space is filled with fear. Hence the Paradox of Hospitality.
I ask my students if they can relate to this theory. It is a bit nebulous until I ask, "What about your first day of seventh grade?"
The fright, the insecurities, rush back to vivid memories of the first days of junior high. The school was meant to be a welcoming institution of learning, growth and friendship. Before they stepped inside, it was an empty space for multiplying fears. Yet, looking back as seniors, they see the paradox--the emptiness, the fear, opened up to hospitality; it's now a place of comfort only because they stepped inside.
We all saw that one has to be willing to step into the possible emptiness of hospitality.
I hadn't thought much about the hospitality application to myself, until I was hit on the head with my own fears in the empty space of possibility. I had been invited to meet and to encourage a recent felon who had returned to society--certainly an empty space of fear with the possibility of embracing love. At first I was reticent and asked my husband not to encourage a meeting with this young man who cannot even return to his home state because of his past crime. When I examined Nouwen's theories, I was overwhelmed with spiritual correction. I was on the threshold of the paradox, invited but unwilling to embrace my own fears and those of another human being because I chose to ignore the sweet possibilities of new experience and the chance to be more loving, more inclusive, more hospitable--on account of fear.
Today, my heroes are a group of Canadians who decided to take in Syrian refugees. The scenario epitomizes the Paradox of Hospitality--a fearful, empty place--the unknown, and yet a chance to welcome, to love, and to be hospitable. They risked it all; they saved lives and in doing so filled the emptiness and fear with joy.