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Hospitality Takes Us Beyond Our Limits, Generates Conversion

By Carlos Diaz

A man returning from a long and difficult trip looks for someone who will be waiting for him at the station or airport. Everyone wants to tell his story and share moments of sorrow and joy with someone who awaits his return. A person can maintain his mental health and continue to live when there is at least one person who awaits him. A dying mother can continue living just to see her son before giving up the fight. A soldier can prevent his mental and physical dis-integration when he knows that his sons and his wife are waiting for him.

But when no one nor anything awaits, there is no possibility of survival. What happens is that many patients have been deceived with stories of recovery and a better life afterwards, although few of the people who gave comfort in this way believed their own words. What sense does it make to speak of the hope of tomorrow when those words are very likely going to be the last ones to be spoken to a sick person? How can an intelligent man who seems to enjoy good health make himself truly present to one in whom the forces of death are very alive? What can it mean for a dying man to see before him a person for whom life has hardly begun? It seems better to call this psychological torture, when a young person serves only to remind a dying person that his life could have been better, when now it is too late to change.

 What does time mean when two people have made themselves present to each other? When two people have made themselves present to each other one’s expectation should be capable of crossing the narrow border which separates one’s life from the death of the other. And that capacity is not based on the return to daily life, which for the terminally ill person is impossible, but in the participation in the experience of death which is a part of the nucleus of the reality of the human being. I will be waiting for you means much more than “if the operation goes well, here I will be with you again.” There will be no conditional “yes.” “I will be waiting for you” goes beyond death. Faith and hope may pass away, but love will remain forever. “I will be waiting for you” transmits solidarity against the chains of death. Rather, it is two people who awaken in each other the most profound human intuition: that life is eternal and that it cannot be rendered useless because of a biological process.

 The beginning and the end of all compassion is in giving one’s life for the Thou. This begins with the wish to weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh and transform one’s own experiences, painful or joyful, into sources of compassion. Who can save a boy from a house in flames without putting himself in danger of being burned? Who listens to a story of loneliness and desperation without taking the risk of feeling similar sorrows in his own heart? A great but false illusion is one that leads us to think that someone can be taken out of the desert by someone who was never in it. My personal concern turns the Thou into the only one that counts in a given moment, the only one for whom I want to forget all the rest of my obligations, though many, as well as all of my commitments programmed into my appointment book, not because they aren’t important, but because they lose their urgency in the face of the agony of the Thou. For a man with faith rooted in the value and meaning of life, all experience brings with it a new promise, all en-counters carry a new perspective, and all events offer a new message. But those promises, perspectives and messages have to be unveiled and made visible. The healer is not a healer because he announces a new idea and tries to persuade others of its value, but because he faces the world with eyes full of expectation, with the ability to lift the veil which covers all the hidden potentialities.

 Hope is the most profound motivation at the time of opening the future, making it possible to see beyond meeting urgent and pressing needs. But the strength of hope is not based in a confidence derived from one’s own personality, nor from a concrete expectation for the future, but in the promise that has been given. Without this hope, we will never be fully capable of seeing any value or meaning in an encounter with a fellow human being on the way out, nor of feeling concerned about him. All intent to tie up this hope to visible signs in our surroundings becomes temptation when, attached to what we have, it stops us from entering into unknown territory which sometimes fills us with terror. Suggestions such as “don’t worry, because I suffer the same depression, confusion, and anxiety as you,” do not help anyone. This spiritual exhibition-ism of open wounds smells bad and does not heal. Making one’s own wounds a source for healing is a call to share the pain of others with a constant desire to see one’s own suffering as emerging from the depth of the human condition that we all share.

            Hospitality is the virtue which permits us to break that narrowness of our fears and open our homes to the stranger with the intuition that salvation is coming to us. Hospitality transforms the weak into strong witnesses, those who are suspicious of everything into generous givers, and the fanatics whose minds are closed into recipients of new ideas and perspectives. We live in a desert with many solitary travelers who look for a moment of peace, a refreshing drink and a sign of encouragement in order to continue their mysterious search for freedom. What does hospitality require in order to become a healing power? That the one given hospitality feels as if he is in his own home, a free place without fear. Hospitality is the ability to serve the guest, something which is very difficult if our own stress impedes us from distancing ourselves from our own preoccupations. “Yes… but there are so many problems…” Whose problems? Perhaps our own.

Much spectacular activism is motivated in great part by the fear of what we could discover when a person remains in silence.  Interiority, which leads us to meditation and contemplation, is the prior and necessary condition for arriving at true hospitality. If our souls are anxious and at times troubled, how can we create a space where someone different from us can enter freely without feeling like an intruder? Paradoxically, in stepping back into our own hearts (not for self-pity), we create the space for the other to be himself and question us from his own reality. In order for him to open up and speak it is necessary that the advice-giver withdraw. I must make way in order to make a space for the other. This withdrawal, more than going out to meet the other, is an intense act of the interior life, a model that can be encountered in the mystical Jewish doctrine of tsintsum. God, being omnipresent and omnipotent, was and is everywhere filling the universe with his being.

   Then, how could the creation have happened? He had to have created by withdrawing himself and interiorizing within himself. On the human level, the withdrawal of the person into his interior solitude helps the other. The withdrawal of man into his interior solitude is a painful process because it forces us to directly face our own condition in all of its beauty and all of its poverty. This experience tells us that we can because our life is a gift, given to liberate others because we have been liberated by the one whose heart is much greater than ours. When we have encountered the points in which we anchor our lives, we have reached the freedom that will allow us to let the others, without any fear, dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language. Then, our presence is no longer threatening, but welcoming and healing.

A therapist is not someone whose primary mission is to rid the other of pain, rather someone who goes more deeply into the pain to a level in which it can be shared. When someone comes to the therapist with his solitude, what he can hope is that his solitude will be understood and felt, in a way that he will no longer have a reason to run away from it in order to be freed from it. Perhaps the principal work of the therapist would be to be to alert people so that they do not suffer from mistaken motives or false suppositions (suffering or loneliness, confusion or doubt) on which they have based their lives. It is a service that confronts people with other realities, helping them to remember that they are mortal and broken beings, but also that with the acknowledgement of this condition their liberation begins. No therapist can save anyone. A therapist can only offer himself as a guide to persons who are afraid. It is this way because a suffering that is shared is no longer paralyzing. When we become conscious that we do not have to escape our suffering, but rather when we put it in movement, united with us in our shared search for meaning in life, these real sufferings change from expressions of total disillusion and discouragement into signs of hope. Thanks to this shared search, hospitality is transformed into community when it takes us so far beyond our limits. This is not because it cures, but because the scars and pains are changed into doors and open spaces and a new vision. This way, reciprocity is transformed into a mutual deepening of hope, and the weakness in anything that we remember personally and communally becomes the strength that we will receive.

 Hospitality that generates conversion is the equivalent of revolution for the individual and for this reason it calls us to unmask the empty and illusory. Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same undertaking for radical change. There is no mystic who is not also a social critic, because in self-reflection one will discover the roots of social illness. In a similar way, no revolutionary can elude confronting his own mystical condition, be-cause in the middle of the struggle for a new world, he will find that he is also struggling against his own reactionary fears and his false ambitions. The mystic, like the revolutionary, should cut all ties with the necessities which make them feel sure of themselves enjoying a protected existence, and confront without fear their own miseries and poverty  and those of the world. This vision can offer a creative distance, and help us to transcend the walls which close us in and cause thousands of problems.

 Conversion, not unlike revolution, draws its power from a source that is beyond the limitations of our human condition. Changing the human heart and changing society are not separate tasks, but interconnected. Not “up there” or in a secret place, but totally exposed to the view of others. Through com-passion it is possible to recognize that the yearning of love that the human being feels resides also in his own heart, without forgetting that the cruelty that the world shows us so clearly is deeply rooted in our own impulses. Led by compassion, we also live in the eyes of our friends the hope of being forgiven, the same way as our hatred is in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could also do it; when they give their life, we become aware that we can do the same. Nothing is strange to a com-passionate man, nothing human not joy, shame, sorrow, or any form of life or death.

 This compassion does not respond to the pressures from a group but rather breaks the barriers, throwing off from us what fear has imposed on us. For this reason com-passion provides us with the possibility of forgiveness, something that only becomes real through someone who has discovered the weakness of his friends and the sins of his enemies in his own heart and wishes to give the name of brother to all human beings. That is to say, the compassionate person, the one which aims toward the possibility of forgiveness, helps others to free themselves from the chains of paralyzing shame, allowing them to live with their guilt and restore their hope. His mission is to bring out the best of their humanity and continue forward, toward a more human community. The danger is that his eye, capable at the time of making a diagnosis, changes into a detailed and distant eye, rather than the eye of someone who, with a sense of compassion, makes the journey with his brother.

In short, as a contemplative critic, he maintains a certain distance in order to not be absorbed by the urgent and immediate, breaking the vicious cycle of the urgent necessities that demand immediate satisfaction. He can set his sights toward what he wants to see, beyond that of his impulses, toward channels of creativity. Without going from one extreme to the other, from exaltation to depression, dragged along like a dead leaf through the trends of the times, he is anchored in what is basic, central and ultimate. And in this way, not allowing himself to worship idols, he constantly invites others to raise real questions, often painful and bothersome, to see what is under the obstacles which keep them from arriving at the heart of what matters. He knows that many take him as a danger to society and a threat to humanity. But he will contemplate the clear signals of hope in the situation in which he finds himself. The contemplative critic is aware of the small mustard seed that “when it has grown, is the largest shrub of all of those on the land, and changes into a tree, where the birds take refuge in its branches” (Mat 13:31-32). He will be, then, a person who always feels the necessity of prayer.

Translated and reprinted with permission from Acontecimiento Revista de Pensamiento Personalista y Comunitario, Madrid.

Houston Catholic Worker, September-October 2012, Vol. XXX, No. 4