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"Babette's Feast" (Photo still from 1988 film).

Storied Lives: Literary Expressions of Christian Hospitality

Life: Issue Three

Siobhán Maloney Latar

Our day and age is marked by unprecedented levels of anxiety, isolation, depression, and suspicion of each other. We are no less communal beings, in need of one another in order to live full, authentically human lives, and yet we are less and less able to find real examples of what authentic accompaniment and communion actually entail. In the face of this challenge, the concept of hospitality can be particularly illuminating. It is just as true that hospitality is becoming a lost art in today’s culture. A culture of isolation and individualism does not know how to welcome. And yet a recovery of an awareness of hospitality in such a context requires a deeper examination of what authentic “welcoming” really entails. In this essay, let us consider two ways in which welcoming reaches beyond our typical approach to “welcoming.” First, hospitality involves a welcoming of, and making room for, the whole: the whole person, the whole of reality. It is a fidelity to the whole that cultivates a “culture of seeing”: a particular vision of life as a whole that we must bring to bear on all our activities. A beautiful example of this attention to the whole can be found in the short story “Babette’s Feast,” better known from the film version made in 1987. Author Isak Denison presents us with two alternate accounts of hospitality, and the difference is significant. The first is the typical hospitality of a strict religious community of villagers, who take in a French refugee and give her a home. Arriving destitute and helpless, the two elderly sisters who lead the little community allow her to work as their maid in exchange for room and board. After twelve years, they become quite reliant on her, and she is fully welcomed into their circle. However, the life that they are able to offer her is cold, harsh, and bleak: they live on bread and water and flavorless broth, with no music or dancing, no extravagance of any kind. While demonstrating what we would normally equate with hospitality—approaching charity as an essential task and dutifully welcoming the stranger—the picture we get of the community is that of a dwindling group of elderly, sad, embittered people who are desperately going through the motions of external practices and forms of communal piety that simply mask the deep-seated rivalries, grudges, and bitter hurts that boil just beneath the surface.

In contrast, the second, more surprising portrayal of hospitality is shown by Babette, the French woman herself, who, after twelve years of serving the sisters and their community, is surprised by winning the French lottery, and comes into a small fortune. Having the means to return to her home, she begs the sisters to allow her to cook them a feast before leaving them. “In twelve years,” she says, “I have never asked you for anything.” The sisters grudgingly give in. What they don’t know is that Babette is a famous French chef, and she proceeds to spend all of her 10,000 francs on creating a masterpiece of her art: the kind of multi-course feast she was famous for in France. The contrast and paradox are striking: the famous gourmet preparing a lavish display for a handful of villagers who don’t even know what flavors mean. One is tempted to say she has thrown away and wasted her fortune on these people who cannot even understand or appreciate her gift, who live their lives “as if not living,” “and receive as if not enjoying.” And yet Babette is a Catholic Frenchwoman to her bones: she knows that there is a wealth of spiritual nourishment in the lavishness of such a material feast that has the capacity to communicate truth, goodness, and beauty even to these uneducated people. And so she gives to them out of the richness of not only her personal skills and gifts, but of the deeper, wider awareness of the whole that her Catholic background has given her. An old soldier, acquainted with the way of the world and so able to appreciate what she is doing, sums up the wonder of the experience that results:

We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite… Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular… See! That which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

The lavishness of Babette’s feast, in presenting a material encounter with beauty, communicates in fact the eternal to the captain. He witnesses the transcendent, the divine. He encounters grace.

Many of us don’t live in the tight-knit environment of a rural community, materially dependent on each other for our daily lives and work. Still, Christian hospitality in any context recognizes that if my neighbor belongs to me, then my neighbor’s problems and wounds also belong to me.

It is all too easy for us to assume that hospitality, that is building communion, has to do strictly with the external, with meeting material needs. But this is to stop short of this awareness of the whole that Babette discloses to us, and which is the true inheritance of the Christian faith. To authentically welcome the other requires first that we have “welcomed,” that we have “made space” for the whole: the whole person, the whole of reality. We are not simply material beings; we are embodied spirits. The hospitality that Babette shows to the villagers is so much more profound than the external “making space” which had been done for her because she, the penniless, homeless refugee, was aware of and had made room for a richer experience of life. The sisters indeed welcome Babette in an external, partial manner. Babette, instead, welcomes these people in a much deeper, more authentic, internal way, by opening up the beauty of life to them, and thus gives them a deeper, richer sense of communion. What this story speaks to is the true integrity of the whole person, body and spirit, and of the capacity of our external welcoming to replenish the soul. In many ways, in our modern, secular world, we are also like Babette, living in a kind of “exile.” Yet what is asked of us is to lean into, to discover, if necessary, the wealth of the spiritual inheritance we have received, and open that floodgate of experiences into our own lives. We have the capacity to embrace an awareness of the world as multidimensional, as rich and full, to recognize beauty in creation, in history, in human creativity, and we therefore have more to offer those who are spiritually poor. When we live this kind of hospitality we participate in something greater than ourselves which is the Source of our communion: the life of God himself. This is a nourishment that goes to the very core of our humanity, and such an attentiveness and cultivation of these deeper spiritual needs is fundamental to Christian hospitality. All of us have the capacity to find, cultivate, and share the sources of beauty within our spiritually poor and vacuous world.

This fidelity to the whole that is enacted in a deeper way of seeing also includes making room for the other’s wounds, his weaknesses, and his brokenness. It includes a sense of responsibility for the other, which is the second aspect of an authentic hospitality. American essayist and author Wendell Berry calls this “membership.” In his beautiful novel Hannah Coulter about the small town named Port William, the protagonist Hannah describes this membership thus:

The purpose and the result were a lot more than economic… the work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need, the others, or enough of them, would come.

This sense of hospitality is more than simply sharing material needs. It is an extension of the responsibility one naturally feels for one’s family members, to those in one’s immediate community. One of the most luminous expressions of this level of communion can be found in Berry’s short story “Watch with Me.” Here, he examines the demands of this kind of accompaniment in the case of a neighbor with mental illness. The community has nicknamed the man in question “Nightlife,” because “he could not tell daylight from dark, and was liable to conduct his nightlife in the daytime;” in other words, he doesn’t exhibit acceptable behavior or conform himself to agreed upon social norms. In the major episode of the story, Nightlife has decided he wants to give the sermon in church, but is refused by the minister, spiraling him into a sort of manic fit. A quiet, steady, simple farmer named Tol is the one silently elected to step in and deescalate the situation: “as the biggest among them, and probably the kindest.” Tol succeeds at talking Nightlife off the ledge, as it were, and bringing him home. But the next day, still in a fit, Nightlife gets a hold of Tol’s shotgun and walks off with it, threatening to end his life. Helplessly, Tol starts following him, resolving to keep close enough that he can step in to keep him from harming himself, but at enough of a distance not to upset him or set him off. As he follows him, Tol attempts to enter into Nightlife’s experience, to meet him precisely in his darkness, unaware as he is of his surroundings, or of Tol’s presence:

He looked like somebody who didn’t know where in all the world he was, who didn’t know anybody else was there to see him, much less follow along after him.... That Nightlife was not himself, that he had become merely the vehicle of something he suffered that they had not suffered, they could tell by the way he moved and carried himself, the way he looked always straight ahead and always at the ground. He moved like a man in the concentration of bodily pain, though they knew his pain was not of the body.

Joined by a handful of other men in the community, Tol and the others encircle Nightlife at a safe distance, moving as he moves, and thus they accompany him through the day and following night. They have left their homes, their farms, their wives, and their work. They have no food, and go hungry and thirsty, simply following their neighbor silently, not even sure they will be able to help him. The helplessness of the situation overwhelms Tol and the others. He knows they are out of control, and there is very little they can do to protect Nightlife and the community. But they continue to do the only thing they can. Berry tells us,

A kind of wonder came over Tol, for almost in the twinkling of an eye he had crossed the boundary between two worlds… he had been in a world which was more or less the world he thought it was… But now he was walking down through the wet grass of his cow pasture… in a world and a day in which he intended nothing and foresaw nothing.

He said to himself, “I reckon it would be better not to have got involved,” but he knew even so that helpless or not, hopeless or not, he would go along with Nightlife until whatever happened that would allow him to cease to go along.

What is clear to all of them without it even needing to be spoken is their responsibility to stay, to be with him, and to do whatever presents itself as an opportunity. This following leads them through the woods and across neighbors’ fields and, by the next morning, all the way back to Tol’s house, where the journey began. They end up stumbling upon Nightlife in Tol’s workshop, where Nightlife gives them the sermon he was prevented from giving at the church. Appropriately, it’s on the lost sheep:

Nightlife understood it entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep, who could imagine fully the condition of being lost and even the hope of rescue, but could not imagine rescue itself. “Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,” Nightlife said, “it’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard… and the shepherd comes a looking and a calling, to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.” The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about. They knew he was telling what it was to be him. And they were moved.

After this, Nightlife’s spell passes, and he relinquishes the gun, and returns to himself. But he has been seen and heard and understood, and the others literally walked a day and a night in his shoes and are now able to meet him in a much deeper way than before.

Many of us don’t live in the tight-knit environment of a rural community, materially dependent on each other for our daily lives and work. Still, Christian hospitality in any context recognizes that if my neighbor belongs to me, then my neighbor’s problems and wounds also belong to me. This doesn’t mean that I can fix him, or have a responsibility to save him. Many times, I don’t have this capacity. It does mean, however, that I can be with my neighbor in his problems; that I can accompany him in the awareness that we are members of one another. Tol and the others were properly Christian neighbors to Nightlife because they took the time to know him and make room for him even in his difficulties and needs—to welcome the hardest aspects of his life that were inconvenient to them at best and even dangerous at worst. Even if not in such dramatic scenarios, all of us have a similar capacity to welcome the most difficult and uncomfortable needs of those entrusted to us. These gestures are borne from the awareness of a kind of belonging and responsibility for the care of each other that is deeply and profoundly Christian. It is an expression of hospitality that makes room for others’ brokenness even when we cannot fix them.

This fidelity to the whole and responsibility for the other which mark a truly Christian hospitality require an attitude of attentiveness—to reality, to ourselves, and to others who are given to us—in order to recognize the deeper, richer ways we can accompany each other; ways that put us in contact with the kind of totalizing communion portrayed in the early Christian community. The description Acts gives us is that of a community that “has all things in common,” that gathers daily “for the breaking of the bread and for the prayers,” and is of “one mind” in all that they do. Maybe we cannot give up all of our possessions, but we can give from the abundance of our spiritual inheritance. Maybe we cannot eat daily meals together or physically open our homes to the needy, but we can make space in our minds and hearts for the time it takes to enter into the wounds and brokenness of those in need in our lives, to be listened to, seen, and understood. And without living physically in common, we can live with a deepened awareness of how our daily choices, our work, our gifts and talents are not isolated realities that have no effect on the others in our lives, but rather, that our own sanctification is also a communal affair. When we live this, we welcome people into the layers of beauty, truth, and goodness that we have received, as Babette did for her poor villagers. Sometimes, this requires us to bend, to practice patience and compassion toward the most difficult, the most broken among us, as Tol and the Port William community did for Nightlife. This kind of hospitality, in any setting, in any context, will require of us obedience, that is, “listening” and responding to the people and circumstances given to us; humility, to be little enough and honest enough to look at ourselves and others according to the whole truth; compassion, the willingness to suffer with, to accompany others on their own journeys; and self-sacrifice, the willingness to put aside our own desires and viewpoint, for the sake of another. All of these qualities are displayed by Babette, and the Port William community, and every one of these dimensions can be translated into our own individual contexts. If we take these dimensions seriously, we can recognize that what at first seems an abstract definition of an unreal communion is in fact precisely what we each long for, are nourished by when we encounter it, and what we can’t live without. Perhaps Berry says it best:

What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection.... I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership… I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

Siobhán Maloney Latar received her S. T. D. at the John Paul II Institute, writing her dissertation on George MacDonald and is currently teaching at Trinity Schools at Meadowview.

Posted on May 1, 2024

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