The word “hospitality” often evokes images of a warm house on a cold night, delicious smells, and family laughing together around a full table. We imagine somebody from outside being welcomed into a home filled with grace, joy, safety, and peace.
Certainly, this is part of the Christian view of hospitality, but it doesn’t end there. Indeed, the word hospital is intrinsically linked to hospitality.
Christians invented hospitals. While many societies had places for the sick, few of those places were in any way hospitable. Yet from the beginning, Christians welcomed the sick into their homes, caring for them. Once Christians received unprecedented resources from Constantine, they immediately established hospitals all over the Roman Empire. During the Crusades, the pope commissioned the Knights Hospitallers in 1113 to manage a hospital in Jerusalem. They were also called the Order of Saint John, and their legacy remains today through the St John’s Ambulance service.
Yet few of us would naturally identify a hospital ward with the same warm emotions as a family table. Hospitals are often places of sickness, of pain, of lament. We want to go to the table. We don’t want to go anywhere near a hospital bed.
This only gets worse when we try to imagine a hospital in the early Church period or the medieval era. This is a time without the four “As”: Antiseptics, Antibiotics, Analgesics, or Anaesthetics. Nobody knew about germs. The dominant medical framework was taken from ancient Greece, and was almost completely wrong. And because the Church ran these hospitals as an act of charity, for a malnourished, unhygenic populace, they were frequently under-resourced and overcrowded.
Try to imagine you’re in one of those hospitals. See the poor crammed on mats, with dirty bandages. Hear the screams of those suffering without pain-killers. Smell the stench of puss, sweat, diarrhoea, death. And see the monks and nuns in the midst of it, trying to care for those people as best they can, because nobody else will.
That is part of Christian hospitality.
How on earth did they do it?
One such hospital was run by St Catherine of Genoa. Catherine also produced some profound Christian writings –not from the serenity of the convent, but from the mess of the hospital. She wrote,
“I have seen God’s love. Indeed, every day I feel myself more occupied with Him, and I feel a greater fire within… I became so consumed with this love that as I stood contemplating this work within me, I felt that even if I were to be cast into hell, hell itself would have appeared to me all love and consolation.”
Considering the hell she worked in, this was no hypothetical theory for Catherine.
It is in utter dependence upon God working in us, that we can do this truly astonishing feat of Christian hospitality: not merely inviting people into places of heaven on earth; but bringing some of heaven into their most hellish experiences. This is a courageous, Christlike hospitality, only made possible in Christ’s power. And it is still sorely needed today.