If you’ve ever watched any real estate programs on television, you’ve heard eager soon-to-be-homeowners lean toward the boom mic and say, “Oh, this space will be great for entertaining!”
Everyone wants to be seen as the type of posh and popular person who “entertains”—slicing cheeses and popping corks and carving tenderloins and so forth. But the truth is that there aren’t as many dinner parties as there are people talking about dinner parties: According to Robert Putnam, Americans have friends over for dinner only about once every other month these days.
Yes, the decline in friendship and the rise of busyness account for some of the retreat from hospitality, but much of the problem is embedded in how we think about sharing meals in our homes. You can see it right there in the language we use: “entertaining.” Having guests, we feel, means putting on a show; we set up the stage and put on costumes and are the stars of the production. It sounds intimidating and exhausting—because it is.
But here’s the thing: Real hospitality—the sharing of everyday life with friends, current and soon-to-be—is even more frightening. Putting up the façade of perfection may take an overwhelming amount of time and energy, but allowing others to see and experience the everyday imperfection of our lives is simply unacceptable.
Until, one day, it isn’t.
I remember the moment I realized I had my first real friends since college. One of the best parts of residential college life is proximity: Everyone is nearby, so gatherings can and do happen randomly and spontaneously. And so you get used to being in other people’s living spaces and to having people in your own.
One night a couple years ago, shortly after we had moved into our new house, I came home from an evening meeting expecting to find my wife and (then) two children quietly going about their business. Instead, as I opened the front door, I was greeted by a wall of sound—uninhibited laughter and disjointed greetings and children’s screams. My wife had invited several friends and their children over, just to hang out.
As I integrated myself into the crowd, I took note of how I felt: completely at ease. While I was surprised they were all in my house right now, there was nothing unnatural or unsettling or uncomfortable about any of these people making an unplanned visit to my home. Within seconds we were swapping the kind of good-natured barbs friends who are secure in their friendship can trade, and it felt like college again in the best of ways, and I knew something blessed was happening in my life.
Since that day, three other families with whom we are close have moved within walking distance and we share dinner—at our house or someone else’s—at least once a week or so. These get-togethers are rarely planned more than 24 hours in advance: Sometimes a family has had a difficult day and could use company and a break from cooking; sometimes we realize it’s an interesting liturgical feast day; sometimes we just want to hang out.
There are rarely cheeses to slice or tenderloins to carve, though there are often corks to pop. The floors aren’t mopped; the toys aren’t organized; the couches aren’t vacuumed. Means of ingress and egress are cleared and some basic pick-up takes place so people can walk around and sit down without fear of injury. Other than that, the house appears to others basically as it does to its occupants.
What’s on the menu, if not recipes straight from the New York Times cooking module? Tacos are a perennial favorite among kids and grown-ups alike. Aldi frozen pizzas are cheap and hearty. If we’re feeling gourmet, a mess of pasta, maybe with chicken and Italian herbs, will feed a crowd. For larger open-house-style gatherings, an informal potluck makes sure no one goes home hungry.
Hospitality is a virtue—one, to be clear, that we have by no means mastered. Like any virtue, it is essentially a habit. And the key to forming a habit is making that first step—that first act of the will—that breaks the inertia of apprehension and discomfort. Go ahead: Invite a friend or two over on a whim. Make the place comfortable, but not a pristine museum. Cook up something tasty and practical.
I’ve found that very little helps to develop and to cement a friendship quite as effectively as casual hospitality. And this only makes sense: Hospitality is, in a sense, the material analogue to the spiritual good of friendship. Authentic, life-giving friendship is a kind of love, and growing in love requires growing in emotional and spiritual intimacy—an intimacy different from that proper to romantic love, but a kind of intimacy nevertheless. And because intimacy requires the exposure of the self to the other, it requires both self-giving and vulnerability.
This is exactly what hospitality does in the material world: It habituates us to giving of our time and resources and it habituates us to exposing our inner sanctum, in all its messiness and imperfection, to our friends. In so doing, we prime ourselves for the more intense intimacy and vulnerability and self-giving of the spirit, where friendship’s supernatural character blooms.
Taking that first step very often encourages friends to respond in kind. Your implicit admission of imperfection gives them permission to admit the same, and so they invite you over not to be “entertained,” but simply to break bread together, to talk together, to be together. Over time, these habits of hospitality expand to others, becoming webs of habits of hospitality—in other words, a community.
While more formal gatherings have their place, to reduce hospitality to “entertaining” is in fact deeply anti-social. By design, it puts up barriers to intimacy, keeping friends (and even family) at arm’s length from one’s real life and real self. It expresses distrust that others could possibly love me as I am, thus smothering true friendship before it can even take root.
Habits of hospitality, on the other hand, are downright subversive in our culture of independence and calculation. They demonstrate that it is not only possible but fruitful and beautiful to share life in a substantive way outside the confines of the nuclear family. And, in so doing, they point to the reality of the common good, not just as a theoretical concept but as a practical one that can animate an authentic Christian community.