(Fragment of Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
"(Saint) Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our hearts so that this generation does not miss accompanying the innocent to Calvary as the last one did. Benedict wants us to let down the barriers of our souls so that the God of the unexpected can come in."
-Joan Chittister, on the Rule of St. Benedict
I woke up this morning with the realization that part of the true Benedictine meaning of "welcome" is to be open to welcoming the unexpected.
I have had a person on my mind a lot lately, that I encountered in Joplin. It has been a good two weeks since I was there, but I still go to bed and still wake up with both the visual and the visceral images I took in while volunteering there.
During the second day of my time there, we distributed, as well as cold drinks and snacks, a variety of "cleanup tools"--various sizes of work gloves, industrial brooms, and shovels. Our crew, riding in my truck, was the definition of the word "ecumenical"--this Episcopalian from Kirksville, a Presbyterian orignally from Joplin, now living in St. Louis (who knew the Kirksville Presbyterian pastor well,) and two 19 year old Mormon missionaries from Utah and British Columbia, Canada.
We drove by a house where a lone man was nosing in the rubble, obviously looking for something. He was a thin guy, with a madras plaid shirt and jeans, the shirt "mis-buttoned." He was happy to accept a shovel and pair of work gloves from us, then he turned to me and grinned sheepishly with tobacco-stained teeth, "But really, I'm lookin' for my cat. He's an orange tabby, part Manx. You know, no tail?"
We hadn't seen such a cat but as we talked, I learned many things. He lived alone, he had just gotten out of the hospital, where he had been treated for broken ribs, a punctured lung, and internal injuries. He flipped up the tail of his mis-buttoned shirt to reveal a scar covered with Steri-Strips--the scar from the splenectomy he had received to alleviate his internal bleeding.
I heard about before the tornado, during the tornado, after the tornado, the food in the hospital. But every two or three lines, he punctuated it with "...but what I really want is to find my cat. My neighbor said he saw him running around yesterday. He's still alive, I think."
All I had done was offer the guy a pair of work gloves and a shovel, and I was given a very unexpected glimpse in his life. In some ways, it felt like an overshare of a huge magnitude, and that I, in some ways, entered in a more intimate conversation than I was ready for. I found myself telling him he was truly a blessed man, to have survived that. I offered to keep an eye out for his cat. I have not been able since that day to totally get him, or his cat out of my mind.
Had this guy been in the lobby of my hospital, I probably would not have given him a second look. He just would have been one of many nameless, faceless people, who kind of seem on the edge of "people of Wal-Mart." I don't believe I would have been mean to him. I think I would have just not noticed him.
This is a reminder to me that even the simplest acts of hospitality put us in an unexpected place.
These unexpected places are not always pleasant places. Sometimes they are places of sadness and despair. I am still catching myself having "re-entry" difficulties. I might be enjoying a pleasant, cool night in my yard, and the image of the bare concrete foundation pads of Joplin's Ground Zero creep into my mind. Or I might smell food in the microwave at noon at work, and the smell of the rotting food in demolished refrigerators in Joplin fills my nostrils.
But then, I am also just as likely to have the image of the man looking for his cat, only one day out of being released from the hospital, grinning from ear to ear, and saying, "I know this sounds crazy, but I'm blessed. Truly blessed. I feel blessed in a way I never felt before," then leaning forward and adding, "...but I DO really wanna find my cat."
Really, though, isn't that how it works?
When we feel blessed, or touched by the Holy Spirit, or in that place of divine contentment, it's our natural inclination to share it in an intimate way. I'm sure that man's cat was a very close companion in his life. He innately knew there would be a wholeness to even his disaster-ridden life, with his cat on his lap.
For that to come to us, though, we have to allow for some barriers to be lowered. These are generally barriers we erected. Sometimes, we are rather obvious about our barriers and send very clear messages that keep people far away from them. We all know someone who has a fear of a particular thing, almost a pathological fear of it, and all of us have little fears that people close to us know about.
Sometimes, though, we are rather clever and surreptitious about our barriers, and use distraction to maintain them. Sometimes we place certain facets of our persona "out front" so all the attention (or all the flak) will be directed at "that person," not the deeper, more vulnerable parts of us. I am a person who tends to use that method much more than the first one. I learned a long time ago, to place the gregarious, energetic, slightly over the top "me" out front in public, because I do not like people to get very close to the vulnerable, deep hearted, almost ridiculously woundable part of me. That part of me feels things with such intensity, it's hard to move when it's involved.
I want to make it clear that "out front" person is not a straw person, or an illusion, or a "false" part of me. That part of me is very real, but that part takes a lot of energy and work to maintain, and can only be out there so long, before the oxygen runs out. Just like how Cinderella's coach turned into a pumpkin at midnight, that out front, over the top version of me has a finite time it can be "out," and it kinda implodes all at once when the air runs out of it. My friends have seen me many times acting like the life of the party then all of a sudden, I go, "Well, that was fun. Gotta go. Thanks! Bye." It bewilders them at first, but over time they learn it's not them, it's me.
I think we all have those versions of us that we put out front. The one I told you about is the one I rely on the most. But I have others. Everyone does.
But as we start to more fully understand what St. Benedict is talking about, I think we discover that to offer the hospitality of Christ, some of those "barrier people" inside of us have to retire. Oh, sure, we will use them now and then, but we discover after being just a little more vulnerable, just a little more woundable, we can handle it better than we thought we could. So we don't need the barrier person as often.
When we invite the God of the unexpected, we invite ourselves into a fuller journey.