The Russian Doll Of Hospitality
“An artist is never poor”. This the closing sentence of the 1987 drama film Babette’s Feast directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a story by the Danish novelist Karen Blixen (who for this novel used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen). If you have never seen this film, you should definitely watch it. Not only it won the Oscar for Best Foreign language film but is the favourite film of Pope Francis and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. One of Italy’s most renowned spiritual authors, the founder of the Bose monastic community Enzo Bianchi, says that if you want to understand the Eucharist you have to watch this film.
Among a plethora of symbolic layers, however, it can be profitably taken at its face value as a story of generous hospitality and of its unexpected life-changing reward. The two Danish elderly strictly puritan unmarried sisters Martine and Philippa have no idea that the French woman refugee fleeing one of the recurrent infamous counter-revolutionary Parisian bloodshed had been the head chef of Le Café Anglais, one of the most expensive and prestigious restaurants of the French Capital. Dutifully, and during 14 long years, Babette hides her prodigious culinary talents and cooks the strictly tasteless meals required by the Puritan upbringing of her hosts. Until one day Babette begs to be given the opportunity to cook a proper meal for the sisters and their friends which costs the very savings that would have allowed her to go back to her previous life. What initially appears as sheer extravagance slowly morphs into a healing experience. The conviviality afforded by the sumptuous meal -helped no doubt by Veuve Cliquot Champagne, Sauternes and Cognac- repairs entrenched grudges, rekindles ancient loves and restores the bonds between the members of a community whose spiritual life had inexorably withered under the emotional strictures imposed by a gloomy and sorrowful pietist ethos.
A similar kind of reward is promised by Jesus at the end of his lengthy missionary speech in the 10th chapter of Matthews gospel: “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" (Mt 10.42). Jesus is not inviting us to practice hospitality in the expectation of a reward. In the same speech he says to his disciples “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10.8), which implies that hosts who welcome them should do the same. He is rather teaching us to consider hospitality itself as a reward because it widens our homes and our hearts and almost invariably becomes an opportunity for growth, healing, and joy. If Jesus recommends to give freely what we have received freely it is because “freely” is the only modality that unlocks God’s gifts. Love and delight are commodities -so to speak- that can be experienced only to the extent that they are shared.
There always is a mystery in hospitality. This is a recurrent theme in Scripture. Abraham, Sarah, Lot -just to give some examples- open their homes and their hearts to visitors without knowing that in fact they are welcoming angels. Similarly Boaz welcomes Ruth and Noemi without knowing that this will result in him becoming part of the Messiah’s lineage.
Jesus points to this mystery when he says: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. Hospitality works like Russian dolls: as we dare to overcome our fear of the unknown and of the unexpected and we share our gifts with our guest -as we freely give- we discover that the reward is infinitely greater, that it impacts our lives at multiple levels and in ways which we would have never expected at first.
The primary meaning of today’s passage of course refers to the welcoming of Jesus’ messengers of his good news – but it is not by accident that there is a strict parallel between welcoming the Gospel and receiving a guest: a similar dynamic is at work in both. The words of the Gospel too are like Russian dolls: they tell us simple stories, relate promises, give instructions which keep disclosing unexpected new layers of meaning and of transforming power for our lives to the extent that we dwell with them or rather let them dwell in our memory and our hearts.
Of course, those who come to a home or to a community in Jesus’ name have to be keenly aware that they must not rely on their gifts, skills or wisdom. Sometimes, like Paul, they have to learn this lesson the hard way. It was thanks to the humiliating mockery his attempt at clever preaching produced in the Areopagus that Paul learnt how to strike the winning chord that instead touched the Corinthians: “My message and my preaching -says Paul to the Corinthians- were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1Cor 2.4). Similarly, in this missionary speech, Jesus invites his messengers not to worry about what to say and how to say it. “At that time -he says-you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking with you” (Mt 10.19).
It is, I think, something of an art to speak in this way – art understood not so much as a skill, but as the ability to respond creatively to the right context. Something like this, I think, is meant by Babette when, having freely spent all her savings for the meal, says that “An artist is never poor”. Through this sentence she is acknowledging two things.
The first is that had she not been freely welcomed, cherished, loved by the Pietist sisters she would have not been able to reciprocate their liberality with the same freedom – and this freedom is the greatest form of wealth. The second is that there is no higher reward for both guests and hosts than the life, love and joy that this meeting generates. Jesus even hints at the fact that there is no better way of welcoming trinitarian divine life: whether we are aware of it or not, through this kind of hospitality we welcome the presence of the Risen Christ, the teaching of the Holy Spirit and we are gathered in the Father’s embrace.