I have recently returned from a conference. That is not surprising to know an academic goes to a conference. College professors go to conferences all the time. I have done my fair share, but generally don’t go anymore. It is not that I think conferences are unimportant. But I do have the sense that in my own field of religion, conferences that are academic are not where I spend most of my time now. The papers presented at such conferences tend to be too arcane to be of much use to me.
Most of my time these days is spent in what I would call ministry within the academic community. That does not mean I go around praying for people all the time. I am not preaching sermons. I am not trying to get students to become Christian or anything else. I am trying to help them think about life---their own life and others. I want to help them figure out how they will make sense of their lives. Of course, many of us make sense of life through our own religious tradition or via spirituality.
I use a variety of people---historical and contemporary---to help students think about life. One such person, whom I often cite and admire, is the late Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Even though Merton died tragically in 1968, his writings and teachings still have an amazing relevance to our world and making sense of our world. And that was the point of this conference, which focused on Merton’s writings and legacy. This was a conference that “spoke to my condition,” as Quakers would say. But my story is not really about Merton. He simply provided the context.
And so it was at this conference I met a young, engaging college senior. I never saw her in my life, but I do know her mentor. And it was her mentor who wanted to connect us. And connect we did. As we talked, she described her love of studying religion and business, especially accounting. Of course, this is not the normal combination for college students. It was easy to guess why the mentor wanted us to connect. I, too, harbor interests in both religion and business. In fact, I have written books in both arenas. I guess that makes me strange, too.
I encouraged her not to feel like she has to choose between them. My advice was not really advice. People her age should feel no pressure to focus too quickly and exclude things that could be difference-makers later in life. “Follow your spirit,” was my suggestion. Of course, that is hardly specific. In some ways I am not even sure I know what I am telling her. But I do trust she has a spirit and that spirit connects with the Spirit of God. What I suggested to her is precisely what I am still trying to do in my own life.
After spending a considerable amount of time talking with her and getting to know her, I became confident she will find a way forward. I doubt that she (or anyone else) can plan this course of life. Even at my ripe age, I don’t think I can plan my life. Of course, we can all make plans and chart courses of action. At some point I may leave my house and live in a retirement community. She can choose graduate schools, etc. But none of these choices dictate what life will come to be for her.
As we left each other that first meeting, I told her I would touch base the next day. I already knew what I planned to do for her. I would give her one of my books that deals with business and some spirituality. The book’s content would not give her a game plan. I meant it more as a form of encouragement. And so the next day I looked for her to give her my gift. I succeeded; she has my book.
As I ponder this action, I realize what I actually offered her was a form of hospitality. The initial aspect of hospitality was to meet with her. The hospitality deepened when I sat with her and intently listened to her story and receive her questions. That could have been the end of the story. But I wanted to offer more. Encouragement can be a good word for someone. But to offer an action is more powerful than a word. And so I gave her a book. The book may or may not be important. What I hope is the lasting bit of importance is the giving of the gift---the gift of hospitality.
This provokes me to ponder the nature of hospitality. As I think about it, hospitality is always a gift. It has to be a gift. You cannot require hospitality. You cannot coerce it. Of course, you can make someone do something. But that is not hospitality. That is a power play. Hospitality is never a power play.
As I think about it further, hospitality is discerned by the gift that expresses it. Hospitality may be a room in your house that you offer. It might be a listening ear. There is a myriad of possible gifts that can be expressions of hospitality. Many of these gifts are free; they cost you only a little time and effort. But they can be profound gifts---often better than money itself.
I am glad I did what I did. I don’t know that I will ever see or hear from this gal again. But that does not matter. When you offer a gift expressing hospitality, it has no strings attached. The gift does its own work thereafter.