Practicing Hospitality

Hospitable family welcome us for an afternoon of lunching and lounging - Phnom Oudong, Kandal

Hospitable family welcome us for an afternoon of lunching and lounging – Phnom Oudong, Kandal

Something has bewitched me. I’m putting off the last 150 pages of Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime till next week because I am being consumed by a side stint of research into the idea of hospitality. (Let me just say I am a big fan of the word “bewitched.” It produces a fun clicky sound off the tongue, not to mention it always takes me back to the image of Mr. Rochester declaring his love for Jane Eyre – don’t hold onto that last image right now though because I’m definitely not using the word in the same context here.)

I have been struck by many a things here in Cambodia thus far – mosquito attacks, spastic monsoons, comments on my weight, and the inconvenient lack of pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, to name a few – but the one thing that has left the most significant impression on me has been the hospitality of my family. Biologically speaking, they are not my family (unless we trace our lineage back 2,000 years), but they treat me as such. A couple of days after I just arrived in Cambodia, my aunt and I were taken to Phnom Oudong to see some family – our hosts smiled without ceasing and hailed our arrival, we all sat down to lunching and hand-swatting flies in communion, and then took a walk down to the river to hang out and sweat with the cows. Since my aunt has returned to the states, family here have continued to welcome me into their lives as if I was their daughter, their sister, in flesh and blood. I find myself grateful beyond words – bewitched by the hospitality.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been truly bothered by the state of some genocide memorials I’ve come across in research. But it wasn’t enough to just simply be angry. You have to ask, “So you’re bothered? Well what are you going to do about it?” Certainly couldn’t just pout and stew over it. (I might lose more hair than I already have , and I’d rather that not happen.) The act of memorialization had to be more than just putting some bones on display and calling the work of memory and justice done. Now, these are very new and raw thoughts, but I’m leaning towards this idea: the practice of hospitality advises the practice of memorialization.

In Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual LifeHenri Nouwen writes:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines … The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. [1]

There’s a lot of comparison and analysis to be done between memorialization and the idea of hospitality that Nouwen and other writers and scholars discuss, however in the current hour of my bewitchment, I will say there should be something said about the genocide memorial as the “free space” in which the dead and the living may meet in “friendly emptiness.” What is beautiful about this image is that it is justice in action. It is a profound, self-less act of service to invite the stranger into a space where she can be free. And that is hospitality.

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1975) 71-72.

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