For weeks I prayed and prepared. I taught my youngest how to address him.
I wiped baseboards and dusted chandeliers. I planned a menu that didn’t overestimate my cooking abilities but seemed worthy of the extraordinarily special guest. I polished silver and curated a jazz playlist just hours before I set out the tray of Brie cheese and fig preserves for a simple yet not-so-everyday appetizer.
It started out just as I had hoped. We sipped our wine and laughed together in the usual get-acquainted rhythms. Our youngest son child sat cozily at our kitchen bar tucked between our Bishop, visiting our home for the first time, and one of our dear priest friends.
Then, it happened.
The child leaned forward and stuck out his little tongue (in good Communion form, I will give) and swiped it across the fig preserves that sat tantalizingly before him atop a nice Brie.
I may have screamed.
We all saw it.
I desperately reached across the island to grab the tray and save our guests from the preschool germs that I believe to be only a rung or two below that of the Consumption which took so many of our best saints. But, I was stopped.
Our Bishop confirmed among us which spot had been licked.
With a swift stroke of the cheese knife, he cut off that portion of the fig and cheese. In spite of my lightheadedness caused by the hyperventilation, I caught glimpse of the twinkle in his eye from which escaped the glimmer of his saintly soul. This man, robustly educated and raised to the Episcopate by Holy Mother Church, popped the tainted morsel into his very own mouth. He laughed. Our 4 year old beamed at his willing victim.
Y’all. Apart from the Bishop’s heroic graciousness, there are only a couple of reasons why I did not die then and there that night.
These reasons are my mother and my grandmother.
These women prepared me for this moment in time. They placed within me an immense and sustained value for sharing life—joys, sufferings, beauty, and our messiness—with our priests and religious.
First, there are the stories of my grandmother who as young mother who would often pack her 1950’s station wagon with religious sisters of the parish to take them around town to do their shopping and errands. My mom and her sisters would sit squeezed in between The Sisters and await their treat of a holy card after an afternoon spent sharing life– up close and personal–with these holy and very real women in full habits.
My grandparents also lived just doors down from their parish. My grandmother’s love language, by anyone’s estimation, was hospitality and service. As priests of the parish would come and go, she would beckon them into her home with the promise of hot coffee and a good meal. They kept coming.
Decades later, they still visited almost daily. This time, bringing food with them in the form of the Blessed Sacrament as my grandfather lay dying–and then, again, years later when she was. My grandmother’s humble, formica kitchen table was a continuous font of coffee, laughs, and tears for priests and sisters for decades.
These men and women were her real friends formed through an open door.
Then, there are my own childhood memories of the various priests whose fellowship warmed our home and our lives.
When I was young, a particularly serious priest of our diocese would visit our home often. His disposition was such that he once commented to my parents how odd it was for him to so enjoy our home, a raucous house filled with 6 children, as he did not typically enjoy children. My mom still laughs that he marveled how it was that he could actually tolerate us. She just loved that.
Perhaps the charism of hospitality, facilitating that feeling of being at home and well loved, can make almost all things tolerable? I can only hope. . .
Another priest, who we have always considered a family member from my earliest memory of him just after his ordination, so thoroughly made his home among us. Even after he was given his own parish in a small country town many miles away, he would regularly travel back to make an appearance in our home for dinner time and familial connection. When our family moved out of the diocese, states away, we looked forward to his visits to our home like a brother or beloved uncle. These visits served to deepen our sense that this man, in persona Christi, was also one of our dearest friends, a part of our family.
His friendship, in a special way, signaled for me the grace of Jesus’s intimate friendship in my own life.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. I’m sharing only a few happy memories here, but we also have plenty of stories of messiness, unavoidable humiliations, and shared heartbreaks. Our spiritual fathers have loved us well through the joys of this life and through unspeakable darkness and grief. All of these times have formed us, as a family, to know what it is to share our sometimes chaotic and untidy life with our priests, deacons, and religious—and, as it turns out, not die from the mortification.
I do not presume I have a fraction of the gift of hospitality so beautifully exhibited by my grandmother and my mother. But, I have been given a heart for it that at least doesn’t stop beating altogether when my 4 year old licks the Bishop’s cheese.
If there is anything I have learned, it is to let our good and holy clergy and religious in.
In hospitality and humility, let them see our lives. Let them love us for who we are. And, most of all, love them for the gift they are in our families and in our world.