Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hospitality and Creeping Boundaries

Sometimes people love us too much. I know that sounds like a topic for Oprah or Dr. Phil but I don’t think either of them have ever been in monastic life. That’s too bad, it would make a great topic. The issue would go something like this: a group of women is very hospitable and welcoming, making everyone who visits them feel that they are part of the group. The problem comes when the visitors take this welcoming attitude a little too much to heart.

In one example (where the details have been changed to protect the people who probably wouldn’t recognize themselves anyway) a retreatant comes to the monastery for a couple of weeks. She feels very much at home the first time she comes and enters whole-heartedly into prayer and meals with the sisters. One morning I go down to the dining room at 7:15 and see this retreatant. We say clearly in writing and in our orientations that guests are welcome in the dining room after 7:30. I ask the sister who is her hospitality person if she noticed that this person was already in the dining room. She sighed and said that this retreatant had been “creeping up” in terms of time, a couple of days ago it was 7:25, today it was 7:15. But it was also her last day and so we both said “oh well” and let it go.

We are probably victims of our own hospitality. People feel very welcome and accepted and proceed to make themselves a little too much at home. They wander into areas that are private, spread out to make themselves very much at home in common areas. Sometimes they want to move very quickly into doing as much as possible for us as soon as possible. People come here thinking they have found a new home and family and psychologically they want to “move in."

At the monastery we are also victims of our own hospitality. We seem constitutionally unable to say difficult things. When people don’t grasp the nuances of our very nuanced culture we have trouble telling them clearly what the problem is. Of course it is difficult to explain the subtleties of the reality that we are very hospitable but also that people who participate in our life as visitors, volunteers and retreatants are guests, they aren’t family. There is a phenomenon of creeping familiarity and diminishing boundaries that quickly becomes a strain on the monastic community. This happens when guests begin to feel at home and ignore their sense of needing to be careful in someone else's home. Then sometimes people are so thrilled at feeling they have found a new “home” they become a little too grateful and do too much for us, wanting to give back and help in ways that can feel rather inappropriate, intense and overwhelming to those of us who live here.

So what would Oprah or Dr. Phil say about this dilemma? I might have a better idea if I ever watched either one, but since I don’t I will just have to make up my own answers.

Perhaps the deepest kind of hospitality is that which we show to ourselves and encourage other people to create within themselves. We aren’t being hospitable to others if we fail to point out when they are feeling a little too much at home at our place and aren't respecting our boundaries. It is also a failure of hospitality when we don’t let them know when their own attempts at gratitude and hospitality might be too intense for the nature of a casual relationship. We aren’t being hospitable to our selves when we fail to be clear that people who come to our place will be welcomed but they will always be guests; they cannot be family.

Of course it doesn’t help that these are incredibly fuzzy, hard to define issues. Trying to get a handle on healthy boundaries is like trying to catch fog with a butterfly net. Our community mission statement specifically cites “healing hospitality.” as part of our identity. The challenge for all of us, monastic community and visitors alike, is to make sure that our hospitality, whether we are giving or receiving, is healthy and contained since otherwise it may not be healing.

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