St. Lydia inspires us to practice “casual hospitality.”
After [Lydia] and her household had been baptized, she offered us an invitation, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my home,” and she prevailed on us … When they had come out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house where they saw and encouraged the brothers, and then they left. (Acts 16:15, 40)
St. Lydia is not well known today, but she played an important role in the early spread of Christianity. Lydia was “a seller of purple,” that is, an independent woman of property with the means to support the itinerant Christian missionaries and the local communities they established. Although she was in the cloth trade like St. Paul, who made tents, her trade in costly purple dye meant that she was far more prosperous than he was.
As one of the first Gentile converts to Christianity, Lydia offered her home as a meeting place for the Christian community in Philippi, and as a safe haven for Christians in a world that was often hostile to them. Scripture doesn’t tell us much about her, but from what we do know, we can witness and imitate her example in three virtues that are crucial to hospitality and building community: humility, courage, and generosity.
The humility to really listen
At first glance, Lydia was not an obvious choice for a leader in the early Church. Paul and his fellow missionaries were traveling preachers for a new, minority religion, which both the Jewish and Roman communities distrusted. As a Roman citizen and wealthy businesswoman, Lydia belonged to a higher social class. Yet when she heard Paul preaching in public, she stopped and listened; she did not hold herself too far above them to consider what they had to say.
Lydia’s humility in hearing and heeding a message from an unlikely source was the catalyst for her conversion, and for that of her whole household. Being willing to listen quite literally saved her soul. Too often, pride gets in the way of hospitality, of friendship, of building real community. But how much could we gain if we had the humility to really listen to others, even those with whom we seem to share little in common?
Generosity with talents and resources
After her baptism, Lydia invited Paul and his companions to her home. In fact she did more than invite them—Scripture tells us she “prevailed upon” or “urged” them. We get the sense that Lydia was a strong personality, which is unsurprising given her prominent role in the cloth trade. Yet despite her success and social status, Lydia was not stingy; instead, she did not hesitate for a moment to pour out her resources for the sake of Christ and His followers.
Later on, when Paul and Silas were released from prison, the first place they went was Lydia’s house. They knew they could count on her to welcome them and to provide for their needs. When they got there, they found other Christians waiting, as Lydia’s house had become a gathering place for the early Church. We see a kind of “open door policy” at play, as Lydia was always ready to welcome guests.
People often complain about a lack of community in the Church, yet aren’t willing to do their part to create and foster networks of support. How are we welcoming others? Are we giving open-handedly of our resources, whether of time, talents, finances, or prayers? Taking a cue from St. Lydia’s generosity could make a real difference for those around us.
The courage to let others in
It’s one thing to host and entertain; it’s another to be ready to welcome a last-minute or unexpected visitor. The preparation required is not, as one might think, maintaining a pristine home at all times; rather, it goes much deeper, to having the courage to let others see us as we really are. As one writer eloquently put it, “Putting up the façade of perfection may take an overwhelming amount of time and energy, but allowing others to see and experience the everyday imperfection of our lives is simply unacceptable.”
Real hospitality demands intimacy, self-giving, and vulnerability. What if the guests don’t like what they see?, we worry. What if we lay bare our private selves only to be rejected? Casual hospitality takes courage—and yet the pay-off is immeasurable as our habits of openness and quiet generosity build up the connection we crave, and which all of us desperately need.
Lydia probably didn’t need to worry about bringing surprise guests home to a messy house. A woman of her means, in that era, would have had a staff of servants keeping the household running smoothly. But surely it took as much courage, if of a different kind, to welcome the disciples into her home, these strange itinerant missionaries who had frequent run-ins with the law (to put it mildly). It must have taken immense courage to leave the safe, popular state religion of her family and fellow citizens to chase after this wild new Gospel that spoke of a God of love and whose followers were persecuted. So despite her household help, Lydia surely knew a thing or two about the courage required for hospitality.
So how can we open the doors of our homes and hearts to guests? Hospitality doesn’t have to be complicated. As Lydia practiced humility, generosity, and courage, she helped Christianity pivot from a fringe sect to a major world religion.
Let your home and heart be a place where others can count on a warm welcome, a safe place to be vulnerable. Listen humbly to what others have to say. Use your resources to fill the needs of your community. Have the courage to practice hospitality regularly, even when it’s not easy. And perhaps, by imitating Lydia, we can each play a part in evangelizing the world anew.