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How I’ve learned to embrace scruffy hospitality in the midst of family chaos

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/22/22

None of us is perfect. Our homes are not perfect. We shouldn't let these facts destroy our enjoyment of time with people we love.

If you’ve ever been “lucky” enough to visit our house, you’ve been treated to the best hospitality that a family with six young children can possibly provide. I’ve probably given you a home tour, advising you along the way to step over the piles of dirty shoes and toys, avert your eyes from the dirty dishes on the counter, and – oh, hey – I appreciate that you aren’t commenting on our mismatched dining room chairs, plates, and cups.

After the tour, I probably poured you a cup of coffee. (Sorry, the kids drank all the milk and spilled all the sugar so I can’t offer those.) Feel free to chuckle as you watch me struggle to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew because the kids lost it.

No one ever said we don’t properly entertain our guests.

Obviously, we aren’t the most polished hosts. We don’t let that stop us, though, because life is too short not to spend relaxing times with good friends in good conversation. We’re in the fortunate position that most of our friends also have young children and understand that family life is messy. Our house is messy, in fact, even after we straighten up for guests.

Doing it anyway, mess and all

My theory is that, even though we think it’s embarrassing, no one actually really cares or judges each other on the niceties of dinner parties. No one leaves a party complaining that the cooking was slightly less than perfect or the centerpiece on the table was sub-par, and yet, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to become perfectly polished hosts, so much so that the anxiety causes many people to refuse to have any visitors at all in their home. We think everyone is judging us and quietly pitying us — a fear which quickly puts a halt to hospitality.

Meanwhile, my sole reaction after spending an evening with friends is how pleasant the conversation was and grateful I am for the invite. We could have spent the evening on the concrete front steps of the house drinking wine from plastic cups for all I care. The point isn’t how impressed I am. All I remember from these visits is the quality of the fellowship.

Now, some gifted hosts truly love going all-out for parties. When they do, I appreciate it … as long as they had fun putting it together. If the host is anxious, it stilts the entire experience. But I’ve been at parties in which the attire was evening wear and, because the host was relaxed and having a good time, it was incredibly fun.

I do wonder if hospitality in the homemaking-magazine era has suffered precisely because it has shifted from the concept of enjoying time with friends and become more about impressing each other. We’ve somehow become convinced that, for an evening to be successful, our guests must emerge amazed and stunned at the quality of the food, the ambition of the decorations, and the cleanliness and trendy tastefulness of the rooms.

Secretly, we know we cannot live up to those expectations, and that the price of even attempting to do so is a stressful day of deep-cleaning, so we don’t entertain friends at all. It’s too intimidating. As a result, everyone is lonelier.

None of us is perfect. Our homes are not perfect. We shouldn’t let these facts destroy our hospitality and our enjoyment of our homes with people we love.

The saint who paved the way for scruffy hospitality

Perhaps, with his feast day coming up later this week, a good inspiration in the fine art of hospitality is St. Philip Neri. Neri was tireless in organizing talks, discussion groups, and other social gatherings in a humble room he had above his parish. He would also lead groups of friends on walking trips to other churches, stopping on the way for informal picnics. Nothing about him was polished, but people loved spending time with him. His gift for generous hospitality created a vibrant community.

Neri wasn’t a perfect host. His version of hospitality has since been termed “scruffy.” The people he entertained may have been scruffy, too, I don’t know, but they certainly weren’t perfect. Neri wasn’t a master chef and probably didn’t know how to fold dinner napkins into swans. His purpose was to spend time with people he loved, to share a meal together, to pray together, laugh, talk, and watch the kids play. Isn’t that what hospitality is all about?

Hospitality is about people — the chance to spend time with them and allow our lives to intertwine. That’s what makes those evenings so memorable, the connections we make and simple joy of communal bonding. The more authentic our gatherings are, the better. If you’re Martha Stewart, great. If all you can manage to do is order pizza that everyone eats straight from the box, also great. Be you. No stress. No anxiety. You’ll be amazed at how much people love to hang out at your house.

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