First, let me tell you why my week at the Collegeville Institute was wonderful.
It was wonderful because it was where Kathleen Norris was inspired to write The Cloister Walk. I prayed with the very monks that she prayed with while she wrote Dakota and Amazing Grace.
It was wonderful because of the trees and the lakes, the trails and the ivy climbing up the old red brick, the honeycomb stained glass and the snack refrigerator.
It was wonderful because I got feedback on my writing, and now I know how I want to approach revisions (re-visions - seeing the story again in a new way, to see what God can show me).
It was wonderful because I had so much time, hours every day, alone and silent, devoted to writing.
And this - the time alone, really the thing I was most excited about - was also what made it difficult.
Because at first, see, for a mother of small children, who rarely has an hour of uninterrupted quiet, a retreat sounds perfect. Finally, time to collect my thoughts. A inestimable gift. 20 hours of unscheduled time every day.
But halfway through my week at Collegeville, melancholy descended. In the hours of quiet, I began to doubt the value of my work, the meaningfulness of my life, the call of my vocation. Suddenly it all felt worthless, and I wanted to quit.
Then I recognized the feeling: it was the exact same emotion I used to feel in the first year after I graduated from college. I was living in a small farming town in Southeast Asia, teaching English to college students. And while I was making new friends, both among my students and with the other foreign teacher who worked there with me, I was lonely. I had friends, but no intimate friends. When I emailed my friends and family back home, hoping for long, chatty responses, something to make me feel known again, they were slow in coming.
In Southeast Asia and at Collegeville, I was unmoored from most of the relationships that give my life its meaning. All I had was my work. And what if my work wasn't good enough? What if I couldn't do enough of it? What if I failed? What was left of me, then?
Physically, I had everything I needed at Collegeville. My own space, plenty of coffee, abundant snacks. The Benedictine ethic of hospitality has been fully absorbed into the Institute. And yet the silence left me sad, raw, exposed.
But I know now what I didn't know ten years ago when I lived in Southeast Asia. Now I know how to recognize that kind of melancholy as what it is: a sign of my need for emotional hospitality. And instead of waiting for it to be offered, or doubling down on my work, I went looking for it. Danielle came to visit me, listened, prayed. I found people to eat meals with. Instead of working constantly, I sat outside talking with Stina and Meredith for two hours, watching the river until the mosquitoes forced us in.
I've been thinking, since I got back from Collegeville, about this: being made in the image of God means (among other things) being made for work and for relationship. And I've been thinking of my friends who graduated from college last year, who may still be waiting to find work and relationships to define their postgrad life. That's a hard place to be. I've been thinking of my friends who are single and living far from their families, and wondering who is showing them emotional hospitality. I've been thinking about our international students, trying to find intimate connections and hindered by the difficulty of communicating in a second language.
Hospitality is easy for me, when it means fixing a meal, opening my home, creating a space for people to be together. I like hosting events and cooking really delicious food, and as anyone will tell you, I'm not uptight about having a perfectly clean house when I entertain. But emotional hospitality is harder to extend, and always has been. It is more costly. It requires learning the right questions to ask and being fully present for the answers. It's a skill I want to develop, and a gift I want to learn to give.
In a culture that is increasingly fragmented, where lasting marriages and families are becoming less and less common, and individuals may feel isolated apart from traditional structures of community, shouldn't the church be a place of radical inclusivity, where we extend hospitality and create community? Not just nominal hospitality, but true hospitality, open-hearted and unqualified. Not just physical, but emotional.
Maybe emotional hospitality is just another word for friendship.
I want to say, as people have said to me,
You are well-come here, regardless of your goodness or your work or your worth in the world. You are welcome. Let's be friends.