As I drove along the Cape on my way to this year’s Cape Cod Learning Community, I saw the signs. In front of many restaurants, posted like gasoline prices, were today’s lobster cost per pound. And I dared to hope … maybe even scheme … a way to convince the presbytery leaders in this learning cohort to get lobster one day while we’re here. If you know Presbyterian Leaders it didn’t take much arm-twisting.
There is a lobster shack in the harbor parking lot across the street from our retreat center. Lobsters caught fresh off the boat are boiled and cracked for you … available by the pound. One of our group has a severe shell fish allergy … so we came up with the plan that we would request the cook to provide an entree for only one of us on Wednesday lunch … The rest of us would buy lobster. We wondered if this would disrupt the rhythm of the kitchen … would they be offended or disgruntled that we were changing the expectations? Would they have already purchased food for the week? How would this be received by the members of the community?
We’re staying in the guest house of the Community of Jesus in Orleans, Massachusetts. The monastic community has an Anglican heritage, but considers itself an ecumenically protestant community. They follow their own Rule adapted from Benedict. Celibate men and women live in separate quarters on either side of the campus. Married members, some with children, live in one of the many houses down the street. Some work in the community, others have jobs outside.
I have never known hospitality as genuine and as joyously offered as I have here. Signage is lacking in the community, but as I arrived Brother Jacob met me, welcomed me, and accompanied me to the Paraclete House where the Presbyterians were staying. Sister Barbara welcomed me at the guest house entrance by name, and met me in the parking lot after I drove my car around to the house. She gave me an individualized tour of the house including where we’d be meeting, where to sleep, where the refrigerator was stocked with cans of Diet Coke and cold bottled water, and where the Hershey’s miniatures were 24/7.
The sisters in the kitchen, and those who served us meals and snacks, too, have been “over the top” gracious. The quality of food has been as good or better than any gourmet restaurant. So, I was wondering … Will they be hurt that we’re choosing food from elsewhere this Wednesday afternoon? Or will they welcome the lightened work load?
Hospitality, true hospitality, is focused on the guest … not in an intrusive way, but in a way in which the guest experiences grace and appreciation for their presence. Today. I experienced grace in abundance. The sisters again served us by knowing us and loving us in visible and tangible gifts of service.
The table was quietly set, as we had our morning learning sessions, with lobster placemats, lobster crackers, lobster forks, and lemon wet wipes. And then, like icing on cake, each chair was prayerfully draped with a lobster bib. When members of our group arrived with our bag of lobsters, we expected to eat out of the paper wrapping, but the sisters took them into the kitchen and plated each one with fresh melted butter, lemon wedges, and a sprig of fresh curly parsley. The visual presentation was as delicious as the meat.
This lunch, for me, was as sacramental as Babette’s Feast. My cup was running over, even more so when they brought out the homemade strawberry and raspberry shortcake with freshly whipped cream from their cow. Every detail was attended to, perfect love in every bite. Our morning discussion time mentioned the importance of being mindfully present … I think that’s what made this true hospitality as opposed to the wonderful customer service we experienced at the restaurant last night in Provincetown. Every bit of the work was done mindfully, prayerfully, and with an attitude of love … for me, but even more importantly, for God. I was experiencing the sisters’ worship of God through their gift of hospitality. That grace, that love, that sense of being welcome and present brought tears to my eyes, a smile to my face, and a prayer of gratitude to my heart.