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franciscan - May 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Hospitality to strangers – and friends

by Sue CSF

At Compton Durville hospitality forms a major part of our ministry. We welcome for short periods guests wanting quiet and space for prayer, study, retreat, rest and relaxation, or a peaceful holiday, in the context of a Christian community. Some are regular visitors and experience our house as a ‘home from home’. For many of them it is vital to have a bolthole, a protected space. They may be engaged in pastoral ministry or other highly pressured work. Some are worn down by the role of full-time carer in their own homes. Many are juggling with a range of different responsibilities at the same time. Others arrive as strangers, sometimes with expectations drawn from fiction, from the distant past, or from experience of communities whose style is very different.

It can be surprising that we talk and eat with guests, use fax and food-processor, and engage in various ministries beyond the house. We are not always habited, and rarely to be seen with hands folded and eyes downcast! Equally some are amazed to discover how much time we spend in chapel, and visibly relieved to find they are free to attend or not, as they choose.

Very occasionally people arrive on the off chance asking to stay with us. It is wiser to make arrangements beforehand, even if only by phoning the previous day. Bookings are increasingly last minute. Guests, responding to an urgent need to get away, take advantage of unexpected spaces in their diaries.

Last Christmas brought additional surprise guests. Sister Pat returned on Christmas afternoon from a shift at Yeovil Night Shelter with two exhausted young men, originally from East Africa. Stranded in Yeovil they had escaped the freezing streets by joining a Christmas Eve party. Discovering there was no public transport for two days, they had been unable to get lodgings on Christmas morning – hence the Night Shelter, where they were clearly ill-at-ease. After a long sleep our visitors emerged on Boxing Day in time for an afternoon trip to Chesil Beach, grateful if bemused to find themselves in a convent guest house. Next morning I had to prize them from their beds to get them to the train they wanted to catch. Their summary of Christmas, ‘We met some very nice people and went to the beach!’

Most of our guests are adults but sometimes families come with children, usually to our self-catering cottage up the lane. Local primary school groups also pay enthusiastic visits. Another school regularly brings its confirmation class for an overnight stay, much appreciated by the young people involved. It gives them ‘space and time to think’ amid the busyness of boarding school life.
A number of students and other young adults stay here, sometimes in groups. Recently there has been a Sixth Form College Christian Union, and a group from the Religious Studies Department of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, whose visit has become an annual fixture. A seminar group with their tutor held a residential revision course here much enjoyed and subsequently judged to have improved exam results significantly! Older people too come to write or study. Some have made this a regular commitment, enabling them to carve out space for the important, amid the clamour of the urgent. For others it might be part of a sabbatical. Sometimes we are asked to receive people in various kinds of personal crisis. We stress that we cannot provide nursing, personal care, intensive support, supervision or counselling. However many are helped by rest, quiet, an ordered daily routine and spiritual framework, friendly companion-ship and a supportive atmosphere. Where appropriate they can contribute to the work of the house. Not infrequently such guests become aware of being held in the ‘peace which passes all understanding’.

Clergy and other working groups visit to plan, to pray and to be together. There are parish and wider church conferences, as well as First and Third Order and Companions' meetings. Local Baptists come regularly, and the diocesan lay training course ‘Christian Foundations’ meets here, giving rise to the occasional ostensibly alarming note in our diary ‘No Christian Foundations’! Some groups are residential, others not, Alpha Course Away Days being a growth area at present.

I must adjust to a wide spectrum of leadership and organisation among those who bring groups here. My heart sank when after several reminders to notify me of dietary needs, one leader remarked, ‘Now you mention it there was someone who can't eat something, but I don't think he's coming after all’. Needless to say, he came; his diet was extraordinarily complex, and his understandable but entirely misdirected wrath dramatic. Other group visits are amazingly organised even down to the pre-arranged washing-up rota! When one leader produced some excellent introductory information, I quickly asked for a copy in order to use it more widely.

A range of people, some out of touch or uneasy with other expressions of church, come for retreats and quiet days. Some groups bring their own conductor; others arrange for a sister to lead them, as do some conference and study groups. Increasingly people want to come for individual quiet days, sometimes requesting guidance, but often requiring only the hospitality of quiet space, on-going prayer, and unobtrusive care. There are usually a few guests here for private retreat.

‘Retreat’ is very widely interpreted. I quickly learned always to find out precisely what the enquirer has in mind, both for retreats and quiet days. Some assume that staying in a religious house is in itself a retreat. They come intending to have what many would call a holiday, visiting surrounding places of interest. Others look for withdrawal into complete silence, spend much time in prayer, and may want regular individual guidance, or total solitude. Between these two poles there is obviously a range of possible choices. We are fairly informal and try to be flexible, so that different people may spend their time here as they choose. Our flexibility is enhanced by having two separate guest accommodation areas, and two further separate areas for day groups. However clarity at the time of booking is essential, so that we can plan appropriately. Not all types of activity and ways of being are compatible if attempted simultaneously in the same guest area!

Inevitable frustrations? There are also intrinsic rewards. Repeatedly I am aware that people find what they need while here. Sometimes ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs would tell a clear story of restoration. On recent pages of our Visitors' Book, guests have variously described their experience: ‘An extremely hospitable place’; ‘To follow a star’; ‘Re-fuelling’; ‘Space to reflect with love’; ‘A crucial turning-point’; ‘I shall dip into this place often, even when I am many miles away’; ‘So peaceful and friendly I can't wait to come again’. Sometimes surprised, I thank God, reminded by the Principles of the First Order that ‘by hospitality to strangers we may take Christ in.’ §


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