Two years ago, you might have approached the pink house with its purple garage door and knocked wondering at the riot of colour you would have been greeted with inside. Instead, as you open the door it would clash loudly on another door within, the two of them too close together to be opened.
“Come in!” cries a voice from the deep—or just behind the large single-glazed door that someone has painted their own parody of a stained glass window on. “Just shuffle in, we’re going to get it changed soon.”
So you do, shuffle in, past one threshold and another. Navigate the drawbridge and enter the castle.
Ivan Illich, the priest, philosopher, and social critic, spoke of our world as one of lost arts. We have lost the art of dying, the art of suffering, and the art of living. We are, he would say, unpractised in the art of hospitality.
He argued that the renewal of the social and political order requires a renewal of friendship. Friendship’s necessary condition, Illich argued, is hospitality. Friendship flowers in a field where seeds are sown—which is to say that friendship is organic not mechanistic, and so sits uncomfortably in our machine world. Rarely will you find a friend by saying ‘will you be my friend’ as you might have on the infant playground. It must be said I have had success here once as an adult—it requires a true mutuality though, a setting in which a friendship would have flourished given time anyway.
Friendships are precious, and they change the world. If Illich was right, then without hospitality they will not grow, and the order will decay in on itself.
He made these arguments towards the end of his life, thirty years ago. Time is only proving him right.
When you get in the hallway is not inspiring. Dark, with multiple eras of peeling wallpaper accosting you with patterns that look ready to wage war on one another. But the welcome is warm, the smiles are genuine, and the tea thrust into your hand is perfectly serviceable.
Illich went further, and argued that:
“Hospitality requires a threshold over which I can lead you, and TV, internet, newspaper, the idea of communication, abolished the walls and therefore also the friendship, the possibility of leading somebody over the door.”
He said this in 1996, pre-digital revolution by 11 years. Football had come home, but otherwise that distant past is another country.
We’ve spent the 14 years since that revolution tearing down more walls than Illich could have imagined at that time. Since we stepped into a new epoch probably on par with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, the acceleration of this trend is almost unbelievable.
It’s funny how the magnitude of events is reduced when you live through them: Facebook opening up to anybody was annoying, I scoffed at the iPhone, didn’t notice the cloud, and was blissfully unaware of Intel’s change in chip design. These are some of the events that marked our stepping into the digital age.
Hospitality requires a threshold over which I can lead you. For me to welcome you into my home and my life, I need to lead you from one space into another. It’s a paradoxical truth: to be welcomed there need to be walls.
We aren’t just talking physical thresholds, but we are talking about them too. When our communication devices stop us from communicating while we try to drink from the firehose of information blasted at our faces, and when our selves are plastered on every digital billboard we can find as we all drown in the ambient noise, then our ability to welcome you by opening a door to something you could not access is eroded at best.
When we all live in houses without walls, why would I put in the difficult, vulnerable work of entering your spaces to become your friend? It’s easier and quicker to watch from the pavement. Voyeurism has replaced relationship.
If you had come some months later, you would have found the bizarre drawbridge gone, and everything else gone too. Entering a dustbowl, another country from the outside, you would have found the same smiles, perhaps more forced, the eyes a little more tired, and a cup of tea thrust into your hand after some bother trying to find a serviceable drain and running water.
Still, you are welcomed, and you enter another world.
We find the same thing in the church, I think, if there are no walls then there can be no welcome. Why not? Because you can’t be welcomed to what you’re already in.
If our order will be renewed by the genuine growth of thick community, this will be a community where we open our homes and our lives to one another while maintaining our distinctions. Where in fact it’s our divisions that unite us, just like in the creation of the world (Genesis 1).
Our online lives make this increasingly difficult. Our desperate need for friendship seems diminished, but it’s our appetites that are drying up, not our needs.
We could find a solution in a sort of monasticism, and I think that it would be wise for some to do so. But for most of us, this is probably unwise and honestly unpalatable. People made similar complaints about books when the printing press was invented. But we must reckon with what we are losing, or we will have already lost.
Where we would start to remake friendships? With physical thresholds. They will help us maintain and welcome others over the metaphorical ones.
If you are rebuffed, if they aren’t willing to do the hard work required to grow friendships, or think that the easy familiarity of acquaintance is friendship, then I feel your pain. But keep going. Try again.
If your open door is never reciprocated, keep opening it anyway. You might just change the world. For if we build real communities, the kind that my nation hasn’t seen for generations, then we will renew our social and political order. We will take old battered wallpaper falling off and revealing nothing but the dust of postmodern vapour.
And we will build tables in the wreckage.
Today if you approached the same house you might find a frontage slowly turning from pink to white, a garage door replaced with a bright window, and the front door sage green and. Wait. That can’t be right. Round? A round front door?
You reach out to use the door knocker and smile as you think it looks strangely like a Hobbit’s door. You wouldn’t be the first to say so.
We live a couple of miles west of Hobbiton, where Tolkien grew up—and I, by the by, work under the eye of Sauron, but the lest said of that the better—perhaps in Waymoot or Tookbank. We’re odd looking Hobbits, especially me taller than most Men, but we won’t look down on the designation. There are much worse things to be called.
As you enter a bright, peaceful hallway with its white art deco staircase sweeping upstairs your eye is drawn to a riot of colour, a splash of mustard like an exploding sun frames a doorway and leads you through into a kitchen and beyond to a table with windows above and in front of you. The light streams in as you take a seat and are offered a cup of tea. It’s not your home, but you are home. You’ve crossed a threshold, perhaps all the way to Middle-Earth, but more likely simply into another home.
Where you, stranger, are welcomed. Where you, friend, are seen face to face. Where you, if you arrive at just the right time, might be offered second breakfast.
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