In the book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom invites guests to her table. “She has slaughtered her meat, she has mixed her wine, she has also furnished her table.” And now, “Come,” she says, “Eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding.”
There is now, taking place in the land, a happy renaissance of classical education. In that milieu, whether in homeschools, private schools, or charter schools, where education is about pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful, the teacher leads students, following Lady Wisdom, in the search of wisdom, dwelling with prudence, of the finding out of knowledge and discretion (Proverbs 8:12). In the mold of Lady Wisdom herself, a good teacher is not unlike a good host at the table. He welcomes those who come to a table of stories, ideas, and convictions with warmth and generosity, sharing a rich feast with them of both food and community.
The good host serves his guests sumptuous food and wine, but not only that; he also carries on genuine conversation with them. He listens well, taking interest in each person and in the good of each person. But he also speaks with them. There the good host is generous in another sense: the sharing of his own self. It requires an opening up on the host’s part, an offering of himself, letting the guests see and know who he is.
There is no requirement at the table that the guests be in unison of opinion with the host on all that they discuss, though a masterly host would seek an authentic conversation, not papering over differences but conversing in pursuit of the true—and all done over the enjoyment of delicious foods. In the course of their conversation, an elegant host does not seek to embarrass his guests for any ignorance on their part or for any disagreement that they might have, although that does not mean that the host change who he is, bending over backwards for the guests, or even that he should keep his own views concealed or keep them from being persuasive. But a gracious host sees to it that his guests would have a place at the table. The thoughtful host would, further, be attentive to anticipate the guests’ needs and care for them accordingly. His guests leave the table filled and warmed by the feast and the friendship, the home and the hearth.
If the rich feast at the table is the best that has been thought and said, the teacher as the good host leads the way for students to partake of and savor worthy books. He shares with them the wealth of wisdom and knowledge, beauty and wonder, of which he himself has been a recipient. He invites students to join in the great conversation, helping them to appropriate for themselves the wisdom from what they read and learn, each becoming more completely and freely himself and herself along the way.
Here the host is certainly one of those participating at the table, but he is not merely a participant. He is by nature the leader of the party, seated at the head of the table. The teacher should by all means seek to form the students, all the while gracious and gentle and making generous room for them—indeed, inviting them—to ask questions; articulate their intuitions, thoughts, and reasons; voice doubts and disagreements; feel their way into the deeper things; pause and ponder and wonder; know and be known. Here, the conversation and friendship they forge “at the table,” the opening up of themselves, both teacher and students alike, is made immeasurably better with a teacher who is virtuous, one whose life might serve to be an embodied model for the students, and who is generous enough to share it with them that they might have a glimpse of a coherent life, sorely needed for their own imagination as they grow up.
Teaching as hospitality is not the only way of thinking of teaching, but hopefully one helpful way. As is the way with all analogy, hospitality only goes so far with teaching. A case in point is the need for discipline from the teacher, for which an analog in hospitality may be strained. But even there, in the way and the reason that the teacher does take up the rod, a gentle spirit congruent with hospitableness should govern: not using the rod for the sake of taking vengeance but for the sake of correction toward the good.
As to the rest of the picture, it is no secret that our students are impoverished, even parched, for meaning, beauty, and transcendence. The deserts need irrigating for even the basic fares of knowledge these days—let alone morality, imagination, vision. G. K. Chesterton said that the morally homeless endure a sort of privation that’s nonetheless real. “As we should be genuinely sorry for tramps and paupers who are materially homeless,” Chesterton said, “so we should be sorry for those who are morally homeless, and who suffer a philosophical starvation as deadly as physical starvation.”
That intellectual hospitality should lead many to the truth of which the psalmist speaks would be most welcome. “They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of Thy house, and Thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river,” the psalmist sings. And of course: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
For the table of the true and the good and the beautiful points to the ultimate things. Benedictine monks share their tables and lives, knowing this. The Franciscan padres built and opened the doors of the Missions up and down the California coast much in the same way. Hospitality is about charity, after all. Thus, in an exquisite telling, the Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, speaks of sitting down and breaking bread with the Host.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
O taste and see that the Lord is good! Those who partake of that goodness in the roles of both guest of the Lord and host to others are twice blessed.