Last week began with the Feast of the Visitation, a celebration of the hospitality of welcome that Our Lady received from her cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, which extended for a period of three months. The alternative festive reading comes from St. Paul writing to the Christian community in Rome (Romans 12:9-16). It is incredibly sensitive and offers a further insight into the author’s very practical understanding of God’s love for humankind being generously responded to in an all-round concern and care for their neighbours. In the midst of it is the call for the followers of Christ to “make hospitality [their] special care.” It forges an easy link between the mention made last week to the term “guests” used to describe the Belgians resident in the Spen Valley during the Great War and a considerable number of comments, from near and far, in regard to this widely untapped seam of both local and national history. There was unanimous agreement that the word “guests” was far more appropriate than others that may have been given, offering as it does an image of openness, acceptance, practical assistance and welcome. It is estimated that between 225,000 – 265,000 Belgian civilians sought sanctuary in Britain in what was the largest ever influx of people on to our shores in just a few short weeks. These figures do not include a further 150,000 Belgian soldiers who took leave in the country during the war, or the 25,000 wounded men who convalesced here. The vagueness of figures is due in part to the incomplete, scant and random records that were initially kept as the first arrivals were already settled into havens of safety. Welcome was given precedence over detailed statistics. More locally it was reported that by the end of 1915 there were no less than 1571 “guests” in the city of Leeds alone.
Throughout Britain local committees were formed to help with the practical assistance needed by “guests” who arrived with few possessions, and not necessarily even a shared tongue with their hosts. Thankfully the language of welcome is almost universally understood regardless of verbal communication. Arriving at railway stations in both Leeds and Wakefield Belgians who fled their homes and country were assigned to local towns where properties were made ready to house them and structures of practical measures put in place to make sure that they felt safe and secure.
Alongside meeting their immediate needs in terms of housing, healthcare and finances, provision was made for the education of children and attempts to meet the spiritual needs of these “guests,” with places being found for children in local schools and clergy willing to share their altars and pulpits with Belgian priests who, like their flocks, found themselves displaced. The scenario of the loan of an unused chapel, as was the case in Cleckheaton, primarily for the use of the town’s “guests” was somewhat unusual, far more commonplace was for Belgians to join fellow Catholics at Mass in a local church. Although, in a report sent to the exiled auxiliary Bishop of Mechelen (Antoine Alponses Wachter 1855 – 1932) from Fr. Norbertus Van Haesendonck (1871 – 1934) who ministered in Dewsbury (1914 – 1916), it appears that a number of Belgians were not overly eager to make the journey to a church that was not on their doorstep ! Likewise, his writings acknowledge issues over education and sacramental preparation, as many of the children, despite being Catholic, were found places in non-Catholic schools. Contemporary newspapers mention some resentment towards the younger male “guests” not least because, unlike increasingly numbers of their indigenous peers, they were not at the Front. On the whole any hiccups in settlement or hostility in attitude, word or deed, were far outweighed by the generosity of the response made by the citizens of one nation to those of another. Cleckheaton New Cemetery contains three graves witnessing losses suffered by the town’s “guests” during their stay. Two of the three uniform headstones, which each give personal details and probably represent the gift of a local stonemason, bear the additional inscription: “Exiled from Belgium during the Great War and was an honoured guest of Cleckheaton.” The third is that of a child, aged just eleven weeks, who was born at Highfield House, Cleckheaton, on 27th March 1916, baptised at the town’s Anglo-Belgian Chapel on 1st April, and whilst presumably British by birth, her headstone notes that her parents were natives of Antwerp.
There are many references made to hospitality in Sacred Scripture, virtually all positive experiences for those sheltered, welcomed, protected and fed by others. There are some massively obvious moments such as the feeding of the five thousand, the Passover meal at which the Eucharist was instituted, and the gift of manna and quails to the people of God tramping through the wilderness. Others are more subtle such as the feast given by Abraham and Sarah beneath the Oak of Mamre to the three guests addressed in the singular person (Genesis 18ff); Elijah being fed by ravens and who begged from the widow at Zarephath the last of her bread and oil (1 Kings 17:6ff); Boaz’s order to his work-people that they should be generous with the gleanings discarded on his land for Ruth to collect (Ruth 2:15ff). Concern for the well-being of the stranger, together with care for the orphan and widow, is emphasized in both first and second testaments, not least because the people of God had known what it was like to be the stranger, hence theirs was empathetic hospitality, where a gracious welcome and table-fellowship came before questions about name, origin, reason for journeying or anything else.
Hospitality is not always about food, not even in the Bible. God’s care for the sulky and indignant prophet Jonah included His call for a castor-oil plant to sprout, giving “shade for his head and soothe his ill-humour” (Jonah 4:6ff), and a very hungry caterpillar which served as an alarm clock the next day by eating the entire God-provided vegetation ! This forms a bridge with a story of my own in regard to the hospitality that I found myself offering a couple of years ago to a kaleidoscope of Painted Ladies. Which, before anyone begins looking up the phone number for Bishop’s House, are a species of butterfly, as the collective – one of several – hints at ! Although not uncommon in any year, there was a noted national influx of them at the time, and having migrated from northern Africa it seemed as though half of their number had taken up rent-free residence in Cleckheaton. They were most welcome, and clearly enjoyed the various blossoming shrub species in the garden, not least a Buddleia situated by the living room window, which gave me a truly wonderful view, from the inside, of these flying beauties during their gathering of food and whilst gently resting between flights. The object of their attention was truly living up to one of its nicknames, “Butterfly Bush.” That said Buddleias are not altogether the flavour of the month currently, classified as an invasive species they are the bane of Network Rail often growing in random and obscure places interfering with overhead power lines and blocking signals, and are blamed for the destruction of some natural sites of special scientific interest. In light of this, I feel somewhat guilty about the fact that I planted a second Buddleia last autumn in the hope of offering hospitality to both visiting butterflies and bees. The fact that I have not gone out and bought a new plant, something that people are increasingly doing at garden centres, but rather moved it from elsewhere may somewhat placate my action. Seeing what was little more than a twig with a few leaves on it throughout the autumn and winter, begin to sprout new greenery and look hugely more healthy than it did on arrival, has given me great personal satisfaction that I can cultivate more than the orchids for which I am known to have an affinity. All I need now are the Painted Ladies to turn up on the doorstep once more ! So far all I have seen taking up residence on it are a few Ladybirds.
In regard to hospitality we can ponder a question, almost biblical in expression: which is the greater, the offering of hospitality or the reception of it ? On the Feast of the Visitation we venerate Our Blessed Lady who was in fact the journeyer, and the beneficiary of hospitality. Those whose door she found open on her arrival, Elizabeth and Zechariah, almost appear to be secondary characters in the story recalled uniquely by St. Luke. In reality it takes effort and courage to search out a door to knock upon, uncertain of the reception we shall receive. Generosity and kindness are needed to make a guest feel at home and safe. In her greeting to Our Lady, the woman of the Hill Country, Elizabeth, removed the confusion felt by the younger woman as a result of her initial, enthusiastic and naïve response to Gabriel’s invitation to be the mother of God’s Son: “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb !” Only with the fog of doubt and uncertainty lifted can Our Lady utter her prayer of praise, the Magnificat. In return Mary brought her youthful enthusiasm into the home of her older relatives, not to mention the gift of conversation and laughter into an environment where one of the residents, through incredulity, had be struck dumb by God.
Whatever shape or form the hospitality that we offer to others may it be a source of blessing to both the giver and recipient. Renowned for her hospitality, the following words are attributed to the fifth-century Irish saint, Bridget:
“I should like a great lake of finest ale, for the King of Kings;
I should like a table of the choicest food, for the family of heaven.
Let the table be made from the fruits of faith, and the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
and the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor, God bless the sick, and God bless our human race.
God bless our food, God bless our drink, all homes, O God, embrace.”
Let us continue to be united as a community of faith in both prayer and affection, offering to others generous hospitality when they seek it, and finding an open door in our own times of need.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas