A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “philoxenia” and it has since shaped and directed the way my heart embraces my vocation as a wife and mother. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s a Greek word that is translated literally as “love of the stranger,” but encompasses a depth far beyond its literal meaning. Philoxenia is to welcome a guest, a stranger, into one’s home, or more appropriately, one’s life. It’s a deep sense of hospitality and of creating a loving friendship with guests that enter into your life. In the ancient Greek culture, philoxenia was the highest of virtues.
Philoxenia involves much more than having guests over for dinner, though. At the heart of this beautiful idea is welcoming children into your family and welcoming each child as the reflection of the God that he or she is. Our children are souls that have been entrusted to our care. We have been given the task of introducing the world and its Creator to them! How we go about doing so goes far beyond teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Philoxenia navigates us toward treating our children as the strangers to God’s creation that they are. They are not born knowing anything there is to know about the universe that God has formed, and, thus, it is our job to show them the beauty and love with which it was created for us, by a God who is even more beautiful and loving. Of course, not everything that we teach to our children is going to be a bucolic lesson; it’s just as important to teach the mundane and difficult subjects as it is to teach the exciting topics (perhaps even more so in order to teach the virtues of patience, perseverance, and diligence, but that’s another topic!). But everything we teach should reflect the goodness of our Creator and this can only be done through teaching with love.
And the greatest Truth we are called to teach our children? God and His love for us.
As parents, we are the tangible image of God to our children, and that should shape how we act toward and around these little souls. We, naturally, want them to have a firm grasp that God is a Father of unconditional love and mercy, should we only invite Him into our lives. The best way of instilling that in our children? Treating them as though we are loving parents filled with unconditional love and mercy! They are still building up their imaginations and as every experienced teacher knows, in order for children to fully grasp and understand an intangible idea, they need something they can see and touch. That’s us, fellow parents! We are the idea of God that they can literally grasp. This is why, no matter what schooling choice a family has made, parents remain - always - the primary educators of their children.
I think it is important, also, to remember that each child is an individual soul created uniquely and purposefully and to integrate that truth in how we parent and teach. In the same way our Creator has imbued within us particular talents and gifts, He has given each person ways to see the world. Though there is one Truth, there are many ways of presenting it! Seeing each child as an individual guest in our world is simply another way of remembering to teach always with God’s love.
Welcoming the Stranger on God’s Behalf
It feels very simple to say, “you represent God to your children, so do it well.” It’s easy to forget this great Truth in the midst of changing diapers, cooking dinner, and trying to teach grammar, along with the other thirty items on the daily to-do list. As such, it’s just as easy to stumble in our task of teaching our children of God and His love by giving into the temptation to be less than loving. I’m guilty of losing my temper, of yelling, of audibly sighing and rolling my eyes, of mentally and emotionally checking-out on my phone when I should be focused on my family. This is where philoxenia has helped me immensely. It has shaped me from a selfish mess into a mother called to welcome these children into God’s great creation and inviting them to partake in it’s goodness….who is only a selfish mess on occasion.
It’s helpful for me to have practical ways in which I can know that I’m integrating love into all I do as a parent and educator. St. Benedict in his Rule provided this for me. He teaches his order to welcome every guest as one would welcome Christ. So instead of having a “top ten ways to make sure you’re showing your kids love” list taped on my mirror, I simply have to ask myself, “would I treat Christ like this?” Would I dismiss Christ asking me for help on His Latin homework because I’m busy reading something on my phone? Would I yell at Christ because I’m annoyed that He left his legos out again? The answer to my behavior is usually, “um, no I would not treat Christ like this. And sounds like it's time to get to Confession, lady.” This isn’t to say that we give into our children’s poor behavior or allow bad habits to form, of course. Love, as we all know, is willing the good of another, and so often, that means “tough loving” our kids. But this is not to be confused with allowing our emotions and frustrations to guide our behavior.
Ways I’ve Learned to Practice Philoxenia
Practically, I’m best able to act lovingly when I do the following:
maintain order in my home and my life
speak quietly and kindly
maintain joy and gratitude
honestly and charitably communicate with my husband when I need help
apologize to the child I’ve been impatient with and pray a Hail Mary with and for her
take intentional moments in the day to hug and cuddle my children
Spiritually, I am at my best when I make sure to:
take a few moments to begin my day with a morning offering and basic prayers
stay close to the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist
pray the daily Rosary with my family
keep the devotions of the scapular, Miraculous Medal, and Benedictine medal
Establishing love to be the foundation on which our vocation as parents is built, the fundamental guiding post by which we make all decisions and teach all lessons is putting into practice philoxenia, welcoming the “stranger” that God has sent into your life and inviting him or her to share with you in the goodness and beauty of Our loving Father and all His Creation has to offer. It allows us to recognize that our home, our time, our talents, that it all belongs to God. It is only ours to share with others, particularly the children entrusted to our care.
Contributing writer and parent, Melanie Behnke