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Give us this day our daily beauty

Around the world, creativity is the first ingredient of hospitality.

It is early. A woman steps out of her front door, hitches up her skirt. In her hand is rice powder. It’s not yet sunrise. She has already swept and dampened the ground. Now she bends, dots the earth, and draws outward a design that is both geometric and freeform. It is kolam, a traditional Tamil floor art. Already people are beginning to stir on the street. Shoes and bike tires will rub out the design; the rain and wind will wipe away whatever remains. Tomorrow she will start the day again with kolam, welcoming any who come to the door: ants, a bird, a human.

(Watch the intricate process of kolam making. Video from alamelu kolam and kitchen)

Ephemeral hospitality

When I first learned about kolam, it fascinated me that women took the time daily to create this gesture of harmony that would soon be worn away. In my first year Communications classes at university, a premise was laid that entropy is a constant in every area of life and the only response is constant creativity. I thought of entropy, I thought of hospitality, and I thought of the smell of early mornings in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that liminal time, as the mist of the rainforest lifts, your throat catches with the sting of charcoal fires being lit and the dust of a chorus of women sweeping the packed dirt before their houses. Each woman sweeps with a signature mark, a consistent and bold pattern. They, too, lay a tenuous hospitality about to be eroded.

In Asir, Saudi Arabia, women share an ancient art form called Al-Qatt Al-Asiri, a gathering of intergenerational women to decorate the interior walls of a home. The most important room to adorn is the guest room. The designs are bright, geometric, abstract, spontaneous.

I don’t think it’s by accident that when everything fell into confusion and uncertainty in early 2020, Canadians across the country picked up chalk and paint and stickers and coloured in their own bits of hospitality onto window corners, sidewalks, even the middle of the road.

Al Qatt Al Asiri, an ancient art form in Saudi Arabia. Photo Credit: UNESCO.

Rice on the road

Advent is a cultivation of welcome; Christmas is a season of generosity. Mary gave the ultimate act of human hospitality.

In the Northeastern corner of Congo where I lived as a teenager, the last single rain before dry season falls the week of Christmas. On Christmas Eve we gathered to pound dark cassava leaves into mpondu at night, squeezing together onto benches the next morning below a rickety shelter of bamboo, palm fronds, and tarps. We girls served the meal, thickly greased in palm oil, waiting ourselves until late in the day to eat; Ma’ Cecile threw the remaining rice onto the road – thick white clumps dashed against the red dirt – so that passerbys would see and know that we had feasted. On this night, there was more than enough.

When it comes to theology, we speak of one-time events: creation, fall, redemption, the incarnation, salvation. Look to the theology we live, what we know in our bones, and another truth emerges: those “events” are a daily, continual reality we participate in. Creativity – creation – is continual, both God’s and our own. We rebuild a world together, and we do it daily.

The tenacity of spiders

Theologian Fr. John Behr makes the case that in translating a kaleidoscope of Greek verbs into the one word “create,” our New Testament is impoverished and our language with it. Where language lacks, imagination suffers.

Like creation, we speak of the incarnation as a moment of time, when God came to Mary. And wonderful as that story is, the wonder is that the moment lives on in us.

God is not far off. God mends a broken world like my Beppe darns woollen socks – which is to say, with skill and wisdom, knowing it is a task that will be done again, and again, and again. God tends to his kingdom like a woman watching over her sourdough – catching wild yeasts and daily caring for their growth, mixing and kneading, setting aside and bringing together. He works with his hands deep in yeasted stickiness. God watches the road with the persistence of a father, waits in soil with the vulnerability of a seed, washes feet with the humility of a servant. His work is daily.

During the pandemic, a time of uncertainty, many of us decorated our homes with rainbows.

Maybe the ephemeral nature of things has frayed your nerves in the last year of pandemic. We live in a world that wears down beauty every day. Maybe the force of entropy feels unstoppable. And yet our invitation is to the tenacity of spiders and exiles and a prodigal God. As the sun rises each morning, fresh with dew and manna and mercy, we are invited to rebuild our world again.

Maybe it’s been a year of slippage for you, but remember: God’s hospitality is here in our hands, beautiful and intricate, a hospitality of rice flour and swept yards, of rainbows pasted onto window panes and roasted animals, of dry season rain and fresh-baked bread, and it is daily.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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