How do you please a guest? The Martha in me, and no doubt many of us, usually goes immediately to the tangible, what I know from experience tends to please most guests, and now this one or these ones in particular. Favorite foods, drinks, music, etc.  

So comfort first. Neatness and cleanliness, but a natural ease when the bell rings, so the guests do not actually have to feel or even glimpse all the chores and preparations that went on in the wee hours, or even days, before the guest’s arrival. Time to set a tone of relaxation, at least for a few minutes, before tending to things waiting for attention, without taking too much attention off the guest. That’s at least a good start.

This is always the challenge and the dilemma: how to tend to the guest without neglecting attention to the things needed so that the guest can be tended to. Housekeeping, food and drink are essentials for hospitality, for “ministering” to any guest: how to pull these chores off so that they themselves do not take precedence over the guest. The old Martha/Mary dance. 

I recall, years ago, a New York food critic complaining that the food, service and ambience of a certain restaurant — the subject of the review — seemed to be so perfect, so studied, so conscientiously (and proudly) arranged that everything screamed out: notice what we’ve done! It was, he wrote, as if one were at a religious ceremony and the restaurant were a temple, the food and service the object of veneration. The diners were there to worship — and, pay, of course. Humorously, the critic mused, a certain urge to spill something emerged, to find a fork out of place or a slightly wilted flower or leaf of lettuce. Anything to get the host’s attention — or was there even a person behind all this? Some reminder — any hint — that there were human beings around.

As I read Sunday articles about more robots likely to be in our future, including our kitchens, who will prepare our meals so much better and more efficiently than even today’s best chefs — even better pot roast than mom’s? — one wonders where this will all lead.

We all know, I think, that it is not the chicken soup itself that made us feel incrementally better at each sip when we were sick as children. Whether or not we were blessed with a Jewish mother or grandmother who made the matzo balls from scratch (and didn’t they always taste like there was something more in them than just egg and cracker meal?), we always knew that the “Jewish penicillin” was more than the chicken soup. It was always about the love, the TLC.

What cuts through the rituals of managed care, and hosting guests and patients who need tending to, is the love that informs and somehow speaks through all of the preparatory details. Pulling this off is no easy task and something the restaurant reviewer above felt was decidedly missing from that too-perfect restaurant experience. If the compulsive drive to “do everything right” deprives the one served of the personal presence of the host, what is the point of the visit anyway? 

All sorts of analogies and comparisons may come to mind when we relate these anecdotes to our personal experience, even in our church communities. Many of us can recall a time when we went to Mass someplace while traveling or on vacation. Some of these chance encounters were quite routine. Nothing special. Others stand out in our minds as ­exceptional. 

I will never forget the two-hour Sunday morning Mass on some Caribbean island several decades ago — not the one the tourists attend on Saturday evenings. It was in a packed church, with no AC, teeming and steaming with joyful local families and a loquacious pastor that so seemed to enjoy his congregation that no one seemed to mind the time he took to express it. The message could not have been clearer: we are all happy to be here with one another, even if the environment is, well, not different from economy class these days on a cheap airline, not counting the mosquitoes. 

The Martha and Mary in all of us are not either/ors but both/ands. We need to put our minds and our hearts into all that we do, if we really want our soul to shine through in all we say and do. Everyone knows that the “best” doctor — in the sense of most schooled and skilled — is not always the one who motivates the best recovery. Often it is the attendant, the nurse or orderly — the one with the good bedside manner — who elicits the smile and the confidence that the “institutionalized,” the intubated, well-medicated patient, is really a person after all. 

So also in our homes and with our church families. You can feel the love where you just know you are welcome. Not because of how you look, what you bring, where you come from. Just because you are there, and noticed and loved, just for showing up. That indefinable but real sense of “welcome” that everyone longs for — even if, at times, it must be extended by the respect of being left in peace and not over-managed — that “je ne sais quoi,” as the French say, the missing ingredient, is love.

The most “perfect” homesteads and the most consumer-friendly church environments, do not always turn out the happiest inmates, imprisoned as they may be by impersonal rituals. It is the unmistakable sense that people come first — every person at the table — that speaks volumes and sings hymns of praise to the “Lord who calls us each by name,” the welcome that must be heard in the heart and can warm it, even melt it to the core.