To continue the work of hospitality

Leen Bollen

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

To continue the work of hospitality

Leen Bollen

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

Who am I: Leen Bollen, married to Erik. We have been living with our family in Hof Zevenbergen for 15 years. We had the opportunity to live and work with the sisters of the Convent of Bethlehem.

I tell my personal story here, from my perspective,

We are experiencing radical changes in Hof Zevenbergen. … We are in a transitional phase: we are evolving from an initiative started by a congregation, to a house supported by lay believers (rather: religiously moved people ). We have been preparing for that for a long time; not easy.

An image

I want to sketch what Hof Zevenbergen is on the basis of an image:

On the domain of Hof Zevenbergen lies a small plot of forest, which we call Bovenhof. On one side of the forest you walk close to the street and a residential area – you are not far from ordinary life. On the other hand, you walk next to the adjacent nature reserve and the pond, and you seem to be completely away from the world. It is quiet, there are beautiful old trees, and there are also young new trees to be found, trees of all sizes and types. There are of course weeds, such as thistles, there are dead branches and a huge fallen beech.

Die Bovenhof is a symbol for what Hof Zevenbergen wants to be: a place close to the world, where people can catch their breath and find inspiration – they can be there in very different ways. And we, as a support group, the community that lives and works in Hof Zevenbergen, we can enjoy that forest, maintain it and even redevelop it.

As in the Bovenhof there are valuable old trees ( veteran trees ) that have been around for centuries, so we can build on the work and spirituality of our predecessors: we don’t have to invent everything, we can follow in the footsteps of the sisters. Their charisma, the spirituality of the Incarnation, has gradually become very dear to us: we have been able to discover this and make it our own. By working together for many years, we have breathed the spirit of the house: we have seen and experienced how hospitality takes shape.

But just as a forest must be maintained and renewed in time, new plantings must be created, new roads must be constructed. Space must be made for that, you must dare to try something, be allowed to fail, stumble and get up again.

In recent years, a new group has formed in Hof Zevenbergen, like a graft on the work of the sisters: the new operation grafts itself on a rootstock of the Congregation. Their inspiration is like a sap flow that flows along that old (original) rootstock and makes a new tree grow.

That may be a somewhat romantic image, the reality is sometimes difficult and stormy.

What is it specific to our way of living and working?

In Hof Zevenbergen, the 'work', the 'hospitable house' is very central

That has always been the case: the sisters have come to Hof Zevenbergen to expand the reflection house, as a mission. If it hadn’t been for that mission, they might not have stayed.

That is also the case today: we form a community with the intention of building a hospitable house for tranquillity and deepening, to be present for the many groups and individuals who come there. That is the reason for the community’s existence. Without the house, there would be no community.

In my experience, that is different from, for example, an abbey, which could just as well exist without a guest house.

We do this from the spirituality of the incarnation

In this way we give form to hospitality (guest-freedom) in a certain way.

The Dutch word ‘gastvrijheid’(hospitality) itself also contains the word ‘vrijheid’ (freedom). That is very important in Hof Zevenbergen. We want to be an ‘open house’: every person, every group can come for a reason that we do not even need to know completely, everyone can do ‘his own thing’ (within certain agreements of course) and again in complete freedom leave. People are free to take advantage of, for example, prayer times or our own program, but there is no obligation.

We try to receive them as best we can, to carry them along in prayer, and to be available if they have questions or want to say something. At the same time, we always keep a certain distance, for example we will not eat together at the table with the guests, and ask few questions about who they are and what they are doing. Sometimes there is no or almost no contact. Yet many say that they experience a form of ‘being carried’ in Hof Zevenbergen.

The same openness is also expressed in our own program, which is certainly explicitly Christian inspired, but also pays attention to broad social and human themes – aimed at the whole person in his environment – we work here from an integral Christian humanism.

We also want to make room for the most vulnerable people, especially in a separate house ‘de Linde’ where people can stay for a longer period of time. We offer them a place to rest but without interfering much. This within the limits of our possibilities (eg we cannot offer psychological counselling or services). Nevertheless, every person is welcome.

What is then that community of Hof Zevenbergen? We are not quite sure whether to call this a community, or a support group, or something else

It is important to know that our community is currently not strictly defined: we are 7 people, some live on the domain, others in the neighbourhood. It concerns religiously engaged people who in one way or another are touched by the inspiration and who want to contribute to that hospitable home.

Around this core there are a number of circles of people who are involved in the whole or part of the operation: they also contribute and are connected with us, for example as a loyal participant, volunteer, supporter.

I try to formulate some difficulties and opportunities, again from my point of view:


  • We are a group on the move, and right now the demarcation of the community is not so clear: who actually belongs and for how long? Is it necessary to make a long-term life choice or is a temporary commitment possible? How can someone grow into the community? We currently have too little guidance there.
  • To build a clear policy structure around this unique whole complex is difficult: pure management tasks lie with the non-profit organization (foundation), but it is difficult to clearly delineate who has control over the community, and how communication should run between all those involved.
  • Because hospitality is so important, we are very focused on the others: this means that our engagement is very central; That is great, but the capacity of each person differs in this – respecting each other, granting each other sufficient freedom, but also being allowed to rely on the other for commitment: it does not always work.
  • Time is often lacking to pause: the house and its guests swallow us up, there are many concrete tasks that are urgent and therefore easily given priority. (10,000 guests). We find it difficult to make time for each other and to talk about what occupies and inspires us.
  • Partly because of that pressure, it is necessary to nurture and maintain our own spirituality: taking care of communal prayer moments is important, in addition, everyone also has a personal path to follow.

I am convinced that living and working together in Hof Zevenbergen today offers Opportunities

  • It is a modern form of religiously motivated life, appropriate to this time
    • There is a possibility of big Openness, of a diversity in engagement: the one full-time, the other next to their own job – one more practical, the other more content-oriented or spiritual, each can make its own contribution
    • Temporality : it does not have to be a definitive choice of life, perhaps this is a form that suits our modern way of life, you can consciously enter into a temporary commitment and later choose another path: that does not have to be seen as a failure.
    • Connection with the environment : we are not separate from the world, but in the middle of it – the openness to all types of groups also allows the world to enter the home: and we also maintain good contacts with the neighbourhood, the parish, the municipality
  • The image of  a beguinage is a challenging model for us: a form of living and finding a home where there is room for everyone’s individuality, from a common religious undercurrent (sap flow). It suits us.
  • (Another chance I think that) because of this openness, we call it an integral Christian humanism, we do not or not only focus on the ‘holy remnant’ of committed Christians, but on a broad group of people today who yearn for meaning in different ways, and who carefully come to ‘sniff’ at them – we do not want to ‘catch’ them, we do not want to convince them, but are open to everyone’s path to more incarnation as such.
  • I am convinced that many today are looking for such a sense of purpose.

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About the author

Leen Bollen

Leen Bollen, married to Erik, together we have 3 children (between 21-27 years old), we have lived with our family in Hof Zevenbergen for 15 years, and I have been director of the reflection house for almost 12 years now. All this time we had the opportunity to live and work with the sisters of the Convent of Bethlehem.