In addition to writing and spiritual direction, I work as a hospice chaplain. Entering a stranger’s home is an anxious experience, but most of my visits present no surprises. The most disturbing occasions have come when I enter the home of a compulsive hoarder. On the outside the house looks ordinary, even beautiful, but the inside is teeming with decade-old piles of papers, boxes, clothes, old exercise equipment, kitschy collections, and what can only be described as junk. The person answering the door cracks it open a few inches, because he literally can’t open it any farther.  I follow him through the channels that cut through the hallway, careful to put one foot directly in front of the other, weaving my way on a perilous journey to the patient’s room. When it’s bad enough, we have to declare a fire hazard and remove the patient from their home.

Over the years, as a pastor, chaplain, and spiritual director, I have built an impressive listening façade, yet I have a suspicion that my inner life is cluttered and crowded, with little space to truly host others. You would never know it by appearances. I have a shiny listening welcome mat.  I can follow all the rules for active listening: the eye contact, the responsive sounds, the paraphrasing, the occasional empathic interjections. But my mind can be so far off. I so easily hoard the contents of my inner world. I so easily become Martha, washing and stacking my serving dishes in neat rows while Jesus is in the other room, waiting for me to welcome him into my interior space.  

True hospitality begins on the inside, which is exactly where we introverts confront how we, too, “are distracted by many things.” Our distractions are not so easily seen on our quiet exteriors, yet we may be more preoccupied than Martha. Admittedly, our internal worlds give birth to some of our greatest gifts, like insight, creativity, and spiritual depth. Neurological studies have demonstrated that the brains of introverts have more blood flow and more natural activities than extroverted brains, and thus we need less outward stimulation. We have busy brains, or as my pastor friend says, “It’s never quiet in my head!” While our extroverted friends have consistently been pigeonholed as Martha-types, we quieter introverts may truly be the ones with "Martha minds."

Despite the great (and often underappreciated) gifts that introversion brings, our inner worlds can bend in on themselves and close us to others. You would never be able to tell from my quiet countenance that I have a loud, constant cacophony of voices in my head. I have even named the personalities who talk in there. There is the Professor, who shares whimsical insights; the Preacher, who waxes eloquent; the Comedian, who makes witty rejoinders; the Parent, who scolds me more than I would like; and the Boxer, who wants to fight all of them. Henri Nouwen was on track when he said that our inner lives are like banana trees filled with monkeys jumping and down.

My inner conversation is a compelling and terrifying thing. It’s a world I relish, yet it can become so loud as to drown out the voices of the people and the needs right in front of me. For we introverts then, and probably a fair number of extroverts, truly welcoming people will involve clearing space in our heads so that there is room for others. We need to learn how to turn down the internal volume and discern which voices needed to be silenced. In doing so, our gifts for hospitality (holy listening) will begin to prevail over our perceived weaknesses (our need for privacy). Then we will be on our way to offering the same sort of sanctuary to others that our homes provide for us.

Adam S. McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2009). He is a Presbyterian pastor, spiritual director, and hospice chaplain. He is writing a second book for IVP called The Listening Life. He lives in Claremont, California.

Publication date: June 5, 2012