I have been the stranger at the door, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. I was walking across Spain at the time, on the pilgrim route, the Camino of Santiago, and on this particular day, I had reached a church hostel. Just. Reached. A hostel.
The door was open. I called out to the hospitaleros – the hostel-keepers, the hosts. They told me later that I went as white as a ghost and collapsed. What happened next was simply biblical. They gave me water to drink. One of the hospitaleros knelt down in front of me. She undid my laces and took off my boots. She peeled off my socks. And she washed my feet. And I cried at the tender intimacy of this hospitality, sacred hospitality, offered to a stranger.
I was ill as well as exhausted, and they looked after me in the oldest tradition of hospitality – a hedge hospital along the pilgrim path. One of the earliest European examples of the hospital tradition was the Knights Hospitallers, whose lodges cared for those on pilgrimage or crusade to the Holy Lands. But informally, of course, healing has always been part of hosting.
Hospitality today usually means the private hospitality offered to invited guests, or the commercial practice of the so-called hospitality industry. It’s easier to practise hospitality to the invited than to the uninvited stranger, but I have seen, in England, a gross example of inhospitality. A couple had invited their daughter and her partner as guests to their house. It was deep midwinter. The guest was in his sixties and was recovering (just) from near-fatal pneumonia. He was ill, fragile, in need of care. The hosts were wealthy, and owned several houses. They gave the guest a “bed” room with no bed, just a narrow bench-seat and few blankets. Outside it was below freezing. The room was entirely unheated. Knowing the guest was vegetarian, they cooked meat and gave him boiled cabbage and boiled potato. They asked the guest to take his shoes off in the house but offered no slippers and his feet, purple and white, were blocks of ice. A dog would have been given better hospitality.
It shocked me personally: the hosts did not dislike their guest, they simply paid no attention to his manifest needs for food and warmth and comfort. It shocked me impersonally too – a universal and ancient code of hospitality had been badly broken.
Stories of sacred hospitality and stories of inhospitality seem to be part of all lives, all cultures. In Scotland, killing someone was homicide, but a host killing their guest – someone staying under trust – was so much more offensive that it was considered treason, in the concept of ‘murder under trust’ in Scottish law from 1587. Macbeth says of Duncan, his king and his guest: ‘He’s here in double trust: First as I am his kinsman and his subject… then as his host, who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.’ I saw a fabulous production of Macbeth in New York recently, set in a huge disused hotel. The audience were referred to as ‘guests’ throughout, and as each of us wandered alone around the sinister hotel, we experienced the essential vulnerability of all guests, this vulnerability which demands a protective code.
The law of sacred hospitality governs the guest as well as the host, and the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 broke this code when the Campbells, coming as guests, were given ten days hospitality by the MacDonald’s. The Campbells slaughtered their hosts, and have never been forgiven. I heard of an extraordinary breach of guestpitality recently, when friends living in mid-Wales told me they had heard a knock at the door one evening, and had opened it to find a stranger there, who was walking from Liverpool down to the coast at Cardigan Bay. He needed food, he said, and a bed for the night. For free. They are kind people, and provided both, but were very disconcerted when the man criticised their food, and tried to pick a quarrel with them over the way they did their washing-up. Later, they heard that further on his journey, the man had stayed with an old couple and accused them of giving him watered-down milk, presumably semi-skimmed. So offensive was he as a guest that in the end he’d successfully picked a fight with one of his hosts, and was jailed for GBH.
Native American legends disdain hosts who are stingy; the mean and tight-fisted get their comeuppance in the coin of mockery. The stories also illustrate the rewards of warm and generous hosting. There is a beautiful Passamaquoddy story about a girl who lives with her brothers and looks after the household while the brothers go out hunting. One day a Chenoo arrives – a cruel, brutal, giant cannibal from the far north, with a heart of ice. She welcomes him and offers food and rest. Her kindness and her hospitality melts his frozen heart: she turns an ice monster human.
Many Native Americans have had reason to rue the fact that they had a tradition of sacred hospitality rather than a draconian immigration policy. ‘Welcome’ was the first word British settlers heard – in English – on March 17th, 1621, when, by a quirk of fate, one of the first Native Americans they met had been to Britain and spoke a little English. ‘Welcome… have you got any beer?’ is the fuller version of Samoset’s dialogue.
Traces of the tradition are visible everywhere – in British folklore people would leave a cake and a cup of wine for the fairies, as still today people leave a mince pie for Santa, and the idea still lingers of laying an extra place at the table for the uninvited guest. In old Gaelic tradition, the house door was unlocked and there would be food on the table for a passerby because Christ may walk in the guise of a stranger. In Germany, there was an old custom, still being practised in the 1930s whereby wandering students, pilgrims and poor travellers were given supper, beer and a bed for the night while in the morning they could have bread and coffee to set them off on their way; all on the parish, at Patrick Leigh Fermor tells us.
Ancient Indian texts demanded five daily sacrifices, honouring the World Spirit, the ancestors, the gods, all living things, and humankind. Honouring humanity happened through hospitality. In China, in the third millennium BC, one of the eight objects of government was ‘the entertainment of guests’, presumably not quite the policy UKIP might support.
When I was in Mongolia some years back, I struggled with one custom. The trouble is, I was well brought up in terms of minding my P’s and Q’s, and I say thank you very readily. This, though, I was told, is actually impolite in Mongolia. You can thank a host at the end of a visit but not for every cup of tea or glass of vodka. That would be insulting to your host because it implies that there was even a ghost of a shadow of a chance that they would not have been hospitable.
I want to introduce you to a word. It might be a stranger to you, and I ask you to give it hospitality: Xenia. You are probably more familiar with the opposite word xenophobia, that hatred for foreigners which Britain is currently rehearsing in its UKIP spasm.
Xenia is a word to be treasured, to be welcomed into the home of your mind. It means the law of sacred hospitality to strangers, foreigners, refugees, wanderers. The god of xenia was Zeus, no less. ‘Zeus xenios’, Zeus the protector of strangers, embodying the religious obligation to be hospitable to travellers. In Greek mythology, the gods may disguise themselves as strangers seeking hospitality. When people offer this hospitality to strangers, the gods reward them.
Xenia is ‘guest-friendship’, and it comprises two rules, first a rule of hospitality – the host must offer food, drink, a bath if it is wanted and, interestingly, shouldn’t ask questions until the guest has satisfied their needs. The second rule is the rule of guestpitality, that the guest must be courteous and not become a burden to the host. Also, the guest must offer the same welcome in return, to the host or another stranger.
When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, he finds his house besieged by suitors to Penelope: these are guests who have not only outstayed their welcome (they have been there feasting for years), but have offended the code, demanding much more than they ought, and burdening their hosts. Xenia is also the name of a city in Ohio. Founded in 1803, the townspeople met and named it thus to suggest friendship and hospitality towards whoever arrived.
There is an Indo-European word-root ‘ghos-ti‘ for a person to whom the law of hospitality applies, as either guest or host. The same root, ghos-ti, hosts many words in a luxurious linguistic hospitality. It is the root of hotel and hospitality, and host: but it also entertains words which may seem strangers to each other but which all share, under the same roof, a common theme. Ghos-ti is the root of the word guest, the stranger you welcome and indeed also the root of the word hostile, the stranger you fear. When I suggested guestpitality is part of hospitality, this is linguistically the case.
It was a hot day in the deserts, and Abraham was drowsy, sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of noon. Suddenly, he saw three strangers, and ran to them, bowed, and brought water so they could wash their feet, hot, dusty, and bruised. He offered them rest, and food: bread, meat and milk. The strangers, as Genesis relates, were angels in disguise, and the reward for Abraham’s hospitality was that he and his wife Sarah – though she thought herself too old to have children – were given a longed-for child.
Hospitality quickens life, the story suggests, so Abraham’s glad and sudden generosity – he runs quickly to greet them and immediately gives them the best welcome he can offer – is rewarded with the quickening life of a baby.
‘Practice hospitality’, the New Testament commands. To receive,to give reception, in a hospitable sense, has a psychological counterpart; to be receptive to someone else’s experience. Jesus, that subverter of the status quo, practised radical empathy, a hospitality of the heart so profound that he took on the identity of a homeless person. ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Offering hospitality to strangers who are hungry, thirsty, migrant, unclothed, sick or in prison is, Jesus says, offering hospitality to him. Offering asylum, sanctuary and refuge honours all that is divine.
From the fourth to the seventeenth century in English law, fugitives could not be arrested in a church: it was a sanctuary for forty days. This history was an eloquent backdrop for the Occupy movement, dwelling on the steps of St Paul’s, and offered temporary sanctuary there by those who understood their own religion.
Something peculiar happens to hospitality when wealth gets in the way. In the very poorest parts of the world, a traveller will be offered water at least. On the Camino, by the way, there are water fountains everywhere along the way, and one, by a monastery, ran with wine. But water water everywhere. I had the good fortune last year to be invited to Australia to do talks on my work. And I had the misfortune to be given a room in a posh hotel. There was no water to drink in my room except one small plastic bottle. They charged eight dollars for it.
Traditions of sacred hospitality can be found all over the world, and throughout history. The first place where it was noted that this tradition was lost was sixteenth century England, and it happened because of that peculiar meanness which is the concomitant of wealth. The bishops began restricting hospitality to just their friends and relatives rather than offering it to strangers. The wealthy put adminstrative barriers between themselves and the poor, as Theodore Zeldin says, they employed impersonal officials to deal with the dole, appointing almoners to deal out alms, keeping distress at arm’s length. After that, says Zeldin, ‘hospitality was never the same again.’
Street furniture is emblematic of society’s sense of public hospitality. Where are the drinking fountains in Britain? The easy benches, the shelters on the waysides, the least of comforts? At train stations, you can hardly find a seat unless you pay for it buying a coffee. Need is turned into commercial opportunity. Street furniture, including bus stops, are designed with narrow little slats of sloping seats so you cannot be comfortable; public benches now have arm prongs (they’re hardly armrests) purely to stop some desperate homeless person sleeping. No sanctuary, not even for a moment.
The homeless, the sick, the disabled, the jobless, the hopeless are being treated as pests by the powerful, who treat them as less-than-human, this ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ as King Lear describes. In London, wealthy property companies have erected ‘anti-homeless spikes’ in the recesses of pavements by posh properties to stop homeless people from sleeping there. It is how pests are treated – pigeons perhaps. Lying on a bed of nails is a proverbial punishment, made real.
That image has at least pierced social conscience, so pointed a statement, knife-sharp and vicious towards those who have the least. The privileged have their knives out for the poor in the cuts, cutting welfare, that political version of sacred hospitality, and the poor have the knives out for themselves, as one vulnerable man did – in danger of losing the lifeline of benefits, he lined up his kitchen knives and stabbed himself to death. Cuts and cuts.
Shakespeare knew the solution: ‘So distribution should undo excess/And each man have enough.’ Those campaigning for the minimum of enough-ness have been called ‘vile sickness benefit extremists’ by the right-wing nasties. What was once considered a sacred duty to offer hospitality to strangers is rubbished, and in its place the cruel cuts, the racist refusal to receive other cultures, the spiked message to the homeless, You Kip If You Want To but not near my property. In a recent poll, a quarter of British people say they want to send ‘home’ all immigrants, whether legal or illegal.
Who is it, this person? Pest. Scrounger. Alien. Stranger. Immigrant. Asylum-seeker. Refugee. Sojourner. Traveller. Guest. Pilgrim. Angel. Beware of showing hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained scroungers unawares, as the Bible does not say.
Sacred hospitality suggests that everyone should develop the qualities of a host: geniality, congeniality, generosity, all generating life and liveliness in regenerating generations, as Abraham and Sarah were given quickening life and generations were born in honour of their hospitality. No matter who this stranger is, the host-society is influenced and its own life is shaped by its hospitality. Or lack of.
The churches have set up food banks, and church leaders have strongly criticised welfare cuts, but the tide is against them. When Ian Duncan Smith mewls his Christianity, he might consider that the penalty for inhospitality, according to Jesus’ radical politics, is damnation. And Jesus was absolutely specific. Those who refused to help someone hungry, thirsty, a stranger, unclothed, sick or in prison, in other words someone who refused to help the unemployed, the poor, those on welfare and sickness benefits, in prison, needing the NHS, and immigrants, would be damned in punishment.
Of all the old stories of sacred hospitality, my favourite is Philemon and Baucis. Zeus, Zeus-xenia, and Hermes, protector of travellers, visited a village to test its hospitality. No one would welcome them except Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor couple. (As so often, in the stories, it is the poor who are generous.)
The rich neighbours turned the strangers away, ‘the doors bolted and no word of kindness given, so wicked were they,’ writes Ovid. ‘A thousand homes they came to seeking rest; a thousand homes were barred against them.’ But Philemon and Baucis gave the guest-gods sanctuary, little knowing their identity. They brought a rug, built up the fire, offered a bed and warm water to wash their feet. They gave the guests cabbage and pork, olives, plums, endive, radishes, cheese, eggs, nuts, figs, dates, apples, grapes, honeycomb and wine. The wine never ran out; ‘the wine welled up all of its own accord within the bowl.’
The hosts went to kill their goose, but they could not catch the bird which ran to the guest-gods. ‘He seemed to flee for sanctuary to the Gods themselves.’ Their identity revealed, Zeus and Hermes take Philemon and Baucis up a mountain, telling them not to turn back until they reach the top. When they do, they see their village has been destroyed in a flood: the community which doesn’t offer hospitality is destroyed by its own meanness. Hospitality offers food to the hunger of a stranger: inhospitality consumes itself.
The one remaining thing from the village is the cottage of Philemon and Baucis, and it has become a temple, a sanctuary sacred to hospitality, salvaged by hospitality.