When I was little, we knew who our neighbors were. We had neighborhood block parties. If someone was having a barbeque, you could almost always be assured of someone offering you food if you were hungry. People sat outside on the porch on hot summer nights talking nonsense for hours.
These days everyone is inside in their climate controlled environments. Kids play only on a supervised playground or inside a specially designed children’s entertainment facility. Families rarely get together much less neighbors. We don’t even know who are neighbors are! You wouldn’t dare pop next door to borrow a cup of sugar unannounced. Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the fine art of engaging in hospitality as a spiritual practice? We don’t even do it socially!
In the old days, in many cultures, offering hospitality to strangers was practically mandatory. Perhaps it was because everyone could see themselves, or someone that they loved, depending upon it one day. Hospitality could mean the difference between life and death back then. There were no inns. Travel was slow. People couldn’t carry all the food they’d need for a long trek. Lack of shelter could mean that you perish. So, violating this code was just not done.
The Trojan War was fought because Paris violated hospitality when he abducted his host’s wife.
In a story told in Metamorphosis, the gods Jupiter and Mercury disguised themselves as travelers. They went around asking strangers for hospitality to test men’s characters. Everyone refused except Philemon and Baucis, and elderly couple. The gods were so affronted that they flooded the city for the people failing in their duties. All perished except the two who upheld the law of hospitality.
In a true story, the Massacre at Glencoe happened when Robert Campbell sought hospitality in the clan of his enemy, the MacDonald’s. He was there a full two weeks before he and his 120 men defied the law of hospitality and began killing his hosts. While murder was not unknown in the Scottish Highlands, “Slaughter Under Trust” was both legally punishable and morally reprehensible. The pain of this event is still felt today.
These stories may seem distant and removed from you, but if you are a pop culture fan who watches The Game of Thrones, perhaps harking back to the Red Wedding will make an emotional connection for you. Who wasn’t horrified when the law of hospitality was brutally violated? If something within you screamed, “That’s not fair” then you understand the unwritten rule of hospitality. When we refuse to engage, we withhold a bit of our spirit from the world.
Hospitality comes from the knowing that we are all tied to each other. We depend on each other. If cultures were so uncaring for their enemies, they wouldn’t reciprocate and give each other free passage, lodging, or food. They’d just slaughter each other. Instead they set aside their grievances while either under the other’s protection or while offering that protection.
So, hospitality is not just about sharing in abundance. At the root it’s about recognizing the humanity inside each of us and our interdependence. Sometimes you’re up and you will help me. Sometimes I am up and I will help you. When this is done, we all benefit in resources, connection, safety, and joy.
How to Practice
- It starts with awareness. Notice when someone appears to need company, help, kindness, a meal, or attention. Offer it if you can. We are often so self absorbed that we have no idea what is going on with other people.
- Give only what you can freely give. If it hurts you or makes you resentful, don’t offer it. It’s not a gift. You’re not obligated to be a doormat, an ATM or to maintain appearances – especially today when it is not reciprocated. Always keep in mind boundaries and balance.
- If you are on the receiving end, don’t exploit your benefactor. Be a good guest. If you’re offered a glass of wine, enjoy yourself, but you probably don’t want to drink the whole bottle by yourself. If you are offered to stay two nights, don’t bring a friend or stay for three nights.
- Good hosts tend to gather people around them. If you are invited to be a part of a gathering, don’t come empty handed. Pitch in to clean up. It takes resources, time, and effort to host an event. Don’t leave it all up to the host to manage it all. Reciprocate.
- Focus on our shared humanity. This makes it easier to reach out to people who appear different.
- Be good to yourself. Hospitality starts with self care. No one serves well from an empty vessel.
- Show gratitude. You can start each day with giving gratitude to the Earth. The Earth is where you live. She’s plays host for your whole life.
- Practice small graces with a smile like letting the aggressive driver into your lane or welcoming your new person in your office.
Cultivating hospitality takes time. It can be a great pleasure if you do it mindfully. Start small and watch it blossom. Have fun with it. Be okay with the possibility of rejection, struggling with boundaries, and not getting anything in return. You may not see the benefit that you give to the world, but know that it is there. And if your heart grows a bit each day, it will be worth it.