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    warmly lit front porch in Fox Hill

    To Be a Guest

    What Jesus, Odysseus, and African tradition teach about how to receive hospitality.

    By Emma Newgarden

    November 12, 2021
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    • Barbara Mulligan

      Thank you so much for this beautiful and insightful article. I think we often get caught up in being “human doings” rather than “human beings”, and I often want to reciprocate the smallest of gestures. But just as Jesus valued Mary’s love and presence even more than Martha’s busyness, we can also be blessings by just being with someone. Learning to accept this and allowing ourselves to receive is difficult, but so much more in line with the unconditional love we receive from Jesus.

    • Liz Rothenbusch

      What an eloquently written article for a timely moment in my life as my husband and I plan to visit a Bruderhof this week. It was really beautiful and informative! These very issues and questions were in my mind..THANK YOU!

    It struck reliably before mealtimes when everyone in my host family was busy with food preparation: a sensation of being uneasily idle, suspended between an urgent desire to be of service and an uncertainty as to what I could do that would actually be helpful.

    “Relax. Just be,” the host mom advised to my complete exasperation. How could I “just be” when my brain was in overdrive, cycling through a hundred configurations of whether it would seem less rude and ungrateful, or more disruptive and bothersome, to offer my assistance yet again? Being was precisely my problem – I needed something to do, to alleviate that feeling of uselessness that bothered me so much. I ended up standing around awkwardly for a while, undoubtedly more of a nuisance than in all my agonized scenarios, before escaping alone to my room.

    I had been living with a host family in the Bruderhof community at Fox Hill, New York, as part of Plough’s internship program. My month-long stay was filled with new routines and surprises – early mornings, work projects, spontaneous week-night festivities. Yet, ridiculous as it now seems looking back, what took most getting used to had nothing to do with the community’s lifestyle. For me, it was simply the state of being a guest which stirred a completely unexpected anxiety – a discomfort in being served when I myself had not contributed to the service. For the first week or so, I reflexively volunteered to help as my hosts went about their work, itching for some job that would allow me at least to tell myself I was easing the burden of my own upkeep. But except when out of pity for my apparent unease, I was always politely turned down.

    warmly lit front porch in Fox Hill

    Photograph courtesy of the author

    Of course, in declining my service, my host family was honoring the ageless and universal tradition of hospitality. Although today we might casually define hospitality as the warm reception and entertainment of guests, hospitality rituals have long been understood as the cornerstones of civilization. They are shaped by each culture’s perception of what it means to be human. The English word “hospitality” most directly derives from Latin hospitium, which entailed a belief that the relationship between guest and host is sacred, their interaction a matter of divine right and civic duty. The Ancient Greek equivalent, xenia, implied that the custom of providing hospitality to wayfarers was not only a social expectation but a moral law enforced by Zeus Xenios, king of the gods and “protector of strangers.”

    To accept a service without repaying it means giving up the illusion of leverage.

    Given their Greco-Roman heritage, it is from xenia that modern English-speaking cultures draw much of their understanding of hospitality. A major theme of the classical canon, perhaps most prominently of all in Homer’s Odyssey, xenia is apparent when the Phaeacians “set before Odysseus food and drink” and “gave him the golden flask of suppling olive oil and pressed him to bathe,” warmly welcoming the sea-worn stranger washed up on their shores. This exemplifies Homer’s idea of the ideal host. Phaeacian King Alcinous represents the gold standard for xenia; he provides an escort for Odysseus’s travels onward and calls for all the nobles to shower the guest with presents: “Let us each contribute a fresh cloak and shirt and a bar of precious gold.”

    Yet, xenia historically also assumed that hospitality requires reciprocation. Rules were prescribed for both host and guest to follow: a host must offer his guest food and lodging, entertainment, and whatever assistance lies in his power, with the understanding that the latter will reciprocate if ever they find their places reversed. A guest must respect the host’s property, comply with any favors asked, and if possible, provide some gift of gratitude. Mutual adherence to this format of interaction would forge a friendship between two foreigners, strong enough to last through generations and warrant peaceful dealings among their descendants for as long as memory of the original encounter served. Given that its goal is to create such a powerful bond, hospitality necessarily becomes a two-way street.

    What would have become of ancient xenia had the host waived those prescribed norms on the side of his guest, telling her instead to “just be”? To me, at least, the entreaty was baffling. I viewed hospitality as a see-saw, and the lifting of responsibility from me as a guest left it hopelessly unbalanced: my hosts a smug, solid weight on the ground while I haplessly dangled my legs high above. I felt that I needed a task, even a merely performative one, to give weight to my role. How else could I repay my hosts for their hospitality to me? I didn’t know how to express my gratitude without doing something concrete. How could I uphold my end of the guest-host relationship, while at the same time respecting their sole request – that I stifle the desire to make myself useful?

    This anxiety I felt while living in the Bruderhof community seems strikingly common among Americans encountering hospitality norms elsewhere in the world. For instance, many American missionaries have difficulty embracing the African practice of impromptu visiting. Del Chinchen, who worked as a missionary in Africa for more than twenty-two years, criticized American missionaries’ reluctance to visit villagers due to fear of experiencing “a loss of power and control as a guest in the domain of another’s home,” and attributed it to their instinct to “perceive … spontaneous visiting as an imposition on people, an intrusion on their privacy.” As a result, American missionaries frequently turn away African visitors who drop in during mealtimes, and carefully avoid the same “intrusion” themselves. This comes across as highly offensive to Africans whose culture views an unexpected guest as a healing blessing on the host’s household.

    Dr. Julius Gathogo, of Kenyatta University in Kenya, finds the source of such disjunctions between Africans and Americans over hospitality practices in fundamental cultural difference: “Western culture tends to be achievement oriented – hence individualism – as opposed to the African concept of communalism.” Might this also explain my own difficulty with receiving hospitality? The American no-free-lunch society eyes its own members, let alone strangers, with shrewd, appraising suspicion: What can you bring to the table? How can you earn your keep? It conditions us to fear indebtedness, consequently rendering guest-hood a state of anxious grasping for some way to justify our presence. Like the missionary who assumes her visit at odd hours must be warranted, a guest who assumes she must prove worthy of her hosts’ trouble cannot help reeling when asked to let go her claim on the hospitality “bargain.” To accept a service without repaying it means giving up the illusion of leverage.

    Gathogo perceives part of the insecurity of individualistic societies concerning hospitality in their lack of ubuntu, the oft-quoted Zulu word that roughly translates “I am because you are.” This philosophical outlook presents an inversion of the Enlightenment motto, “I think, therefore I am.” Rene Descartes’ statement of self-knowledge holds all else at a wary arm’s length to certify one’s own isolated existence. Ubuntu says we are made to share our identity, because each person’s existence is bound up in those with whom we commune. With this mentality, it is easy to see how visiting a neighbor is itself a gift and blessing, no potluck casserole required. To make a guest of oneself means giving the gift of presence, and in the spirit of ubuntu, it is in the presence of others that we become most fully ourselves.

    In the Odyssey, Odysseus’s mode of receiving the Phaeacians’ hospitality shows a model for upholding the duties of a guest – equally important to xenia as those of the host – more in common with ubuntu than the modern Western mindset is disposed to induce. Odysseus gratefully accepts the Phaeacians’ lavish generosity – he doesn’t waste breath on polite refusals or make tedious offers of service. What he does finally offer in book 9 is something only he can give – his true name (which being good hosts, the Phaeacians have not asked about before feasting him), followed by his story, the story of his journey home after the Trojan War, all the trials, adventures, and woes which led him to Phaeacia’s shores. In the words of this story, Odysseus gives his hosts a piece of himself, relating who he is through where he has been and what he has been through.

    The narrative tale Odysseus delivers in the Phaecians’ great hall can be read as a microcosm of the whole epic poem; in ancient times, the Odyssey was frequently performed for the entertainment of guests, sung by bards to the tune of the lyre. Likewise, singing is an important African hospitality tradition, conveying, as Gathogo says, “a manifestation of the feeling of the individual or a group communicating their inner sentiments, expectations, and aspirations.” Words, whether spoken, written, or sung, are a powerful vehicle for the free giving of self to those who first gave to you, an exchange which truly constitutes hospitality. The appreciation of words and stories is intertwined with the appreciation of people as human beings whose stories are intrinsically valuable. No wonder that guests in the modern world balk; how can we believe that a person’s own story is worth exchanging for anything in a society that says no one really cares to hear it? Linking human worth to productivity creates a culture of deep loneliness and undervalues the gift of mere presence.

    In contrast, it’s this very gift of presence, and story, that Jesus offers his disciples in the Gospels. On the road to Emmaus, two disciples discussing in wonder the events of the Resurrection encounter the risen Jesus, though they do not recognize him. After Jesus joins them and begins telling the story of his own fulfilment of salvation history, they invite him to share their dwelling. “They urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So, he went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:29). But hospitality in this interaction is anything but one-sided: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30–31). In the intimate act of communion, Jesus makes himself known to all who partake. He gives those who host him the ultimate guest gift – himself, the word made flesh, and a share in his life, which is eternal.

    The prospect of telling my own story is far more daunting than that of paying my way. It takes humility and vulnerability that my ego resists with every fiber. But being a guest calls us to relinquish the urge to give back what was bestowed in love. It is an exercise in receiving grace, and though I still need practice, at least I am beginning to learn from ancient literature and tradition that accepting hospitality does not constrain gratitude. Rather, it invites the guest to participate in the true communion to which xenia, ubuntu, and the Gospels call us: a sharing of story and presence, together at the welcome table.

    Contributed By

    Emma Newgarden is studying Classics at Seton Hall University. She was a summer 2021 intern with Plough.

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