Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
One late October morning, I woke to find that somebody, under cover of night, had come up our driveway, which winds a distance from Divine Corners Road, and proceeded to the very threshold of our cottage, to post campaign flyers for the local election. I found a placard lying on the porch and a tag hanging from the doorknob, like those “Do Not Disturb” signs you get in hotels. Only in this case the tag was the disturbance! It was creepy to think of someone right outside our door while we slept inside. It felt unseemly. Had they cased the neighborhood during the day, to know where to go in the dark? The experience was at odds with a notion that lies close to the heart of the holiday season – hospitality, the spirit in which thresholds, and the invitations to cross them, are extended.
The opposite of hospitality is coercion or force, and force is no respecter of persons. It’s significant that the Latin root of the word hospitality – hospes – can mean both “host” and “guest,” as if these two terms are commutable and the secret of hospitality is to be found in the reciprocal exchange between host and guest.
What the host gives the guest – shelter, food, acceptance, a place at the table – is clearer than what the guest gives the host. In many stories, the guest confers some form of blessing upon the host, especially if the guest is a person unknown to the host. This points to the third meaning of hospes: “stranger.” The act of inviting a stranger to one’s board is a more stringent form of hospitality, enjoined in many traditions. We see variations of that theme in such yuletide customs as mummering, wassailing, and caroling; we see it in the Jewish seder, when the front door is opened to welcome Elijah – one always hopes one’s guest might be revealed as a prophet or angel!
Perhaps the real blessing conferred by the guest is simply the expansion of the heart of the host, the accession to a greater spirit of generosity, even of caritas, which might prove transformative. One writer described hospitality as “the virtue of a great soul who cares for the whole universe through the ties of humanity.” This spirit withers when coercion enters to sever the reciprocal relationship of host and guest, substituting a chilly manipulation for the willingness to be changed by an encounter with a stranger.
The radical assumption of the guest’s intrinsic worthiness expands, in some religious traditions, to a sense of intrinsic divinity, such as we see in the Nativity story. In its “no room at the Inn” variant, elaborated over millennia from its spare origins in Luke’s Gospel, the Nativity gives us one of our most enduring fables of hospitality. The stony-hearted innkeeper who turns away Joseph and Mary from his door fails the test of hospitality and forecloses on a possibility of incalculable blessings.
Luke bookends his Gospel with another great hospitality tale: two disciples are traveling to Emmaus, immediately after the events of Holy Week, and are joined by a stranger, who receives news from the pair of all that has just occurred in Jerusalem. When they come to an Inn, the two insist that the stranger join them for food and rest before continuing his journey; in Sarah Ruden’s wonderful recent translation of the Gospels, they “put the gentle pressure of hospitality on him.” The stranger accepts, and as they break bread together the disciples’ eyes are opened, they recognize their guest as Jesus, who promptly vanishes. One astute commentator said that the offer of hospitality itself opened the two disciples to the revelatory experience.
We are all cast, at different times, as the host or the guest, vis-à-vis one another; sometimes we are cast as the stranger, even to ourselves. In the light of hospitality, we glimpse the possibility of overcoming our divisions, of experiencing the good will towards men and women that makes for peace on Earth.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com