When Hospitality Vanishes

GreekHospitality

“…and there will be no affection between guest and host.” Hesiod, Works and Days

Ancient Greek literature reveals a striking practice of hospitality. We would do well to consider what is implied in this practice.

When a host welcomes someone—sometimes even a stranger, he lays bare the most intimate space of his life: his home. Home is where we can be most ourselves. Here we are safe, in our own zone, among those closest to us. Here we build, shape, and order things—both tangible and intangible—to make an environment congenial to a dignified life with those we love. Our home might not be a place of wealth and worldly success. But it is ours, and a work of our love.

Why would we open this intimate space to others—others who often cannot or will not appreciate it for what it is? How can they possibly belong? Such is the drama of hospitality. Somehow we see others not as alien, but as belonging. We perceive some deep connection with others. So we decide to treat our space as their space, because somehow they are ours and we are theirs. We act lovingly, even if we don’t feel the love.

But Hesiod warns of a time when such affection will wither. When the practice of hospitality vanishes, what can we do to rekindle the affection—and all the gracious forms, even formalities—that embody and convey it? Perhaps we simply start by opening our doors with affection. We can make our home a more homely home, for others. Ours might be the first they ever experience as their own home. Where they can see and feel that they really do belong.

Hesiod (8th century B.C.) was a Greek contemporary of Homer, and likewise an epic poet. His Works and Days sketches the year-round work on a homestead. It also describes various characteristics of both a troubled time period—Hesiod’s own, and those of a golden age. This is the second of several Wednesday Quotes devoted to the characteristics of the former, to be followed by several concerning the latter.

Image: Rubens rendition of the delightful story of the poor peasants Philemon and Baucis, who offered hospitality to Zeus and Mercury who were disguised as travelers. See here for the fuller story.

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When Shame Vanishes

Old Man with a Beard

“… shame will vanish.” Hesiod, Works and Days

Hesiod gives a remarkable description of a degenerate culture by pointing to several of its hallmark characteristics. This one is particularly chilling.

“Shame” for the Greeks refers to a crucial human passion: one that recoils from what is wicked or indecent. The feeling of shame is rooted in an insight—be it ever so subconscious or pre-conceptual—an insight into the real distinction between good and evil. Indeed true shame springs from an appreciation that moral uprightness is precious, and its opposite repulsive.

While to feel shame for evil is natural, just how deeply and about what we feel it is subject to our social and moral environment. Cultivation of proper shame is a hallmark of civilization.

But shame can vanish.

Our society often treats what is shameful as though it were good. The worst instances are perhaps too obvious to need mentioning. Yet we might fruitfully look closer to home, and consider our own sensitivity to what is shameful, albeit in lesser instances. Immodesty, crude language, unnecessary violence, rude manners, disrespect for authority and age, crassness, a cult of ugliness: these are shameful. Yet it seems we are becoming inured to them. Alas, sometimes we entertain ourselves with them; we watch (even share?) internet videos highlighting them.

If we, our friends, and our children are not ashamed of that which is shameful, rooted in a reverence for the whole spectrum of what is good and beautiful, then we must act to change this.

Hesiod’s words may have described his age, and they do describe our own age in large part. It is in our power whether they describe our own lives and households.

Hesiod (8th century B.C.) was a Greek contemporary of Homer, and likewise an epic poet. His Works and Days sketches the year-round work on a homestead. It also describes various characteristics of both a troubled time period—Hesiod’s own, and those of a golden age. I am going to devote several Wednesday Quotes to the characteristics of the former, followed by several concerning the latter.

Image: Old Man with a Beard, Rembrandt

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Bad Neighbors are Pests

Neighbors

“Bad neighbors are pests, good ones a blessing. A good neighbor is a boon to him who has one. If your neighbor is honest, your ox is safe.” Hesiod, Works and Days

We would do well to think in terms of neighbors: who they are, and how to be one.

There are many things that Hesiod might have said in honor of a good neighbor, or in condemnation of a bad one. In ancient Greece an ox was the central instrument for working the land–especially in households that did not have slaves. In a word, the ox was indispensable to the life of the household.

And with good neighbors, your ox is safe. Safe not only from disappearing, your ox is practically assured of good health and long life. Help and support, yeah even perhaps a replacement, are always close at hand–just as a neighbor himself is always close at hand, as the very word ‘neighbor’ means. Hesiod thought of neighbors as a pivotal part of life. An unsafe ox means an unstable household, and life.

It’s hard these days to know how to think in terms of neighbors. Our living conditions tend to be transient and ill-arranged for real contact with those where we live. Similarly those with whom we work often do not live near us. In both cases our limited contact makes it difficult to live as true neighbors.

Being neighbors and being friends are not the same thing. But they have much in common, especially in what they demand of us. Being a neighbor requires acting like a friend, even toward one who is not a friend.

Good neighbors are a blessing, and it is incumbent on us to seek and cultivate neighborly relationships. Indeed it is within our reach to be this unique blessing, rather than the opposite, to those among whom live.

Photo credit: Unknown; I couldn’t resist it.

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Why Everyone Should Plant Seeds This Week

Kitten and Lettuce

“Of the art of acquisition [of food] then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, in so far as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life…” Aristotle, Politics

Eating is not the most important thing in a household. But it is the indispensable and daily sustenance and context for living a human life. Being intentional about how and what we eat will be determinative of fundamental attitudes in the household, and of our health—bodily and spiritually, individually and communally. Being intentional about eating is within everyone’s reach, and it is our responsibility.

Not everyone is in a position to have a ‘garden.’ But we all can grow something. Or at least try to. For most of us, early August is the last, best opportunity to plant something this year. There are still about sixty days for growing, perhaps fewer for our northern neighbors, and more farther south. But many greens can be ready to eat in forty-five days, radishes in thirty. A small plot of soil, even two feet by two feet, can yield great food, as well as good work, and communal satisfaction. It can also occasion deep insight, and life-changing gratitude.

It is also a real even if small step toward freeing ourselves from over-dependence on an industrial system of food production and distribution. Perhaps this is the only food we will produce. But this step is real and meaningful in itself.

Many hardware stores have seeds on sale at this time of year. Be prepared to water lightly and often while seeds germinate in the hot sun. We will be making a bold step for the renewal of household life, and we might just harvest more than we expect.

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A Sweet Gift from Heaven

Honey Harvest

“The heavenly gift of honey…” Virgil, The Georgics

Thus Virgil opens his final book of The Georgics. Perhaps these words rolled of his pen with hardly a thought; or maybe they were very deliberate. Either way they express a sentiment, an insight that can hardly be missed by an earnest observer of what nature offers… especially this time of year, via the bees.

Honey is a gift; and it is from heaven.

How can we not stop and smile? The beneficent order of the natural world is already so manifest in the diligence and efficacy with which this complex society brings about the pollination and thus the fruition and reproduction of countless plants and trees.

But then there is more. The bees’ work –which still today defies human comprehension—also yields the most regal of foods. Honey!

It comes in a panoply of colors and flavors, by which an experienced honey-taster might distinguish—like a wine-taster—the plants of origin. Spread thinly on a breakfast biscuit, muffin or toast, it starts our day with the sweet savor of honest work crowned by a gratuitous completion.

While the bees themselves likely think on nary more than their own work, we are left to ponder the gift itself, and its origin. And all that it implies.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy he appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

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One Good Household Rowing Together

Lifeboat1

“All it takes is one good person to restore hope.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si

When a classroom discussion is not going well, just one student stepping-up can make the margin of difference. Sometimes a student comes through, sometimes not.

We don’t always think of ourselves as responsible for how things go in the broader community.

This is somewhat understandable. An individual is not responsible for the weaknesses and failures of the whole community. We are only directly responsible for doing our part.

Yet often we forget how important our part is.

These words of Francis struck me. One good person doing his part is not enough to restore the whole to good order. But it is enough to restore hope.

When one oarsman rows well, it stands as a witness to how to row, and that rowing is worthwhile. Even if others are using their oars to play games, or to hit each other.

If one good person can restore hope, consider the power of one good household. Rowing together.

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My Article: A Father’s Presence in the Home

villageblacksmith1Much has been written about mothers leaving home to enter the workforce. Little attention is given to the prior exodus of fathers from the home: a situation that long ago came to be considered standard, even in traditional households. I have written an article here  in which I explore the challenges of a working father’s daily absence, and how he can seek to be more present in his home.
A Father’s Presence in the Home

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