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  • Thomas Frost

Hospitalities

I grew up in an inn with three guest rooms and a pub attached; my parents are the owners and the only staff. My everyday life has always been shaped by the provision of hospitality, partly in the direct experience of sharing a roof with guests and partly through the mediation of my parents’ experience of the work. Guests didn’t usually stay longer than one or two nights, driving, cycling or walking around the north of Scotland; the work was to welcome them, feed them, and send them on their way, and then to prepare their room for new guests the same evening. Nonetheless, the guests were never anonymous, and those who were happy gave my parents real joy. The worst came from those who, used to dealing with the impersonality of large businesses with no interests except profit, treated them as adversaries in a transaction in which one party or the other would come out best. But the transaction was always there, even in the friendliest of cases. Every stay ended with a payment for services determined by market rates; the room was then cleaned, and new guests welcomed the same evening. This is the hospitality of the hospitality industry, with its foundation in the transaction.


Since June, I have lived in Giuseppe Conlon House, another house shaped by the provision of hospitality. Our guests don’t pay us, and we only accept as guests those who wouldn’t be able to. We do so in keeping with a tradition of Christian hospitality, which extends back to those who welcomed Jesus and his apostles into their own houses and the diocesan houses of hospitality Peter Maurin read about in the Catholic Encyclopedia. It isn’t difficult to believe that what we do – both those of us who work here, and those who keep the house running with their donations – is the fulfilment of a Christian duty to hospitality.


The initial difficulty for me was to understand how this work, which is of such a different character from that of my parents, could share the same name. How am I to understand the good I can plainly see in my parents’ work in light of its great difference from the form of hospitality here? How is it that their hospitality survives the transaction? About five hundred years ago, Desiderius Erasmus wrote about inns in “Diversoria”, one of his Colloquies – short, light-hearted dialogues for the use of schoolchildren learning Latin. Bertrand and William compare the good inns in Lyons with the bad inns in Germany, providing us today with an idea of what people in a pre-capitalist Christian country ordinarily thought a good inn was like. Most of the points are remarkably similar to what you’d find, in rougher prose, on TripAdvisor – in Lyons the portions are large and the prices low, in Germany the food is overpriced and the dining rooms are cramped and overheated. The most striking praise Bertrand gives the French innkeepers is that “they don't talk to you as if you were perfect Strangers, but as those they have been a long Time acquainted with, and familiar Friends”. He recalls that, at Lyons, “I seemed to be at my own House, and not in a strange Place”. This is exactly the sort of thing that guests at my parents’ inn would say when they were praising it most highly, five hundred years later. The good it identifies is not just that of feeling at home, but of feeling at home where you would not expect to. Hospitality survives the transaction because it is not really involved with the transaction – hospitality is what goes beyond it. It is what you receive over and above your role in the contract. Necessarily, it always comes as a surprise.


The Good Samaritan is one who gives more than he is obliged to. He has no more obligation to the wounded man than do the priest or the Levite - less, in fact, according to the understanding of the time, being a foreigner. It would be very easy for him to walk past and, if challenged on it, say correctly that he was no more than following the precedent set by respectable people with more obligation than himself. His decision to give more than he needed to is itself imposed on Christians by Jesus as a special obligation - “Go, and do thou likewise” (Lk 10:37). Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti considers the political implications of such an obligation - “the decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project”.


In our times, we have become more and more directly in contact with all the rest of humanity as migration and communication have increased – in response, we have created and reinforced more and more means of absolving ourselves of our obligations to our fellow humans by means of national borders and a dehumanising racism. It is ordinary and respectable in our country to believe and say that we have no obligations to those who live outside it or to those who arrive in Britain despite the violent and arbitrary barriers we have created to keep them out. This is what hospitality must overcome in the political sphere. If our country were to adopt such a radical policy it would be doing no more than did the ancient Israelites at such times as they obeyed that beautiful command: “the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:34).


The command is to practice solidarity on the basis of a shared experience of suffering, but to believe that the experience is really shared depends on a basic belief in a common humanity. Hospitality asserts the humanity of the other where it would be easier to deny it.


For Simone Weil, this is “to desire the existence of the other”, and consequently always involves a renunciation of our ordinary desire to assert ourselves wherever we have power – it takes a mental sacrifice to accept the other as an end as much as oneself. There is, therefore, no hospitality in the sort of sanctimonious charity which is only an assertion of our own power to raise up the one who suffers, any more than is in the mere fulfilment of a transaction. As Weil says, “It is not surprising that a man who has bread should give a piece to someone who is starving. What is surprising is that he should be capable of doing so with so different a gesture from that with which we buy an object”. To look at another person in such a way is to look at them like God looks at them. Of course, we're ordinarily incapable of such purity of intention, but we must believe that to perform hospitality to any extent, as a response to the humanity of another, is to participate to some degree in the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross.


What a privilege! And what a wonderful thing for the innkeeper to whom the Good Samaritan brought the wounded man, to be able to participate in his hospitality. Even if he only gave his wounded guest more than usual care, he played a small part in that love which moves the sun and the other stars. It is the same opportunity as we have at Giuseppe Conlon House, and my parents have at their inn, and that all people have in all walks of life whenever they meet another person. It is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us.

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