Hospitality: Yesterday and Today

Light of truth

Question: Jacob Thomas

What is happening to India becoming intolerant, hateful with atrocities to girls and women, with its great heritage of tolerance and hospitality? Does the cultural change amidst us make you anxious?

Answer: Subhash Anand

Let me begin by stating one of my presuppositions. If we accept the theory of biological evolution, then the struggle for survival seems to be the most decisive factor. With some simplification, we can say that the infrastructure, i.e., the mode of production, shapes the superstructure, culture with all its constituents.

All of us have our roots in nomadic cultures. Nomads do not have barns to store their surplus products. They do not have currency, which they could deposit in some bank. There were no banks. Then there was not much planning nor was there anxiety about tomorrow. The entertainment industry did not exist. There were basically two ways of spending the time that was not used for survival needs: solitude and company. The culture of being alone made it possible for them to observe and correlate natural phenomena; to ponder over their own experience and acquire wisdom. Simple songs and dances, which all could easily learn and join in, were important for their community living. They could spend a whole moonlit night singing and dancing. As all were involved, there was no boredom. Nomads do not own land; they do not have a permanent dwelling place; only their mutual relations have some permanence. Nomadic cultures are deeply person-centred. They need each other to gather food, to protect themselves against wild animals and marauding humans, to share their joys and sorrows. Hence being with each other is almost an unavoidable item of their daily routine, of their survival strategy.

When a family or group moved away from one place to another, they made sure they had enough food and drink for some days; but their stock could last too long. There were no hotels or restaurants on the way. They would consider themselves blessed if they sighted a human dwelling. They would announce their arrival with a greeting of peace, and if that greeting was reciprocated, their arrival was accepted and they received hospitality. Today I need your hospitality. Tomorrow you may need to be my guest. Our ancestors learnt to make a virtue of necessity. In those days there were no telephones. A guest would come unannounced: neither the time nor even the day was known in advance. The guest was indeed a date-less (atithi) person.

Our experience enables us to discover symbols. The unannounced guest becomes symbolic of God’s dealings with us. When and how he comes into our life is all his grace. Gradually the virtue of hospitality gets divinized. Atithi Devo Bhava: look at your guest as God Himself. The coming of a guest was a reminder that God comes into our life as and when He chooses to do so. All that we are is totally a gift of God’s love. In the Christian monastic tradition hospitality was a major virtue: Hospes venit Christus venit: when a guest comes Jesus comes. God’s love becomes manifest in the coming of Jesus.

Gradually as our ancestors settled down after learning to cultivate the earth, hospitality acquires a new meaning. Now they have a permanent roof over their heads and a fairly stable source of food. When something runs short, they can always go and buy it from a neighbour or a nearby shop. Now they realize that they need to survive not only as mammals, but also as humans; to be creative and not merely procreative. Now they need the other not only for survival and security, but also for love and friendship. We discover that to be human is to be nomadic; to be human is to be pilgrim, people who are constantly crossing boundaries, for only then can we travel. Hospitality now becomes part of our pilgrimage unto humanity, much beyond the survival of the human species, much beyond the visible horizon. In nomadic culture blood-relations are primary bonds; now love and friendship become more important. Real hospitality nurtures love and friendship beyond blood-relations.

The nomadic experience takes us deeper still. We are all pilgrims on this earth. God is our host, the ever receding horizon. We can survive only by sharing what we receive from Him. This is what Jesus tried to communicate to us: He took bread, thanked God for His blessing, broke that bread into small pieces and shared them with people around Him. In doing this He did not bother about what they were, what language they spoke, what religion they followed. The question was not whether they were clean or unclean. He knew all these are human constructions and human constructions cannot constrict a true pilgrim. For Jesus only one thing mattered: they needed His love and concern. This gesture of Jesus of breaking and sharing bread was the origin of the early Christian practice: the breaking of bread. It was not a ritual, requiring a consecrated place, an ordained minister, some vessels especially set apart, much less a book carefully composed by some scholars. It was a real sharing of God’s blessings, with joy and simplicity of heart. When we share God’s blessings, then there can be no needy person among us. The bread God breaks for us is enough for all of us. Slowly a ritual is added to the breaking of bread. The Lord’s Supper follows the Agape—a fellowship meal. Eventually the fellowship meal disappears and only a ritual remains, and eventually becomes merely a ritual. Gradually this ritual becomes a tool of domination and control, a source of power and prestige, and the resource of endless income. What began as a concern for one another becomes a ritual to worship God. It is easy to worship God because He does not need our worship. Since God does not need anything we offer, all that we offer can be pocketed by some. In this situation of decay those who are in control make sure we spend a lot of money on rituals; costly buildings, ornamented vestments, vessels of precious metals, etc. Those who are in control get their commission, while the poor are forgotten. What began as the breaking of bread to feed all now becomes the breaking of people to enrich the elite. What was originally an invitation to break oneself now becomes a convenient tool to affirm oneself. Then religion becomes an empty ritual, co-opted by the worldly powers, powers of darkness.

In its early stage, survival shapes culture. Slowly humans think that survival is better ensured if they can negotiate with the unseen powers that preside over the many manifestations of nature. This seems to have been one of the formative forces of cult. As cult becomes powerful it begins to shape culture. Hence when cult deteriorates culture too degenerates. When this happens money becomes the most powerful force. This is our situation today. People need to make money and prove to others that they have succeeded in making money. Hospitality now becomes one possible means of making money and displaying the glamour that money can produce. Originally survival was about life on earth. Gradually it becomes a multifaceted need. This is our situation today. Now to survive we need to put on masks, follow certain rules and regulations, perform some rituals, and play many other ridiculous games.

Let me explain this by a simple example: a family is planning a marriage. They print such invitation cards that who receive them know that this family is in a position to throw away money. They book a very posh hotel to put up their guests and to host the marriage party, not because some other alternative was not available, but that would not convince their guests that they have plenty of money. The guests come not so much because they really love the new couple, but to show others that they can afford in very costly clothing and jewellery. Sad to say this tragic comedy is the lot also of many priests, bishops and people who claim to vow evangelical poverty. This may also partly explain why many priests, bishops and people who claim to vow evangelical poverty are more seen at marriages of the well-to-do than of the poor. This in a way only goes to prove that cult has hit the rock-bottom. When show begins to guide us, then violence is not very far away. In the pre-human stage it was the survival of the fittest. We are in it again: now it is the survival of the richest. Those who have money to waste set the norm and even the poor are pressurized to follow the consumer culture. They need to protect their ‘dignity.’ Is there a way out of this mess?

We need to become disciples of Jesus. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47). Yes, if we rediscover the Eucharist of Jesus—not an empty ritual but a real breaking of bread, then even some rightwing people may join us.

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