Thursday, February 13, 2014

On hospitality


Rarely do I get into pissing contests with anyone, and I do my best to avoid those who like to. My approach is instead to take the principle that I want to argue and expand on it. Case in point is a recent development within the Morriganic community on the subject of hospitality.

Recently on the Wild Hunt, Rynn Fox wrote an article regarding hospitality as a foundation to her group's devotional relationship to the Morrigan. As such, she presented certain practices as offerings to Her; that charity work, blood drives, etc. constitute an offering or “sacrifice” the Queen would find pleasing. On the face of it, I have no quarrel with the notion that I can do certain difficult things, e.g. donating to those less fortunate when I'd rather go shopping, and that “sacrifice” is given as an homage to Her.

But here's where it gets confusing - Rynn seems to indicate the need for hospitality comes from her reconstructionist background. That ancient cultures practiced hospitality, and that the reason they did was out of concerns that the Gods walked among us and would bless or punish us based on our hospitality to them disguised as strangers. She also asserts that such hospitality is missing from our daily experience because we live in a jet-set age where travelling is easy and cheap.

Now, I'm a big fan of reconstructing old ways that work. I think that values that served us for millennia in tribal society still serve us because, although our technology has changed drastically in 150 years, our wetware – our brains and our psychology - have not. We still think as Pagans when we get down to the primal level. We choose tribes of like minded folks to associate with, only now the interwebs make that much easier to sort out and connect over distance. We view outsiders with suspicion, fetishize our own Gods and values, believe in our own superstitions and whatnot just the same as our “dumb” ancestors did.

But hospitality is still alive and well regardless of Fox's assertions. All you have to do is take a trip through the American South, or Hispanic America, or even Asian culture. Southern hospitality is legendary – you will be so well fed and comforted you can't stand up. Hispanics will take food off their child's plate to feed you, and Asians have a culture deeply rooted in being a gracious host. The key to discovering it is to set aside your prejudices and go exploring as the gracious guest.

Grace. That is the key that is missing from Fox's expression of values. It doesn't matter how much of a badass you are battlefield, wasted movement and wasted energy are indications that you don't know what you are doing. There is a saying in the martial arts/tactical training community : “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. Smoothness is economy of force, lightness of mind, and quickness of attack and defense. What one develops is a sense of grace in movement, which belies power and skill.

That grace appears in other areas as well. Intellectually, it shows up as devastating arguments in debates, relevant insights in scientific work, deep understandings in poetry and art. And I would argue this arena is no less a place of warrior development than a battlefield; the field is different but the victory is the same.

In the home, grace is also a sign of power. The stranger's visit is an opportunity to express a kind of power, as a Southerner explained to me. It is an art form not only to make your guest feel comfortable and at ease, but to anticipate his needs and desires even before he is aware of them. It is the perfectly brewed cup of coffee, the light and flaky biscuit, the enlivening and amusing conversation.

There is a story of a tea master in Japan who went to visit a fellow tea master. They retired to the tea house and along the way, the host happened to stop by a lemon tree. He remarked it would be great to have with with a special rice he had acquired. He took a knife out, cut the lemon and took it along to the teahouse. The guest thought this charming and when they arrived at the teahouse the special rice was already on the table. The guest realized the “charming” spontenaity was planned. He was mortified, and excused himself from the host's house.

This is an example of how not to do hospitality. The tea master sought not to comfort his guest, but build his own reputation and in the process seemend artless. What could have been a wonderful evening seemed a farce, and was a hospitality failure.

“Mental bearing (calmness), not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai. A samurai therefore should neither be pompous nor arrogant” - Tsukahara Bokuden

So, why do hospitality if it's not for showing off? I disgree with Fox's as to why: I don't think we have to fear the punishment of the Gods for being inhospitable. One's reputation grows with word of graciousness getting around, as well as falls as that same lack of grace gets noticed. It seems to me hospitality on the face of it is a social game, but if we dig deeper, we find there are good reasons for it.

Another argument I've heard is it's a sort of paying-forward. If I'm a gracious host, I can expect that same level of treatment when I'm a guest in someone's home. Maybe this works, but I find it weak.

Since I'm the kind of person who likes to dig down to principles, I'll present an alternative reason based on my principles:

We are magical creatures shaping the world through our will and work. What kind of world do you want to live in?

I want to live in a world where visitors are valued, treated well because that's how I'd want to be treated. To be recognized as kin even in a foreign land, takes the fear of the strange away and opens me to the wonder of a new culture. I want the stranger to understand the value in my culture, and doing good hospitality is how I share that wonder and value.

This is a human concern for human scaled lives. I don't know if the Gods know or care. I don't know if the walk among us, nor am I concerned over it. As long as they are gracious and can appreciate what I'm doing for them, the Gods are as welcome as any guest.

I do think if any blessing comes of it, it's because They want us to be good to each other as our default position. Grace born of power also brings a confidence that drives out fear. The stranger is no one to be feared, and I shall assume he is as good as I am, until or unless he shows me otherwise. If he is vile I shall crush him, but if he is respectfully curious, I can show him the beauty of my home and culture. Grace is the mark of mastery, so I shall always express my grace through hospitality.

And here is where I believe Fox has it backwards. My dedication is based around striving to be more than I am. I believe She calls us to be great, to be heroes and to stand against injustice. She wants us to be better, not because she said so, but because it rests in each dedicant's heart to be. Hospitality is the end of such a journey, not the beginning.