My ancestors came to America in the 1900s from northern Europe. I have traced their history as far back as the Norse.
My search has led me to the code of conduct they espoused called the Nine Noble Virtues, which is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.
They considered Honor to be the greatest of these virtues, followed closely by Hospitality. A candle burning in the window, on long, dark winter nights, signified Hospitality. Weary travelers, upon seeing the light of the candle, knew they had found refuge.
One of my favorite comedians, Amy Poehler, said, “Great people do things before they’re ready.” As the mother of an autistic son, my life is filled with doing things before I’m ready, things I don’t know how to do. Learning of the reality of his situation, I felt the hopes and plans I had for him dissolve.
Regardless of my struggle, I had a choice to make: love him and include him in our family (knowing he would change everything), put him in his room every time he damaged something, hurt one of us, or hurt himself (which was most of the time), or try to find an institution for him.
Even though I didn’t know what to expect, even though his siblings and our extended family were apprehensive, I couldn’t do anything other than honor the love I felt and show him sincere hospitality. I couldn’t be a mother and make any other choice. My humanity was stronger than my fear.
The Need for Hospitality
French scholar Louis de Jaucourt describes hospitality as “the virtue of a great soul that cares for the whole universe through the ties of humanity” (Louis de Jaucourt). We, as a human family, have a choice to make: care for and include those who are different than us and need a place to rest, free from war, famine and political strife, or turn our backs on them, preserving our level of safety and comfort. Is our humanity stronger than our fear?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, considers every person to be a child of God. As such, we are one human family. Mormon leaders issued the following statement after President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God’s children across the earth, with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution. The Church urges all people and governments to cooperate fully in seeking the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering.”
The first Latter-day Saint missionaries that arrived in Europe in the 1900’s relied heavily on the hospitality of my ancestors to survive as they wandered from place to place. Likewise, all those who traveled from distant lands to America came with little more than a hope for the hospitality of a stranger.
Before his death, Joseph Smith emphatically stated that he would willingly die defending the rights of, “a good man of any denomination…It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”
Perhaps it is these beliefs that have led Latter-day Saints to be staunch supporters of human rights and religious freedoms. Many of us share these feelings and want to help good people, of all races and denominations, who are in need.
The Dangers of Hospitality
Pagan John Beckett explains, “The ancient laws of hospitality called for sharing your best with strangers, but they made it clear no one was obligated to put his own household in jeopardy by doing so” (John Beckett, “The Limits of Hospitality”)
How do we share our best with strangers without putting our households in jeopardy?
Fear is a common thread throughout the modern human family. In this digital age, we learn about hate-based attacks and sentiments almost immediately. It is natural, and perhaps wise, to be concerned for the safety of our families and communities.
Many of us worry that bringing strangers, especially those with different backgrounds and beliefs, into our communities will lead to decay in the safety and well-being we enjoy. A return to the ancient law of hospitality, in which guest and host honor the pledge to do good to one another and avoid all harm, would do much to alleviate these fears.
The Norse virtue of hospitality held requirements for both hosts and guests. Hosts were asked to share their bounty, protect their guests from danger, and expect nothing, other than gratitude, in return. Good hosts were known as good people.
Guests were asked to be polite, patient and accept what they were given with gratitude. They were also asked to leave before they became a burden. Verse 35 of the Hávamál, a book of Norse proverbs, states “You should keep moving, you should never be a guest forever, in any one place. Your welcome will wear out, if you stay too long, beneath another’s roof” (Jackson Crawford. Translation. The Poetic Edda).
Examples of Hospitality
Similar laws of hospitality were found among nearly all ancient cultures. All understood that refusing hospitality to a stranger was the same as passing a death sentence. Roads were dark and dangerous; Travelers risked harm from predators, animal and human, and harsh weather. The Norse, Greeks, Celts, Hebrews, Egyptians, and Indians, among others, were known for their focus on hospitality.
Most of us don’t face these dangers when we travel today, but refugees that come to our shores have faced and continue to face them. Will we turn them away or metaphorically “send them to their rooms”? Or will we take them in and offer sincere hospitality? A modern example of how to show hospitality can be found in “The Aarhus model” (Hannah Rosin).
An old Celtic fable tells of a young mother who heard a knock on her door one evening. She opened the door to a band of rampaging robbers. Even though she was afraid, she followed the law of Hospitality, inviting them in for food and rest. They thanked her and went on their way. The next morning, she found that all of her neighbors were dead, murdered by this band of robbers. Because of her courage in offering hospitality to strangers, they had honored this law and spared her life.
My husband’s grandmother, Mary Mortensen, was a young mother during a time in American history when her husband had to hobo travel long distances to find work as a carpenter. She was often home alone with their new baby. They had very little.
Mary burned the candle of hospitality, never turning away the weary, wandering hobo. She gave each a safe place to rest, in their barn, and the guest portion to eat. She did this to honor the law of hospitality she had learned from her people…she did it with the hope that her husband might be shown the same hospitality.
Hobos marked Mary’s house with the symbol of a good person that honored hospitality. They also left a warning not to do her any harm.
Her humanity overcame her fear.
Can we be more like grandma Mary? Can we earn the mark of someone who honors hospitality?
Perhaps it’s time for each of us to turn back to this ancient virtue. When our stores are full, we need to share with those in need. When we find ourselves in need, we need to gratefully ask for and accept assistance. As we build reciprocal relationships of hospitality, we lower the inherent risk of bringing strangers into our communities and homes. We strengthen the “ties of humanity” and assist the “great soul” in caring for the universe, or, at least, our small part in it. Our humanity becomes stronger than our fear!