Ethika Politika just published my essay, “Why Do I Build the Wall?”, which involves a lot of different things (a review of a really impressive folk opera rendition of the Orpheus myth made it in there) but is really about the Incarnation as wrecking ball.
It began percolating a while ago at the Front Porch Republic conference last fall. During the Q and A’s the subject of hospitality popped up indirectly, in an exchange that went something like this (generously paraphrasing from memory here):
College Student: Mr. Berry where does the value of traveling to expand your experience fit in your vision of returning to your roots?
Wendell Berry: Well if you look at one the great traveling classics, the Odyssey, what happens? Odysseus experienced one trial after another, almost getting killed each time, until he finally has the relief of returning home.
This got a good chuckle. Of course, Berry has written at greater depth on this very question in the Odyssey, especially in his great essay, The Body and the Earth. But there too his main focus is on the end of travel- getting back home- and so the student’s question was still unanswered. If “expand your experience” only means the consumption of experiences then there is no meaningful answer, but another practice dear to the hearts of many localists presented itself. So I jotted down, “What about travel and hospitality?” and returned to the Q and A.
Maybe the value of travel can be measured in not in the number of exotic photos taken but the depth of hospitality shared. Perhaps the great gift of being in a strange place away from home is the opportunity to practice hospitality, which, according to Paul of Tarsus anyway, it needs. When you travel aren’t you learning to be a guest in another’s land and home? Isn’t the happy traveler the one who learns not to take and control but to receive what is given on its own terms, the one capable of being surprised- not only frustrated- by the unexpected? You could object that this actually describes letting others practice hospitality, but hospitality isn’t such a one way street after all. Isn’t it a paradox that in receiving the hospitality of your host- dinner, lodging, their company- you can’t avoid, in some way, also receiving their presence, and in that simultaneously making the host your guest too?
A friend recently loaned me Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer to read, and I was struck by the way he kept returning to the virtue of hospitality. In one paragraph he writes,
Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler.
And a few lines down he sums it up,
Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest.
But if he is right in describing this as a virtue then that means that hospitality isn’t something that happens automatically, that it takes work and work which will initially be awkward before it becomes beautiful, because if it is a virtue then it is also an art. Every ballerina had to take those first clumsy baby steps to, one day, pirouette.
And, as I found in this essay into those awkward steps, this understanding of hospitality might have some surprising implications for all us distracted and tired travelers.