Sacred Hospitality: The Celtic Spirit and Natural Law

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Hebrews 13

Céad míle fáilte! A hundred thousand welcomes! This is a traditional Gaelic expression of welcome and generosity with roots that stretch back to pre-Christian Celtic culture where hospitality was a foundational principle in everyday society and even codified and enforced by the Brehon law.

Hospitality is a sacred act, one which is essential to the Christian life. To give food and shelter to others is a great honour. To feed another is to have love for them. To take care of their needs and provide comfort and shelter is to be like God. As we try to be more like Christ it is essential that we are ever generous. God makes the sun shine on the wicked and the righteous and sends rain to the fields of all without asking whether they deserve it.

Jesus said that what we do for others is what we do for him. When we feed others, or visit them in prison, or give them shelter from the cold we are doing something very sacred. The Brehon laws of the Gaelic people reflected the necessity of hospitality as well. One king Bres was actually dethroned and fled into exile for his refusal to give hospitality to a traveling poet.

In both pre-Christian Celtic culture and the Bible hospitality is essential. It is beneficial for the person receiving the food and shelter of course, but it is also very helpful to the person providing the hospitality. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive and this is no small claim.

The benefit to the soul of one who is generous and provides hospitality as something natural and not needing discussion is profound. When we shift our perspective from demanding payment for goods to sharing freely with friends and strangers we change something essential about who we are.

Our interior lives can be greatly changed by the choices we make in our outward lives. Every time we provide a meal, or a bed, or a comforting word to another we become more like Jesus who lived a life of generosity and service. Not only do we become like Jesus but we become more like the eternal Christ who is made manifest in creation itself. We often imagine life in nature to be nasty, brutish, and short as Thomas Hobbes so eloquently put it. But, that is not really the case.

The natural world is a beautiful give and take. It is an intricate web of interdependence. The trees provide fruit for the birds who help spread the tree’s seeds. The wolves hunt the weaker deer and help to keep the herd healthy and strong. The earth itself springs forth life freely. The waters provide shelter and drink for countless creatures. Even a forest fire is clearing the path for jack pines to grow. Everything in the natural world follows the same Brehon law of hospitality. All life gives of itself so that other creatures may live. Even if you are a vegan you are dependent on the generous sacrifice of countless herbs and trees and vegetables.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher who spoke against Hobbes’ claim that creatures outside of human civilization live nasty, brutish, and short lives. While Hobbes believed life in the wilderness was a cut throat battle between ruthless animals, Rousseau believed that the state of nature outside of civilization was much more cooperative. It is actually human civilization which has become nasty and brutish. Here is a short excerpt from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The realization that possession of the Earth and the bounty she provides is actually a cruel trick played on us by the wealthy and greedy is a profound one. In the state of nature, to which our hearts truly belong, the bounty of life can be possessed by no single person. This natural law forms the basis of the need for generosity.

The early Church Fathers recognized this as well. This is a quote from Basil of Caesarea, who lived 330-370 A.D:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”

The importance of hospitality is seen all through creation. It is our task to ensure we are not greedy like the selfish king Bres and instead live like the servant king Jesus. We must learn to provide for every other creature as Christ has provided for us. As humans we are able to bring hospitality to another level beyond what the other creatures do. The deer provides for the wolf, though not willingly. The blueberry bush provides for the bears without intending to. But we, being gifted with free will and reason, are able to provide hospitality not only for other humans, which is essential, but indeed for all of creation beyond what nature makes us give.

Once we learn to show hospitality to the fish of the sea, the ants of the earth, or the sparrows in the sky we will have corrected what is broken in the human condition. Our sense of separation from creation makes us selfish and we deny Christ the hospitality we are required to give by natural law. As Paul says in Colossians:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

We are part of God’s creation and, as such, we are created through Christ and for Christ along with all the plants and animals. Along with our sisters and brothers we are held together by Christ. Therefore, to show hospitality to any creature is to honour Christ. To care for a wild bird or a traveling poet is to be part of creation the way God intended.

So be hospitable dear sisters and brothers. Show love and compassion for every person you meet. Never let someone come to your home without a meal being offered. Offer your house and even your bed or your clothes to anyone who comes to your door. Bring comfort to the afflicted, shelter to the lost, drink to the thirsty, and warmth to those who are cold. Treat every creature you meet as if they were an angel of heaven, or even Christ himself, and you will come that much closer to being holy as God is holy.

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