The heart of Celtic spirituality is hospitality. Indeed, from even before the coming of Christianity, the Celts recognized hospitality as a core value of their civilization.
The reigns of mythic kings were judged on their hospitality (or lack thereof). Once, when Bres, a warrior of the Fomorian people — the “bad guys” of Celtic myth — became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he quickly became renowned for his parsimony. Bards complained that visitors to his house could count on leaving with no smell of beer on their breath! Finally, a bard named Cairbre was fed up enough to write a satire about the ungenerous king—the first satire ever composed in Ireland. Its effect was blistering—literally—as it caused sores to burst forth on Bres’ face, blemishing him and making him unfit to rule.
I don’t think the message here is about taking revenge on those we encounter who lack hospitality. For like charity, hospitality begins at home, and so the story of Bres is a reminder that if we want to live in a world of hospitality, we begin by opening our own doors (and hearts).
Several years back I attended a workshop featuring the Celtic author Caitlín Matthews. At one point during the workshop, the question of religious tolerance came up. Caitlín spoke for a minute or two about the many different kinds of people who attend her workshops, ranging from Christians to Pagans. She said “I’m willing to speak anywhere where a spirituality of hospitality is practiced.” Those words gave me a clear sense of how Celtic wisdom transcends religious boundaries.
Hospitality does not erase religious (or any other) differences. But within the gracious gesture of hospitality, our tribal identities cease to become the defining factor of who we are. If I am focusing on how you and I are so different from one another, community becomes strained if not impossible. But when we choose to place our attention instead on our kinship and on what we share with open hearts, then our differences are reduced to the simple ways in which we embody diversity and distinctiveness—lovely qualities, after all, for they have their roots in nature.
Celtic myth suggests that to refuse another’s hospitality is itself a breach of hospitality. A sacred vow or geas bound Cúchulainn, the great hero of Ulster, never to refuse hospitality. Many such heroes had one or more geasa imposed on them, prohibiting them from certain acts lest tragedy ensue if the geas were broken. Alas for Cúchulainn, he had another geas, never to eat the meat of a dog. The moment of truth came when he encountered an impoverished old woman who offered him a bowl of stew. The gruel contained hound meat. Faced with an impossible dilemma, Cúchulainn finally accepted the food and ate the meat, even though this act set into motion the events that would claim his life.
Disregarding for a moment the larger themes of tragedy in that story, consider how Cúchulainn, knowing that he would break his vow no matter what he did, chose to preserve his commitment to hospitality before he maintained his dietary taboo. I’m not trying to suggest that a diabetic should eat a candy bar just because someone offers it; but simply that the Celtic path regards hospitality with such honor that even a warrior as mighty as Cúchulainn couldn’t bear to refuse it.
Celtic hospitality is not just a matter of folklore and legend. One time I was in Banbridge, Co. Down, and couldn’t find lodging; I mentioned this to the owner of a pub and he spent the next half hour driving me around until I found a room for the night. An even better tale comes from a former student of mine, who had a flat tire once while traveling in rural Ireland. Stopping in front of a farmhouse and hoping to use the phone, he met the farmer who insisted on fixing the tire himself—and then the farmer’s wife invited my student and his family in for dinner. And of course, talk of payment was quickly squelched. “No need for that,” the farmer said simply.
Maybe in some parts of the world these stories would be unremarkable. But to an American used to living in a rapid-paced urban environment where too few people really reach out to others, such stories of hospitality are inspiring, precisely because they are sadly unfamiliar. May the wisdom of the Celts help all of us to reclaim a more welcoming way of life.
True hospitality can only be given freely, and it extends far beyond material generosity. A corporation will give away tremendous resources in its promotional campaigns, but it’s always done with an eye to future sales and profits. Meanwhile, true hospitality can be found in a moment of attention or a simple glass of water on a sweltering day.
Perhaps the single most important quality in hospitality is freedom. If I give in order to receive later, it’s not a free gift, and I remain indentured to my own need for self-protection. Only when I am truly liberated am I in a position to open my life to receive the stranger and support those who come to me with a need. That’s when hospitality happens.
How can we practice hospitality today? Perhaps two principles apply here: letting things be imperfect, and letting miracles unfold slowly. In other words, be hospitable toward yourself as you seek ways to cultivate hospitality in your world. None of us has to go from being Bres the Fomorian to becoming Mother Teresa overnight—but we all can find small ways to offer grace to others. Drive a little less aggressively. Invite the neighbors over for dinner. Take time to comfort an upset coworker. Visit your great aunt in the nursing home, and take her to church. And of course, be available to host guests in your home—if not total strangers, then at least out of town friends when they’re passing through. Remember, hospitality doesn’t demand that your house feels like a five-star hotel. It just needs to be warm, clean, and most of all, loving.
Hospitality can only exist when we also maintain appropriate boundaries, not to mention common sense. Cúchulainn hardly showed hospitality when an army invaded Ulster. There’s no point in becoming imprisoned by the role of host. The minute we feel obligated to be generous, what we are doing is something different from hospitality. Maybe it’s saving face, or keeping up appearances, or trying to please mom or God or someone. Such behavior may not be bad—but it’s not true hospitality. So don’t check your brain at the door. You’re only free to say yes when you are equally free to say no.