Hospitality: The Old World, the Emerging World, and the Community we Build

This Sermon was offered on Sunday, July 16th, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick.

I see articles regularly on how to make friends over age 40. The Surgeon General recently released an advisory that points to the loneliness epidemic and the very real, dangerous impact that isolation can have on people. Obviously, we have a problem, and one that involves community connection.

I was born in 1980, part of Generation X, arguably the generation most known for being disconnected and overlooked, and having some apathy issues related to that. We were the first large cohort of latchkey kids. The economy here in the United States no longer supported a single breadwinner in a household. So, my generation spent a lot more time alone than the ones that preceded us due to not having a parent around. We learned various ways of amusing ourselves, but it’s important to remember that a certain amount of disconnection from group activities was baked in very early.

Add those factors to the general decline of previous nexuses of social connection like churches and community centers and it’s a recipe for finding oneself alone. It’s really easy to fall into isolation. And I think it’s tough to get out of it because being in community is not always smooth. Community brings us into contact with people we do not get along with, whose values are different than ours, or whose histories include things that we feel discomfort about. And here we are, Generation X, as a huge chunk of the working world. Our kids, who we passed our own microculture to, are in the workforce as well. And for a lot of us, community just isn’t something we spent a lot of time in.

One of the questions I field regularly from other community organizers is why Frederick CUUPS, the Frederick Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans – our UU Pagan group here at the UUCF, is so different. Why are we able to offer the activities we do – events that take a large number of people volunteering in order to happen. Why do we have so much engagement, especially given the fact that the bulk of our membership are Gen X and Millennials- the exact generations who were less socialized and therefore are frequently less skilled in community connection.

There are many factors at play, as there are in most situations, but one of the larger threads in this particular weave that I come back to is hospitality. An interesting aspect of practicing a religion that is rooted in pre-Christian-conversion cultures is the way very old world values inform a modern practice. I’m not talking about the modern definition of hospitality. I’m talking about the philosophy of hospitality that was in use over a thousand years ago.

The words “host” and “guest” originate from a single Proto Indo European root word: ghosti. It roughly translates to “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality,” representing “a mutual exchange relationship highly important to ancient Indo-European society.”*

I think it’s useful to remember the old world here. If you were traveling, and a terrible storm came up, it might very well spell your end without the help of a stranger offering shelter and food. Hospitality wasn’t about place settings or who makes the restaurant reservations or surface niceties. It was a very real matter of life and death. It was a major factor in how society operated. Both host and guest could be thought of as “givers.” A guest-friendship was a bond of trust between two people that was accompanied by ritualized gift-giving and created an obligation of mutual hospitality and friendship that, once established, could continue in perpetuity and be renewed years later by the same parties or their descendants.

This ritualized gift-giving is present in many old stories. The Icelandic and Norse sagas are full of references to it. One of my favorite stories that demonstrates this kind of hospitality comes from Egils Saga. The tale is of two men who were dueling – actively trying to kill each other. Night began to fall and one offered the other hospitality for the evening. The two men went to his house, and spent the night drinking, eating, and telling stories by the hearth fire. The bonds of hospitality meant that their quarrel was effectively nullified by ghosti – by both consciously taking on the role of giver. The sun rose the next morning, the two men left the house, and proceeded to try to kill each other again.

This is obviously an extreme example, but let’s break it down a little – big stories are often told to teach smaller lessons. There’s a conscious choice in this tale to take on ghosti – to become givers. This choice means that whatever quarrel or personality conflict is present is not something that is acted on. Instead, there’s a conscious decision to cultivate a reciprocal supportive relationship. The host offers shelter and food. The guest offers peaceful, non-invasive, non-aggressive company. Both are giving despite obvious impediments to true friendship. We recognize that taking on the role of ghosti changes the behavior of all parties involved in the relationship.

A spiritual community space is fascinating because in it, we are all both hosts and guests. We are all ghosti – givers. I think it’s really easy to get too comfortable in shared spaces, especially if we’ve been serving in them for a long time. It’s easy to get possessive – to think of something as “ours” just because we’ve been connected to it a lot. We can fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as hosts and guides and guardians, and forget the other side of ghosti – we are also guests here. Every single one of us. No one in this room owns this building. No matter how much we serve and support, this space belongs to an idea, not a person.

As a guest, when we walk into a loved one’s home and they’re struggling to do the dishes or move furniture, we jump in to help. We are reciprocating their gift of shelter – time in their home – with our gift of support. Folks who have been part of the Pagan community for a while do have more practice with this way of approaching hospitality in spiritual spaces. The vast majority of Pagan religious practice occurs in private homes where moving the living room furniture and returning it afterwards is just part of the entire experience. When we walk into a house of worship like the UUCF, it’s easy to take it for granted – it’s already set up for Sunday service when we get here. But for every chair on the floor, every coffee cup that gets used, every flower in the arrangement on the podium, a set of hands made that happen or will be cleaning up afterwards – another host and guest, just like us.

The membership of Frederick CUUPS brings this older approach – being both host and guest – into the UUCF with us. So, even if what brings us here is a ceremony we are offering the community, we are also mindful of the fact that this spiritual home is shared and we are guests in this hall. The upshot of that approach to hospitality is many hands helping to set up, offer an activity, and clean up. There’s a running joke as a result of how engaged the UU Pagan community here is with hospitality: we like to say that the spiritual discipline of Frederick CUUPS is moving chairs.

Another useful aspect of this older approach to hospitality involves how power is shared. Delegation is something many community leaders struggle with, and I am by no means perfect at it. But I will say that remembering I am a guest here, and not ultimately in charge, means that there’s less clutching around power. This is shared space, and all activities are also shared. I think that perspective means that it’s easier for me to ask for and accept help. It’s easier to experience gratitude for people stepping in to assist rather than feel threatened or encroached on. Frederick CUUPS has a high number of community leaders – people who offer ceremonies, classes, and services – and being open to ghosti, to the awareness that we are all hosts and guests, is part of why community members feel comfortable stepping forward to try leading activities.

The hospitality of the old world included something else – the ritualized giving of gifts. Modern day adherents of Heathen beliefs, religions rooted in the myths of ancient Scandinavia, Norway, Iceland, and Germany, refer to this as the gifting cycle. It is the idea that a gift – of shelter, help, food, or anything else – should be met with an equivalent gift. It is this cycle – the gifting back and forth between two people or groups – that forms very strong bonds. It’s also important to understand that gifting was matched with ability and resources. So, the gift of a Jarl or King would be very different than the gift offered in return by a farmer or tradesman. It’s not about one-upsmanship or offering the better gift – indeed, Heathen lore cautions against trying to outdo someone with gifts. Outlandish or inappropriate gifts are met with caution. The gifting cycle is about meeting and maintaining a connection and thereby strengthening it.

One way the gifting cycle manifests within Frederick CUUPS is through visible recognition and gratitude. We try to meet service with service, but we also meet help and contribution by shining a light on the giver. A phrase you’ll hear or read if you’re around us for any length of time is “Hail the Doers.” Gratitude, especially public gratitude and praise, is also a gift. We celebrate the hands that help serve the community. It’s easy to think of community work as something that happens outside at soup kitchens, stream cleanups, protests, and charities, but community work is also done right here. Even when an activity is cyclical – say string-trimming the Labyrinth, washing dishes, or moving the chairs for a ritual – it is still work. It is still valuable. It is still a gift, and must be met with a gift as well.

The health and function of a community is rarely a single factor. Along with our approach to hospitality are a host of other variables within Frederick CUUPS. I don’t know how to fix the isolation and loneliness epidemic. I only know what has been working for a large group full of two of the demographics at the center of this concern. I do know that when we choose ghosti – to consciously become simultaneous hosts and guests within community – community gets a little easier to manage. This is especially true when the other members of our community meet our giving with their own even if the person we are interacting with is one we’d rather try dueling than cooperating with. I do think that when leadership models healthy host and guest behavior, it influences how the community as a whole functions.

I do believe that people will continue to seek out community to try to ease their loneliness. But, I think that many of the people who need community are also not accustomed to it. Family structures are different now, and exposure to larger communities is by no means a guaranteed part of childhood anymore. For some people, attending school is the first exposure to a community, and the social dynamics present in that environment are quite varied and not always healthy. By aligning to a deeper form of hospitality, we create a safer and less stressful landing space for those who find us; and we model how they can integrate themselves into community as well.

Learning how to be in right relationship with each other is always an ongoing exploration. My own feeling is that better understanding about hospitality, where the idea comes from and how we embody it, will greatly influence the ability of isolated people to find their comfort and connection within communities like this one. How we model ghosti will determine how our community thrives.

Going forward, I invite you to consider the many spaces in which you are a host or a guest or perhaps ghosti – both at once. Think about what makes a good host, and what makes a good guest. Think about the gifting cycle and where you stand in relationship to those who have gifted you. Remember that hospitality is not just surface kindness – the true meaning is much deeper and the roots run all the way back to the earliest branch of our language family.

May your gifting cycle be balanced, and may hospitality always find you.








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