Great virtues are apt to pass out of civilization because the structure of society changes. When there were few cities and journeys were long and arduous, hospitality was one of the most frequently practiced virtues. Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us of being shipwrecked on a sparsely settled shore, and how a whole family went without food to care for him. One of our missionaries in the Pacific stated that he would never tell the natives of the island that he had even so much as a headache; otherwise they would sit up outside his tent the whole night boiling water and herbs, and holding themselves at attention in case of need.
Hospitality has not passed out of the world today, but to a large extent it has become corporate or organized. Institutions are set up to care for the traveler or the needy, as the care becomes less personal and the responsibility less individual. A few decades ago no one in a horse and buggy along a country road would refuse to stop and pick up someone walking. Today few automobiles stop to give lifts to those on the hightway, mostly because too many hitchhikers have made hospitality impossible by their inhospital conduct. Despite this, it is wrong to think the world is not fit to be trusted and that everyone is a rogue until he promes himself to be otherwise.
Granted the changing ways, the necessity of the virtue of hospitality still remains. Nor is it satisfied by indentifying hospitality with the offer of a highball. The essence of hospitality is sympathy and kindness; it is selfishness which makes us think that the opportunities for hospitality are past.
I thought the house across the way
Was empty; but since yesterday
Crepe on the door makes me aware
That someone has been living there.
The age of discovery is not yet over and the greatest discovery yet remains to be made by every individual, namely, there are other people in the world besides oneself. As a former Prince of Wales once said: "Number Ten Downing Street can never be a substitute for the good neighbor"; neither can the Community Chest nor Social Welfare Agency. Immediate personal contact, courageous embracing of the worries and burdens involved in full personal and intimate relationships - these are the bloodstream of a healthy society.
On the Last Day, Our Blessed Lord said that He will judge us by our attitude to hospitality: "When did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not car for You?" (Matthew 25: 44). Hospitality, therefore, not only has the duties of which we are aware, but also the more terrible awareness that it is Christ Who is the Stranger. In all our dealings, we are dealing with the Lord Himself, though we know it not. Maybe if we could see our wars aright, in between two trenches of the enemies, or between a plane in the sky and the target beneath, there is Christ's Body being shot full of holes. What men do to one another, they do to Him, whether the act be of kindness or bitterness.
The bold knight of the Round Table traveled far over mountain and desert in search of the Holy Grail, the Cup of Life from which the Savior drank the night of the Last Supper. His journeys proved fruitless. Depressed in spirit and fatigued in body, he returned to Arthur's hall. On the way he saw a poor man writhing in the ditch. Moved with compassion, he dismounted, gave a cup of water to the suffering man, and the cup glowed with fire as if it were alive with the joys of the new Covenant of Love. The Knight found the Holy Grail, not in deeds of prowess, but in hospitality to the needy.
Wells are made sweeter for the drawing. Those from which no one draws water for beast and fellow human being become polluted. Riches too become more peaceful when used as fuel for charity. The poor cannot reward us for hospitality; therefore God will have to do so. It was these He asked us to invite to our dinners, and it is interesting to note that He always called them, not meals but "banquets."