Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Xenia: An Ancient Concept in a Modern World

Xenia: Guest-friendship, the responsibilities of both guest and host.

It's Saturday night, mid-January, and your friends just went home after a long evening of board games and beer.  You and your dog are quite ready to settle in for a long winter's nap--the temperatures have been dangerously cold, and even in your nicely insulated house, you can feel cold drafts coming from the windows.  It chills you, and you grab an extra blanket and bump the thermostat up a notch on your way to bed.

Settling in with a book, your daydreaming is suddenly interrupted by a knock at the door.

It's midnight, you think.  Did someone forget something?  Shit, I should check, if Dan forgot his phone again his girlfriend will give him hell.

You open the door to a sight you never expected.  A man stands before you.  He is skinny, "gaunt" as the old poets would say.  His thin jacket is tattered and dirty, his jeans have holes in the knees.  His shoes may have once been white--now, they are black with dirt, and you'd guess they are worn smooth on the bottom, many years past their usefulness.

What startles you most is the man's face.  His eyes are wide, desperate, pleading.  His cheeks are hollow, the stubble on them uneven, as if his last shave had been without a mirror... or even a razor.  His lips are tinged blue, and the rattling of his teeth is audible.

The man falls to his knees and clutches at your fleece pants.  "Please," he begs.  "It's so cold.  So cold."

Startled, you take a step back.  "What do you want?"

"Just a snack, a couch.  It's freezing out here.  Just one night, I promise, and then I'm gone.  Nothing is open, no one will take me."

What do you do?

This is a familiar story to those versed in Hellenic mythology.  Baucis and Philemon took in Zeus and Hermes, disguised as weary, poor travelers, and were amply rewarded, while the rest of the town was destroyed (or had some such catastrophe, depending on who's telling the story) for refusing to exercise Xenia.

Have the gods' expectations of us changed?  Does the presence, or absence, of a shelter, a hotel, a 24-hour McDonald's absolve us of responsibility to take in those who seek our aid?

What do you think?

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