The Art of Hospitality
As most know, early in the 17th century, the Wampanoag native people of the eastern seaboard (now Massachusetts) generously fed and welcomed the Puritans, an oppressed religious minority group that fled England’s climate of religious hostility and took refuge in these distant shores. Since then, Thanksgiving has become a celebration that has generally succeeded in cutting through most religious, cultural and class divides in this country, thanks, in part, to President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of it as a national holiday in 1863, a time when the country was being torn apart in a civil war.
Thanksgiving is perhaps the only sacred observance that the overwhelming majority of Americans have bought into. It is a time when people everywhere seem to make a genuine effort to open their hearts and homes to each other and share what is usually a sumptuous feast while giving expression to a deep, heartfelt thankfulness for all that they enjoy.
Much of its meaningfulness has to do with people embracing an activity that requires considerable effort and preparation and culminates in a collective blessing and sharing of foodstuffs, as well as an outpouring of goodwill and positive energy. For this particular celebration, people throughout the country make every effort to be with their families, in spite of the great distances they may have to travel. Those who cannot make the annual pilgrimage to their family home may take spiritual refuge with others in improvised “universal families.” On this day, it matters less who is sitting across from you at the table and more that there is someone sitting there who is glad to pass you the yams and green beans.
Although this celebration focuses on the commonplace activity of nourishing our bodies, even at the risk of stuffing ourselves with the mountains of food that Americans are wont to prepare, it is nevertheless carried out with the intentional highlighting of the traditional foods of a Northeast harvest and, usually, with a blessing or prayer. Blessings that people in our vastly multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious society may be thankful for frequently include the protection by a Supreme Being, valued elements of nature and the manmade world, as well as the irreplaceable gifts of family, friends, home, health and security. Because many of these blessings can at any time vanish from our midst, there is not a one who sits around the Thanksgiving Day table who is not moved to acknowledge the precariousness of his or her existence and inherent dependence on the all-enveloping “web of life” that includes the soil we walk on, the water we drink, the food we consume and the air we breathe.
To collectively enter through ritual and ceremony into a state of profound appreciation, nay, of love and reverence, for the totality of unseen forces that uphold our existence—call it by whatever name you wish—is in itself a gift that helps us to navigate through the world. However, to avail ourselves of the possibility of entering into meaningful life-serving ritual and ceremony such as we do at Thanksgiving, we first need to suspend our ordinary comings and goings, our inner ramblings and mutterings, our judgments, resentments and other limiting forms of being.
In life-serving ritual and ceremony, we consciously choose our posture, breathing, thoughts and words, movements, sacred objects and clothing, music, sources of illumination, offerings, and food and drink to be able to enter a state of unity and communion with all things. Through participation in meaningful ritual and ceremony, one becomes greatly aware of just how enormous, wondrous, complex and indeed sacred our existence is, down to our ability to draw in a single breath, utter a syllable or move a finger. Through simple, open-ended rituals and ceremonies that acknowledge our common origin, needs and destiny, many if not all of the opposing forces at work in our petty and divided human communities (native and non-native, old and young, moneyed and not moneyed, Christian and non-Christian, gay and straight, etc.), as well as the seemingly opposing forces unleashed by nature herself (creation and destruction), can be reconciled and accepted for what they are.
For as long as the ritual or ceremony lasts, we can potentially find ourselves immersed in a sea of beauty, bounty, sanctity, bliss, purity, healing, peace and unity. Through ritual and ceremony, these long-sought-after states that we know are possible can be experienced deeply, and, as a result, become fundamental parts of our constitution and the new consciousness that so many people in our society long to birth. At such moments, we become aware that were it not for the multitude of pressures bearing down on our lives, we might possibly opt to live in a more deliberate manner as one does during a ceremony and thus savor more deeply everything that appears before us rather than rush headlong into the compulsory “ceremony of busyness” that we unconsciously practice most of the time.
From the dawn of human history, rituals and ceremonies that incorporate a deep and holistic communion with ourselves, with each other and with the unseen forces of the universe have been catalytic to the deepening of the human psyche and to the realization of our ultimate purpose on Earth—to be awake to the marvel of existence and to honor it in every way possible. Indeed, one has only to look at the magnificence of a Pueblo Indian ceremony to acknowledge that a more integrated, reverent, beautiful, poetic and richly symbolic existence is indeed possible over the dominant culture’s prevailing “survival of the fittest” mentality and obsessive consumerism.
Because of New Mexico’s unique character as a repository of old cultures, together with its awe-inspiring landscapes, it has often served as a magnet for a multitude of groups that practice rituals and ceremonies. In northern New Mexico, in addition to the bedrock native religions and their sanctuaries, there are numerous Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Sikh and Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, Islamic mosques and New Age spiritual communities, as well as sweat lodges and sacred natural sites that draw attention to the human need for establishing a deep communion with the cosmos that goes beyond our nine-to-five routines.
In each of these places, as well as in the privacy of people’s own homes, individuals and groups consistently gather to honor life in many ways, as well as to offer thanksgiving for all that sustains us. No doubt, the depth and quality of these observances help determine the depth and quality of our daily comings and goings and interaction with each other, as well as with our planetary home.
Alejandro López is a northern New Mexican writer and photographer.