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I almost made it to St Patrick’s Day before breaking my Lenten alcohol fast but we had a friend coming to stay the weekend before Lá Fhéile Pádraig.

I am in good company, it seems, when it comes to breaking a fast. In ancient Irish culture a fast would always be broken if a guest appeared, for hospitality always trumped a fast and hospitality meant not just giving food and drink to the guest but eating and drinking with them. The same principle applied with the desert fathers and mothers of 4th Century Egypt. They led lives of extreme asceticism but if a guest came (and bearing in mind that offering hospitality in the desert could be life-saving) any fast would be put on hold whilst they enjoyed food and drink with the guest.

We are told in Genesis Chapter 18 how Abraham entertained three strangers without realising that they were angels in disguise, and hospitality is central in all of the major religions. In Islam it is considered the highest virtue, and the Prophet is reported to have said, ’There is no good in the one who is not hospitable’. We read in the Gospel of John how the first miracle of Jesus was not the healing of a leper or the gift of sight to a blind person, important as these later miracles were. Rather it was turning water into wine at a wedding where, probably to the huge embarrassment of the couple, the wine had run out. And it wasn’t just a little bit of wine; it was a huge amount, far more than was needed. And it wasn’t just any old wine; it was the very best. Such a gesture speaks to me of a generous God who gives in abundance; perhaps too of a God who likes a good party!

In 1995 Yim Soon and I and our then 8-month-old son Kieran found ourselves lost in Los Angeles and with almost no money left. We’d been due to spend three nights with a friend of Yim Soon at the end of a ten-week trip but Yim Soon had lost her address book. By chance she had the phone number of a Korean priest that we’d met in Canterbury and who had moved to LA. He arranged for us to be picked up by two Korean nuns who took us to their convent in the Koreatown and fed us lavishly and gave us a gorgeous room for the night. The following two days we were welcomed by a family of the Korean Catholic community of Orange County and treated like royalty and also taken  to Disneyland. On the final evening the brother of the man we were staying with asked why I had an empty guitar case and I explained that my guitar had been stolen from the retreat house in Portland, Oregon where we’d been. “I want you to have mine,” he said. The guitar I was given that day is not any old guitar. It’s an ornate, round-backed, semi-acoustic Ovation with a lovely, resonant tone. I’m still making good use of it twenty-seven years later and I was playing it in St Patrick’s week, at the assembly of a primary school in West London, then at our Mass at the Irish Centre. Following that Mass Gerry and I and Ursula, one of our guests from the Embassy, were invited to stay for lunch. Ursula asked me what the meal would be. “It could be bacon and cabbage,” I suggested, in wishful anticipation. Since being at the Irish Chaplaincy bacon and cabbage is forever associated for me with the meals we used to share, pre-Covid, at Traveller events in prisons and which we’ll hopefully be sharing again soon. Our meal at the Centre was indeed bacon and cabbage and it was delicious. And none of us turned down the kind offer of a glass of wine. It was another feast, and whether in the wilds of ancient Ireland or the Egyptian desert or an Irish Centre or a prison, there’s something especially enjoyable and nourishing about food and drink shared.

Our friend who came to visit declared many years ago that life is too short for cheap wine. She duly brought with her on the Friday a very nice bottle of French red, and produced on the Saturday an even better one. It was definitely worth breaking a fast for! And how we were blessed, giver and receiver.

 

 

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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