This article is part of a series on Favorite Characters in Literature. We hope that it may inspire children and adults alike to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with some of the classics of English literature.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book portrays this elderly couple as the essence of hospitality in a story entitled “The Miraculous Pitcher.”
While the villagers examine the appearance of travelers who enter their town to determine if they are worthy of a kind welcome—offering hospitality only to the wealthy-looking in order to receive a handsome reward—Baucis and Philemon give freely to all visitors regardless of background or appearance. They do not give in order to receive but honor the sacred law of hospitality that all persons owe to one another because of their common humanity.
Hawthorne writes, “Human beings owe a debt of love to one another, because there is no other method of paying a debt of love and care which all of us owe to Providence.”
Baucis and Philemon believe that the ancient Greek gods often appear in disguise as vagabonds to determine the quality of the hospitality of the mortals they visit. When the story begins, the couple hears the loud shouts of children and the angry barking of the dogs harassing two travelers entering the village.
Ashamed of the crude manners of their neighbors, the couple once again pledges to honor the sacred rites of hospitality that all human beings owe to one another. Philemon vows to his wife, “But as for you and me, so long as Providence affords us a crust of bread, let us be ready to give half to any poor, homeless stranger, that may come along and need it.”
The couple knows it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Gods in Disguise
The weary travelers, two Greek gods in disguise wearing plain clothing and looking common with no image of distinction or sophistication, find welcome only in the modest home of the elderly couple. Apologizing for lacking ample provisions to feed their guests, Baucis offers her guests the simple fare she finds in her home: honey, grapes, bread, cheese, and milk.
Noticing the hearty appetites of the travelers who quickly consume the small portion of milk, Baucis wishes she could replenish their cups when they request more to drink, but she has emptied the pitcher to the last drop. She stands amazed to see that the two travelers continue to fill their cups when there is no supply of milk in the house.
After Philemon looks at the pitcher and sees no milk, he begins to notice a small white fountain filling the empty container. Out of gratitude for the generosity and kindness of their hosts, the two Greek gods bless them with the gift of the miraculous pitcher that is never depleted, always replenishing itself after the last drop is poured. It is the perfect gift for the elderly couple whose bountiful hearts and unstinting hospitality knows no limits.
Because they give everything unsparingly, they discover more to give. In awe at the inexhaustible goodness of the human heart, the gods cannot praise their hosts enough or stop acknowledging their appreciation. The kind hearts of Baucis and Philemon are miraculous pitchers of love.
Simple to Divine
The gods call their simple meal “an absolute feast,” and they explain that a friendly, kind welcome to a traveler transforms ordinary fare into the food of the gods, “turning the coarsest food to nectar and ambrosia.”
Touched by the simple goodness and pure hearts of the couple, the gods grant to them a special gift, a wish come true: “Wherefore, request whatever favor you have most at heart, and it is granted.” Baucis and Philemon both have the same request: to die at the same moment and continue always to be one in love both in life and death.
As their wish is fulfilled, the couple beholds their cottage changed into a marble palace, another gift for the humble souls who treated all people as if they were gods in disguise regardless of their humble appearances: “Exercise your hospitality in yonder palace as freely as in the poor hovel to which you welcomed us last evening.”
Although a couple from pre-Christian Greek mythology, Baucis and Philemon anticipate the words of St. Paul in Hebrews when he enjoins hospitality as a mark of Christian living:
“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
The Rule of St. Benedict also honors hospitality as a mark of Christian civilization. In Chapter 53 entitled “The Reception of Guests,” he writes that
“all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35).”
A Simple Good Deed
The welcome of Baucis and Philemon to strangers illustrates the powerful effect of a simple good deed done with no intentions of reward or acknowledgment.
The recipient may look like a miserable vagabond, but he may be an angel or God in disguise to test the goodness of the human heart. The poor traveler may look destitute and wretched, but he may bestow kingly gifts of inestimable value upon the lowly and humble. The lowly visitors may appear to beg and implore, but they often give more than they receive and do not stop giving as a token of undying gratitude.
While material goods like gold diminish after they are offered (a person who gives away all $100 in his purse no longer has money to give), spiritual goods like kindness and hospitality do not dwindle after they are offered. The gift of friendship or charity to one person does not preclude the offer of the same gift to many other persons. Spiritual goods have the quality of the miraculous pitcher and resemble the copious hearts of Baucis and Philemon.
One can be poor in wealth but rich in love, and one can be materially rich but spiritually impoverished. The story of Baucis and Philemon begins with the couple living in a simple cottage but ending their long life in a marble palace.
Their story begins with small portions of food and milk on the table but concludes with a fountain of overflowing milk from a miraculous pitcher. Where hospitality dwells, God visits.
Where God is present, miracles happen, and human goodness is multiplied and abounds in surprising ways that the stingy, hardhearted villagers never imagined when they rejected the Greek gods by unleashing their dogs and urging their children to throw stones at the travelers they presumed came to beg rather than to give.