Seán Walsh: The Innkeeper’s Story

The Innkeeper’s Story

Yes?! A, a bed for the – ? You haven’t a hope!

I’ve never seen such crowds in Bethlehem!..

You, your wife is?.. Oh… Is she – due?.. Oh-hh…

Well look, round the back – the stables.

Ye’ll be in out of the weather, that at self.

She’s like that, my missus – always the good turn…

Quick! A sheet, blanket, towel, hot water, food.

Then away with a servant to the stables.

Me, I went to bed…

For all their haste, they weren’t in time.

He had delivered – with hands calloused by carpentry –

a healthy male. Seamlessly…

So I was told at breakfast…

In truth, they were in awe

at how little remained to be done…

Mother and babe, well – and Joseph, 

quietly proud of his, well, handiwork…

What? What are you saying, woman?!

Shepherds? ‘Down from the hills!

Angels!? Angels, no less! A-appeared to them!

‘Told to make haste, where to go…

And found all to be as they had – 

Oh, this is all too much!

Woman, go to your bed, sleep a while.

You’ll feel better when the sun’s at midday –

 a blue sky, no more starry velvet…

What’s that? They’ve gone back to their flocks?

Hmmm… And the angels into Heaven, no doubt…

No more harps for a while, eh?

I would see for myself – and about time, too!

There, standing at the entrance, all quiet within.

Family… Indeed, you might say, a holy family –

the new-born demanding attention of a sudden!

I turned to return to inn keeping –

and there they were, quietly… wise men

from the East who had followed a star

that had stopped over a stable.

I stepped aside as they entered:

Such finery… precious gifts.

‘Stunned as they knelt in straw and dirt,

bowing low, foreheads touching the stable floor…

And this in adoration of an infant!

Wise men – or fools?..

Oh, Father Abraham! Me, a lowly inn keeper,

Ill versed in the Law and the Prophets…

But I well knew the command that makes

Jewry stand out from all the others:

one only God… Him alone must you adore…

Moses surely turning in his grave…

All was in readiness when they called around:

the missus on edge; servant girls on their toes.

They seemed to enjoy the fare – while anxious

to be on their way… Coins, smiles…

I saw them out, watched as they mounted…

Then one of them asked for directions:

was there another way that would see them clear

of Herod’s castle? I pointed – reluctantly – towards a

rutted road that would add time to their journey…

They shrugged, then spurred away…

Now why would seers not wish to be seen

passing a king’s castle?

The question nudged me

during the broken hours of sleep,

surfaced again at daybreak

as I rose, washed, dressed…



They’re gone – from the stable.


‘Left at first light – urgently.

Did they say why? –

Only that the infant would be in grave danger

if they loitered…

Well… they should be back in Nazareth by night –

No, they headed south –


Asked me to direct them to the nearest point of entry…



Two, three days later. I sensed something was amiss,

stepped outside… Why, the main street was deserted!

No bustle of commerce, no markets, vendors…

Had everyone gone indoors of a sudden?

And then I saw them:

soldiers under Herod’s command,

standing back from the sun, in full uniform,

lining the two sides of the street…

And still the eerie silence.

Then the C O roared a command

and to a man they drew swords

that gleamed and glistened in the sunlight…

But where the enemy? Where armed opponents?

Only men and women here – many of them old –

going about their daily lives…

And children… infants… new born innocents.

2023 Seán Walsh

Similar Posts


  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Thanks so much to Seán Walsh for this touching inside view of that Bethlehem story. Ending as it does with reference to the jealousy of the state that rests ultimately upon force and violence it reminds us of the extreme terror in the Holy Land right now. Never was the Christmas message of peace on earth more poignant or more needed.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, is it right to say of democratic states that they rest ultimately on force and violence? Are they still not the best hope of humanity for a rule based on the general will of the ruled, the electorate, and one further protected by the rule of law and the recognition of civil rights and human rights? To dismiss the state as always a violent imposition is anarchism, and it licences fascism. The important think is to establish a sphere of mature, enlightened political culture that can resist the temptation to revert to either of these forms of primitivism.

  3. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #2 By ‘the state that rests ultimately upon force and violence’ I meant those states that do indeed ‘act out’ the paranoia and jealousy of their rulers, even today. I am sure everyone could list a few that resemble Judea under the Herods and Pilate. Even the USA could go in that direction, depending upon the result of its general election in Nov 2024.

    As to those democratic states that depend more truly upon the consent of their citizens, they too need the ultimate resort of lawful force to deal with the kind of lawlessness we saw in Dublin recently – and in Washington on 06/01/2021.

    That, in the end is what distinguishes the state from all other organisations – it reserves to itself alone the lawful use of force in a given area of jurisdiction.

    The church, on the other hand, has surely learned the downside of too close a relationship with the state, with the use of force and with the social elites who tend, even in democracies, to have most influence over the state. Dignitatis Humanae Article 1 – in recognising that the truth cannot be ‘transmitted’ by force – surely commits the church to the vulnerable state of Jesus himself under whatever state exists, hoping for its protection but not for a position of privilege. Even in democracies the privileged covet power in order to protect their privilege – and the church needs always now to maintain its distance.

  4. Joe O’Leary says:

    “That, in the end is what distinguishes the state from all other organisations – it reserves to itself alone the lawful use of force in a given area of jurisdiction.”

    One might equally well say: “That, in the end is what distinguishes the university from all other organisations – it reserves to itself alone the granting of degrees.”

    Is there not some more positive definition of the essence of a state (or a university)?

    1. Sean O'Conaill says:

      The state’s claimed ‘reason to be’ is, of course, that it protects its citizens and preserves order via its monopoly of lawful force.

      The trouble is, Joe, as you well know, that states can devolve into kleptocracies and autocracies. Would you describe e.g. Putin’s Russia or Salman’s Saudi Arabia ‘positively’ – yet both are, nevertheless, states, are they not?

      Arguably, a university would cease to be a university if it ceased completely to educate anyone, but in the end, since states can maintain themselves solely by the successful application of force, that is, in the end, their defining characteristic. We all might deplore what happened to Zimbabwe under Mugabe, but it remained a state.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    I notice that Trump’s devotees make religious noises all the time, using vehement piety as a substitute for thought, and I wish that church teachers would give a good example of how to speak soberly and constructively on political matters. We need to hear more about the positive purpose and value of the State, even with reference to Natural Law. The subject seems to be neglected in seminaries, so that you have clerics and bishops indulging a neo-Augustinian suspicion of the State. The State is not just an apparatus of rule, but should empower its citizens, aim at the common good, and enable the richest form of social and communal order. I think we should respect the best modern thinking on the State, such as that embodied in the American Constitution, if only because the alternatives are terrifying. Here is a glimpse of the sort of discussion that goes on in Political Science:

  6. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Thanks, Joe, for that very useful historical summary of different views of what the state should and could be.

    The Exodus story surely identifies the Pharaonic state as that-which-enslaves and that-from-which-we-must-escape, and yet do not the prophets often bemoan the injustice of the kingdom of Israel also?

    The Kingdom of God is unlike any other state in that, arising from Jesus’s completely non-violent sojourn among us, it cannot be established or protected by force, and is therefore always vulnerable – at the mercy of the state that inevitably precedes and encloses it.

    There is a fascinating letter of Emperor Julian (the apostate) – the only emperor after Theodosius to try to restore the old pagan gods – in which he explains the growing prestige of Christianity in terms of the effectiveness of Christian charities and urges the pagan priesthood to emulate those. Similarly, I read somewhere, the Chinese state opposition to overt Christian symbols such as churches with crosses, is tempered by acceptance of Christian charities that support an ageing population that the state itself is severely challenged to support.

    Maybe this historical template suggests the kind of relationship with the state that the church should seek to build, even when the prevailing state ideology is hostile?

    As far as I know there is no modern state anywhere that has not had a violent origin. This speaks of the tendency of competing claims and covetousness to be the inevitable context in which states are founded. This in turn also explains why violence tends to threaten the problem of governmental succession – as it will inevitably do yet again in the USA in 2024.

    The problem of covetousness increases with what Alain de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’ – which obviously increased to paranoia in the case of the King Herod of the infancy narratives. That this very same problem exists for the Chinese one-party state is clear from what has happened, and continues to happen, to the Uighurs – probably because of the tradition of ‘theocracy’ in Islam (intolerance of a church-state separation).

    So what exactly do we pray for in terms of that church-state relationship when we say ‘thy Kingdom come’? That will differ in every state, but a sensitivity to the status anxiety of ruling elites would seem to be key to toleration, as well as attention to the charitable needs of the society in question.

    Catholic ‘Integralism’ sets out to convert elites instead, aiming at a restoration of a Christian political ascendancy – in denial of just how well that worked out in Europe 1914-18 and subsequently. We need to learn that lesson now and forever, to suppress our own Christian covetousness and to become aware of status anxiety as the root of all evil.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, what you say about status anxiety and the violent origin of states might chime with Hegel on “the battle for recognition” as in his “master and slave dialectic”; he thought civil order emerges (or evolves) out of violent origins but heals and overcomes them. Julian (361-363) was after his uncle Constantine (306-337) but before Theodosius (379-395), and he is a sympathetic figure, since unlike Theodosius he was not a persecutor. He died at the very young age of 31, leaving a great literary and historical legacy.

    The kingdom of God might be translated as “the rule of God”. If so, “thy kingdom come” would be the same as “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”.

    Sometimes secular states reflect kingdom values of justice, peace, freedom, inclusive community, human rights, care for the poor, recognition of human dignity and equality. Christianity has contributed to this, and should approve and promote it.

    I have the impression that some theologians, such as William T. Cavanaugh (, tend to adopt an anti-State rhetoric which seems to be a dangerous short-circuit.

    A functioning, legitimate State is a very great human achievement, and the Church recognizes this, even though some modern States established themselves by shaking off church control (France, Spain, Italy).

  8. Sean O'Conaill says:

    #8 Hegel “thought civil order emerges (or evolves) out of violent origins but heals and overcomes them.”

    So how are we to explain the obvious decay and ‘fraying’ of e.g. the constitutional stability of the USA, so crucial in the defence – or maybe even the survival – of the whole western democratic project? And the current dire situation of that other bastion of democracy, the UK?

    The health of a state is surely connected to its success in maintaining the internal unity of a society. For Girard that unity is always under challenge from the competing mimetic desires of its citizens – and growing inequality in both troubled democracies is a clear sign of that. He believed that with the mechanism of scapegoating disallowed (all unified by a common perception of the ‘guilt’ of a single individual) violence will instead break out randomly and unpredictably in multiple locations, as individuals ‘lose it’.

    When police speak of ‘copycat’ crime, read ‘mimesis’.

    The manic polarisation of US politics is largely due to the extreme status anxiety of those who dally with ‘white supremacism’, and see ‘liberalism’ as ‘race treason’. Has its constitution ever been so seriously ‘stress tested’ since the civil war of 1861-65?

    Surely the Christianity so obvious in the best of the US political elites is also being tested now to the limit. It is surely a mistake to think of any state as having an existence that is separate from the will of those who maintain it. That one of the two great political parties of the US should now be dallying with a populist leader who has neither understanding or commitment to its balanced constitution shows starkly the threat posed by covetousness to political order.

    In the UK yesterday the BBC interviewed a member of the House of Lords now under investigation for profiteering in the Covid emergency. She insisted she had broken no law by denying falsely that she had any connection with a firm awarded huge contracts for the supply of medical apparel. This is why capitalism is now under such serious challenge – akin to the situation of the moguls who dominated the US before the anti-trust laws of the period 1890-1914.

    In the wake of the excessive fortunes now permitted by the digital economy, the huge carbon footprint of the mega-wealthy – e.g. superyachts – could surely be defined as environmental theft – enabling a new look at sumptuary laws? That too would be in line with Christian concern for the kingdom of God? As would the idea of a universal basic income?

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.