During my monastic years, I was involved in the project of inter-religious dialogue. Along with a Benedictine sister, a Buddhist monk, and a Hindu nun I pioneered what came to be known as Australian Monastic Encounter. It was a privileged experience, through which I visited a number of different monastic centres around Australia and enjoyed the hospitality of various Buddhist monks exchanging with them pathways in the spiritual life.
In the work of inter-religious dialogue, we often detect great similarities and parallels between the religious traditions. Yet, we are also confronted with striking differences. Out of the desire to create a universal sense of fraternity, it has been a danger to try to pretend that the differences are not as great as they first seem. But, in fact, differences remain. Respect for the difference and otherness of each religious tradition is vital if authentic exchange is to take place.
We don’t deal well with differences. One writer, David Tracy speaks of the ‘terror of otherness.’ In the face of this ‘terror’, there is a part of us that wants everything, and everyone, to be ‘more of the same’. We know this in the context even of our own relationships. How hard it is for us to allow our partner to be truly different from ourselves. We wish they could be more like us! And there is a part of us that, even unconsciously, sets out to make them more like me. The end, of course, is frustration and conflict.
In letting the other be ‘other’ and be truly different from me, there can be a great sense of freedom and a potential for growth. Indeed, it is a sign of maturity when we can let others be ‘not me’ but be fully themselves without anxiety or insecurity. All of us, stumble and grope towards this along the way.
As it is true of us personally, so it is true of us as a society. A mature society accepts diversity and difference in its midst. It is not frightened by the stranger, or the foreigner, and it has the freedom and insight to look towards how to integrate such diversity into common purpose. We know that for ourselves, as Australians, this kind of openness and hospitality toward ‘the other’, towards those who are ‘different from ourselves’, has not been easy for us to achieve. Although through multiculturalism we have travelled a long way in the last forty or so years, the residue of being a much more homogenous society still lurks in our consciousness. It is easy for us to distrust that which we regard as ‘different’ or as ‘foreign.’
Henri Nouwen, writing in the 1970’s, described the spiritual life as a movement from hostility to hospitality. As the Spirit works in our life, we are moved beyond our instinctive defensiveness toward the stranger and the foreigner and toward a new perspective, i.e. one of hospitality. The Spirit makes us less defensive. The Spirit opens up new possibilities for us in our encounter with the one who is different and other than ourselves.
For the people of the Scriptures, the practice of hospitality was one of the ways by which they encountered God. The stranger was to be welcomed and even feted. This was not simply an ‘open door’ policy, because to work effectively the practice of hospitality requires certain boundaries and limits. But it was a deep recognition that God comes to us, and that we often grow, in the unexpected encounter, and in the presence and word of the stranger in our midst.
Entertaining the stranger with hospitality means first and foremost listening to their story, inquiring into it, allowing it to be different than my own story. This is hard to do. It is much easier to classify what is different than myself and keep it at arm’s length. But when we invite someone to tell their story, our sense of common solidarity can begin to emerge. We see them in a new light. It is not by accident that governments keep the stories of asylum seekers, for example, from the public gaze. We are prevented from seeing them as persons – we can keep them classified simply as a faceless group. It is only when we encounter persons as persons that our true responsibility towards them is awakened.
The extraordinary thing is that what I am talking about here occurred in Jesus’ own experience as recounted in today’s gospel. He is confronted with a Canaanite woman, a stranger, a foreigner, someone culturally entirely different from himself. At first, he reacts as we all do in such a situation: defensively, even with hostility. But her presence persists. He hears her story. His perspective changes. This encounter becomes a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From this point on, Jesus’ ministry is not only concerned with the small circle of Judaism: he begins to see his ministry in categories which are universal. It is his encounter with someone who is different that brings him to a point in which the sense of his identity grows and expands. He experiences what a much later French writer, Louis Massginon suggested, when he wrote “only in exercising hospitality towards another in sharing the same work, the same bread, as honorable companions, can one understand the Truth that unites us socially . . . One can only find truth through the practice of hospitality.”
Like Jesus, are we willing to risk encountering the stranger in our own life and therefore grow towards the Truth of who we are?
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