Some twenty-five years ago I completed my Master’s thesis in Theology. When the title of the thesis was read out at the Graduation Ceremony everyone laughed. I don’t think that they were laughing at me in particular, but the title of the thesis was so incomprehensible to everyone that it certainly drew a chuckle from the audience. The title was “Manifestation of the Other: A Study of David Tracy’s Heterology.” Perhaps it is no wonder it drew a gasp of incomprehension. What was the thesis all about? Well, through the 1980s and 1990s David Tracy was a philosopher of religion writing out of Chicago. He was a writer who sought to address the question of how postmodernity might shape the way we do theology. And key to his method in theology was his consideration of the importance of encountering otherness in our life. Heterology means otherness. Tracy knew that there is a part of us that wants to reduce everyone to being like ourselves. And yet in each person we encounter there is something that resists colonisation, that refuses possession. The one who stands before me is always other than myself. They are not me. This frustrates us; this confuses us. Indeed, one of Tracy’s themes was what he calls “the terror of otherness.” When we encounter difference, otherness, our fear leads us to defensiveness, to rejection. And yet, he also understood that when we can enter the terror of otherness and dare to begin a conversation with the one who is different from me, then new possibilities open for us, with every opportunity for transformation. He was claiming that, just as true as this is for us, personally, so it also holds for Christian theology, more generally.
In his letter to the Church, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis sought to express something similar. As he wrote there,
“We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively. Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. . . Patience takes root when I recognise that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are. It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way that act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.” (n. 92)
And so, we are invited to come before each other with a profound respect, and this respect calls for a certain silence. It calls us to develop a fundamental hospitality of spirit.
In this regard I think of the Asian custom of greeting people not with a handshake but with joined hands and a bow of the head. It is a greeting with a spiritual significance. The greeting is as rich in its respect as it is in its simplicity; it is a greeting of intense hospitality. “Hospitality is one form of worship,” the Jewish rabbis wrote. The ancient writers knew that it was through the offer of hospitality that God often visits us. God comes in the form of the guest. And God not only comes in the form of the invited guest, in the one I welcome because they are similar to me, but God more than often comes to us in the unexpected guest, the one who is not like me, the one whom I find difficult to accept. That is the way that God visited Abraham in our First Reading. Abraham allowed his life to be disturbed by the unexpected guest and his life was changed: the impossible became possible. Have we ever met someone unexpectedly, and even after some resistance, allowed them space in our otherwise busy day only to find that our life has been enriched beyond what we could have imagined? Perhaps, then, we have entertained an angel whilst not realising it.
In the Gospel today we are presented with a scene of the hospitality about which we are speaking. Martha has welcomed Jesus into her house, but has she welcomed him into her life enough to be disturbed and therefore changed by her guest? Has she realised who it is she has welcomed and what this guest might mean for her? It seems that her sister, Mary has done so, but Martha struggles to realise what this guest might really mean. She has not stopped long enough to truly receive the other into her life. Genuine hospitality, then, is not so much about busying oneself, always doing. Hospitality is really about stopping and receiving the other. It is about attending and listening, rather than jumping in and fixing. And this is so much harder to do. Because it means we have to let go, we have to surrender, we have to trust. This is, in fact, why prayer is one of the highest forms of hospitality. We are simply still before the Otherness of God, ready to receive the unknowability of God into our hearts.
Hospitality is a key Christian value. But hospitality is not so much about providing someone with something. It is about the way we come before another, especially the one who is so different from myself. Do I come before them with suspicion, with resentment, with expectation, with judgement, or do I become before them with openness, and a willingness to allow my encounter with them to change me? This is why the values of hospitality and humility are so closely aligned. Only the one who has true humility can be genuinely hospitable.
Let us remember, however, also that hospitality is not only about welcoming the stranger from outside; it is also about welcoming the stranger with whom I live. For the people with whom we live in our own families have their own unique personality, too, which I cannot possess. They, themselves, stand separate from me – and my expectation that they simply be like me is often the source of our anger and hurt at home. Therefore, I must come before each of them, too, with the same humility. In the same letter, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis teaches us the simple but profound words which express this, above all in our relationships at home. He writes
“In the family, three words need to be used. I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘please,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Sorry.’ Three essential words! In our families when we are not overbearing and ask, “May I?”; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: “Thankyou!” and in our families when someone realises that he or she did something wrong and is able to say, “Sorry!” our family experiences peace and joy. Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day.” (n.133)
The title of a thesis in theology might be incomprehensible, but all of us know the power of the words: please, thank you, sorry. To speak out these words is no laughing matter, but the very stuff of what it means to live with a deepening openness to each other, and yes, even to change in the process.
385 total views, 1 views today