A Posture of Openness

The other day I made a new friend — she’s a recent immigrant from Mauritius who told me that she embraces both Hinduism and Christianity as a way to honour both her parents who were Hindu and Christian.  I was intrigued and amazed at the depth of her faith and her loyalty to both God and her family of origin.

I wondered if she ever heard this ancient story: A disciple endured seventy weeks of fasting, eating only once a week. He asked God about the meaning of certain words in the Holy Scripture but God did not answer. Finally, he said to himself: “I have put in this much effort, but I haven’t made any progress. So I will go to see my brother and ask him.” When he closed the door and started off, an angel of God was sent to him and said, “Seventy weeks of fasting have not brought you near to God. But now that you are humble enough to go to your brother, I have been sent to reveal the meaning of the words.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of this story, especially in light of my new friend. I’ve been pondering it not by fasting for seventy weeks, but rather by reflecting on how open my mind and heart is to “the other” esp. the one I feel most different from in worldview and meaning-making. Fostering radical openness is in fact a darn hard thing to do. We honestly do not know what we do not know, esp. when we become aware of huge differences in mindsets, in vastly different cultures and religious outlooks. As long as we don’t need to step outside our own worldview we remain happily oblivious to how insulated our lives can be from the rest of the world. Even when we do engage the otherness of others, we tend to keep our cultural and religious interpretive lenses, something that greatly affects the extent to which we can understand and accept the otherness of others. Worst case scenario, instead of rejoicing in the beauty and diversity of God’s creatures, we can become ignorantly mired in cultural and religious arrogance and pride.

Common interests, backgrounds, values and experiences increase our comfort level with people. The less shared, the greater our tendency to feed fear and suspicion. The less shared, the less our desire to connect and to invite the other into our orbit of life. The real loss here is that we close our hearts and minds to growing and learning and loving and living into the fullness of the divine image and likeness in which we were created. It may never occur to us that in our ignorant blocking of the other, we end up shutting our hearts to God.

In her book Illuminated Life, Sr. Joan Chittister says, God comes in every voice, behind every face, in every memory, deep in every struggle. To close off any of them is to close off the possibility of becoming new ourselves. Referring back to the story above, sometimes it is only by seeking wisdom from and trusting the other, however different from us, that another aspect of God and of ourselves is revealed. In our multicultural, pluralistic world, it is no longer an option to bury ourselves in the comfort of our own right-ness of living, insulated from otherness. Like the disciple in the story above, sometimes we too have to consult the wisdom of one very different from us to learn the meaning of words, events and encounters — the meaning of life. And our findings might well surprise us.

How do we grow new ourselves, open to difference yet grounded in our own faith and worldview? How to tell the difference between largesse of heart and wishy-washy, between relativism and divine inclusiveness, between generous hospitality and anything goes? How do we grow into ever greater openness and receptivity toward all that is different without feeling threatened or diminished or superior? That is the task of the spiritual journey; I’d love to hear how you travel that road.

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