Encountering Strangers (August 2002)

August 2002
Encountering Strangers ©

Encounters define us. Relationships with the people we encounter on either a planned or random basis reveal who we are, or who we think we are, and what we are to become. After all, ours are a relational species and our identity flows from this reality.

So it is when Jesus meets people. Most times, he commands the situation and, even when he does not, he acts resolutely from a profound sense of mission. Occasionally, however, he is obliged to respond to the overture of persistent if unwelcome strangers who cause him to reassess his assumptions.

Such is the case of the Canaanite woman who wishes her daughter tormented by a demon to be healed by Jesus. This encounter is disturbing and would be firmly rebuffed where it not for the priority Jesus places on the will of our heavenly Father over his own.

Twice, he tries indelicately to push her away: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and, again, It is not right to take the food of children, and throw it to the dogs.

The first rejection echoes what he had said previously to his disciples: Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. The second recalls his caution to not give to dogs what is holy or throw your pearls before swine.

Yet, she will not be deterred. She responds with both gentleness and firmness: Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table. Her persistence and faith weathers the harsh refusal and earns the respect of an astonished Jesus: O woman, great is your faith. Her prayer is then answered: Let it be done as you wish.

Evidently, this event confirms the power of faith, but it also reveals something even more basic about the nature of human encounters. First, it shows that Jesus had to be attentive enough to be impressed into changing his position, despite the clarity of his initial view. Second, as a result, it inaugurates a whole new dimension to his public ministry, namely his announcing the good news to Gentiles as well as Jews.

This event reminds us of our own need to be attentive to the perhaps not so random invitations we receive to broaden our thinking about others and about what God wishes us to do. It serves as a much needed reminder that the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth, not by moving within familiar forms: The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes.

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For our part, we can view this fact as frightening or exciting. On the one hand, we can see the Holy Spirit as disruptive, constantly calling us into a zone of discomfort and insecurity; on the other hand, we can see that the Dove cannot be “pigeon-holed” and, with faith, hope and love, we can come to appreciate the enormously liberating power that the Holy Spirit unleashes on a world shackled by fear.

There is a wonderful tradition of seeing the liberating Spirit operate through encounters with strangers. One of the great conversion stories told about Francis of Assisi refers to his unexpected encounter with a leper who he initially rejects out of a visceral sense of physical repulsion. Then, urged by a force that can only be described as the intervention of the Holy Spirit, he dismounts from his horse and kisses the leper’s hand. This is a transformational event – an epiphany of sorts. He recounts that what had previously filled him with revulsion now filled him with sweetness and joy. Continuing on his journey but a few steps, he turns …only to discover that the stranger has disappeared. It is assumed that this stranger was Christ calling Francis to love those sisters and brothers who are marginalized.

If we believe that Christ lives in each of us, we can easily agree that the leper was Jesus, and it is upon this belief that is based the long-established tradition of the Christ Room, a simple space set aside for strangers.

In the early days of Christianity, the Christ Room would be equipped simply with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. It would be kept available for people passing through, for strangers – as if for Christ himself.

History indicates that the tradition of the Christ Room continued through the first millennium of Christianity but waned with the advent of the hospitality industry. Instead of hospitality offered in the warmth and intimacy of a home, it became a secular business. As a result, the tradition of the Christ Room faded.

A number of religious communities, nonetheless, continue the tradition of hospitality to this day. Perhaps the best known among these is the Benedictine order. Monasteries that follow the Rule of St. Benedict accommodate travellers in the spirit of receiving Christ.

Benedict stresses that the stranger is not just a person, but all the ambiguity, the unknown, the otherness in life. Faith can help us greet this otherness not as a threat, but as a possible gift. God is the ultimate stranger, unpredictable, potentially threatening our security. Faith is the attitude of one who searches the face of every stranger and guest looking for God.

The first monks, those men and women of the Syrian and Egyptian deserts, who lived in austerity, silence, and faith, knew the meaning of hospitality and were ready to dispense with their usual practices of asceticism to welcome a guest.

Stories such as these underscore this theme: Once a monk came to a hermit, and as he was taking his leave he apologized, “Forgive me for hampering you in keeping your rule.” But the hermit answered, “My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you on your way in peace.” Another time, two monks came to an old hermit whose custom it was not to eat every day. When the hermit saw them, he greeted them gladly and said, “A fast has its reward. Those who eat from a motive of charity obey two commandments; they leave their self-will and refresh their guests.”

In Chapter 53 of his Rule, Saint Benedict provides for guests and is quite evidently glad that there will always be guests in a monastery. He is prepared for considerable inconvenience to take care of guests, because he is convinced that they represent Christ. Benedict goes on to make clear that the care of guests is to have a distinctively religious tone and that it be done in a way that does not disturb the peace of the community. The Rule shows Benedict’s belief that spiritual values can be transmitted through hospitality. It does not consider that guests are to be merely entertained. but that the monks are to witness to a life experienced as deeply meaningful, with Christ as its centre.

Guests who visit Benedictine monasteries do so for many reasons. Basic to all these is a desire to experience God through a lifestyle that speaks to them of peace and deeply held convictions. So many people today are wearied of a hectic, impersonal existence, wearied of the kind of competition and materialism that seems to lead only to despair. These people visit monastic houses looking for a vision of life with Christ at the heart of it, Christ with his power to reconcile and transcend differences of age, background, education, and opinion.

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Welcoming strangers is a recurring theme in Christian literature. It has profound meaning for us who see ourselves as strangers journeying through a landscape marked by values and lifestyles that are foreign to our faith. Yet the very people who regard us as strangers are themselves lonely, and unconsciously seek the hospitable heart of Christ-centred love.

In his book, Becoming Human, Jean Vanier speaks of “the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others(…)Jesus led people into a vision of our common humanity.” By identifying with those who are rejected and lonely, Jesus challenges us to ally ourselves with the excluded and the disenfranchised.

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Certainly, whenever we open our own homes and hearts to offer hospitality to strangers, we carry on an ancient and sacred tradition of hospitality. On such occasions, we receive more than we ever could offer. We enjoy all of the benefits – some consciously and other subconsciously – of being faithful to the Word. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reveals the depth of the mystery of Christian hospitality: To welcome strangers is to welcome Christ: I was a stranger and you took me in.

This is perhaps best illustrated in Luke’s Gospel, where we find the Emmaus story: Two distinguished disciples are walking along the road to Emmaus. They meet a stranger and tell him about their sorrow at the death of all their hopes. The stranger, who is Jesus, then begins to tell them why the Messiah had to suffer. When they come to an inn, the disciples persuade him to eat with them and only when eating together do they recognize him as their crucified Lord. Only in breaking the bread of hospitality did their confusion subside and their hope return.

This hope is bolstered in us by these heartening words in the Book of Revelation: Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sit down to supper.