WISDOM: Xenophilia—The Love of Strangers by Joan Chittister

Monastic Wisdom For Seekers of Light

Xenophilia—The Love of Strangers by Joan Chittister

From Illuminated Life

Amma Sarah said: “If I pray to God that all people might be inspired because of me, I would find myself repentant at the door of every house.  I would rather pray that my heart be pure toward them than that I changed something in theirs.”



t is not what others think of us; it is what we think of others that singles the contemplative out in a crowd.  Our role in life is not to convert others.  It’s not even to influence them.  It certainly is not to impress them.  Our goal in life is to convert ourselves from the pernicious agenda that is the self to an awareness of God’s goodness present in the other.  It is no idle prayer.  The beauty of the open soul is not easy to come by in a world where the other – the alien, the foreigner, the stranger – threatens my sense of security and the pyramids of social control.  After all, we know who’s meant to be in charge, and we cannot allow outsiders to jeopardize a system built on the absolutes we have devised for ourselves.

We learn at a very early age in this culture that the world is at our disposal.  Most clearly of all, we learn that we are its norm.  We know we are its pinnacle.  We suffocate from national chauvinism.  The messages are only insinuated, of course, but clear nevertheless: Other cultures are not nearly so “modern” or “progressive” or “developed” – meaning civilized – as we are.  Other ethnic groups are not nearly so clever, so polished.  Other races not nearly so human.  There is a hierarchy of human achievement and, history shows, economics dictate, power insists, we are it.

“We” and “they” are the hallmarks of an age awash in refugees, under siege from immigrants, and yet inseparably linked in a world in which there are no more natural boundaries.  We have, indeed, one world now, but though intricately intertwined, painfully stratified.  It is a world, a city, a neighborhood full of many of their kind and some of our kind.  We, it is clear, have a natural right to everything we need to live in dignity and security.  They are required to wait for such things or work harder to get them or, sometimes, to stand by and watch while we use up what they lack.  In the midst of it all, in order to defend some of us from the rest of them, the world ends up dealing with struggles for jobs, conflict over food stamps, wars for water, wars for land, and, saddest of all, wars for ethnic cleansing.

But the social problem is one thing.  The spiritual problem is another.  The reality is that those struggles, those wars are not elsewhere.  Those wars take place in the human heart.  We have become a world of insiders and outsiders when, in reality, there is no such thing as an outsider anymore.  The whole city, the whole world lives in our living rooms.  The whole city, the whole world is warring for my heart.  Only the contemplative lives well in a world the security of which depends on the open heart.

There are few things in life more threatening to the person whose religion is parochialism than the alien and few things more revelatory to the contemplative than the stranger.  The contemplative sees in the other what is lacking in the self.  It is in the stranger that God’s new word comes most clearly to light for those who behold behind appearances the refraction of the divine mystery in a mundane world.

The stranger, to the contemplative, is the angel of Tobias, the visitor to the tent of Abraham and Sarah, the sound of “Hail, Mary” in the garden calling us to a life we do not know and cannot predict.  It is the stranger who disarms all our preconceptions about life and penetrates all our stereotypes about the world.  It is the stranger who makes the supernatural natural.  It is the stranger who tests all our good intentions.

To be a contemplative we must open our hearts and our doors to the stranger in whom lives the Word that is calling to our boundaried hearts to become wider than denominationalism alone can ever make us.  To be a contemplative we must live in peace.  We must speak peace everywhere to everyone.  We must speak good about everyone we do not know and yet do know to be just as full of God as we are, if not more so.

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