Vol 40 No 2
THE CHALLENGE OF POSTMODERNISM
CATHOLICISM IN THE POSTMODERN WORLD
HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN MARK’S GOSPEL: Physical or Spiritual?
J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
fear to love
Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality
IN AUSTRALIA, currently, questions about identity have not been in short
supply. In recent years, there has been an ideological attempt in some
quarters to be prescriptive about Australian values. Recently, public
commentators have been musing over what kind of country we have become
under the ten years of a Howard government. These questions are important
as they have a formative effect on the growing national psyche. They are
about what kind of people we are becoming and what kind of people we want
to become. The questions must not fall victim to answers of either self-congratulatory
spin or to shrill criticism. Questions of identity are at base spiritual
questions and should not be answered glibly.
In our struggle with the question of what kind of people we are becoming
we need to look for benchmarks that provide us with assistance in our
task of evaluation. This is an abiding role of the literary and artistic
classics of our heritage. They mirror something of our social heart, offering
new possibilities of disclosure as to the deepest directions of our identity.
No single classic might contain all the answers. However, these guides,
given their longevity of experience, are ignored to our loss.
The Benedictine vision, one such guide and derived from initiatives of
Benedict of Nursia, in what is now central Italy, around the end of the
6th century, has celebrated 1500 years of experience. This is an extraordinary
treasure in the Christian heritage. One of the primary strengths of the
visionand indeed the reason for its long unbroken historyis
its capacity to continually offer fresh insight into radically different
situations. It is able to do so because it stands not alone but as a lived
expression of the Gospels themselves, and also, like the Gospels, renders
us back to our truth, to our deepest identity as humans.
Of course, for the majority of Australians the Benedictine vision, which
is one of the great spiritual classics, is totally unknown. Nonetheless,
European civilization cannot be imagined without the Benedictine impulse
that was at the heart of its social, political, economic and spiritual
life for over a thousand years. Lest, though, we think that the Benedictine
charter belonged only to a very different place and a very different time,
it is good for us also to remember that the Roman Catholic Church in Australia
began with Benedictine character through the leadership and extraordinary
vision of John Bede Polding, Sydneys first Catholic archbishop.
The humanism which characterized Poldings outlook, his concern about
the destruction of indigenous peoples, his own attentiveness to the identity
of placeboth geographic and socialwere fashioned
in no small part by his Benedictine discipleship.
Polding, himself, was concerned about the kind of people we were becoming.
In his Lenten Pastoral of 1856, he wrote:
Before everything else we are Catholics: and next, by a name swallowing
up all distinctions or origin, we are Australians; from whatsoever land
we or our parents have arrived hither, be it from Ireland, from France,
from England, from Scotland, from Germany, we are no longer Irishmen,
and Frenchmen, and Englishmen, and Scotchmen, but Australians, and the
man who seeks by word or writing to perpetuate invidious distinctions
is an enemy to our peace and prosperity. (Kelly 1978, 17-27)
Exactly 150 years later we are asking the same question and we are challenged
by Poldings own response. Perhaps, Poldings response is given
fitting contemporary expression in McKenzie Warks, The Virtual Republic,
(1997) which is quoted at the entrance to the National Archives in Canberra:
I dont think that it matters what kind of signs or emblems one
thinks of as being truly Australian. They wont always mean the same
thing to everyone, and sometimes they pass one by
What seems to be
a more usefully conservative way of thinking about Australian culture
is to nurture and value and fight to conserve the institutions through
which the conversation can take place about all these things.
What kind of people, then, are we becoming? How do we animate the national
conversation in fresh and creative ways? What does the Benedictine vision
have to contribute to such a conversation?
In the reflection on the legacy of the Howard government various responses
have been given, some of them qualitative, others quantitative. I share
Robert Mannes view, which he gave in April 2004, in anticipation
of the Howard milestone, that there can be no doubt that for the majority
of Australians these are indeed prosperous times in which there is also
a sense of national optimism. As Manne records, During the past
decade middle Australians have experienced unprecedented levels of prosperity,
based partly on improved productivity but also on dizzily high levels
of personal debt [italics mine]. This has created a fundamental paradox.
The prosperity relies upon the permanent maintenance of a low interest
rate regime. Affluence is shadowed by anxiety. Debt is the ghost at the
national banquet. (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2004)
We are, in the end, more comfortable. But we are not more relaxed.
This national anxiety is not far beneath the surface and it is easily
manipulated. The anxiety focuses on two areas: the level of personal debt,
as Manne indicates, but also secondly, post September 2001 and subsequent
atrocities, on the presence of the stranger.
It is our affluence, shadowed by anxiety, which perhaps is the basis of
the recent surveys in which people think we have become a less generous
society. The anxiety about levels of personal debt can breed an explosion
of self-interest at the expense of a genuine egalitarianism, and create
distressing levels of social isolation, such as have been recently reported
where bodies are discovered in homes, even up to two years after death.
Less dramatically, the anxiety can erode our capacity as a nation for
political engagement and dissolve our social conscience. We cannot afford,
financially, to have a conscience.
But if our anxiety as a nation about the level of our personal debt can
have worrisome long term implications so, too, can our anxiety about the
presence of the stranger in our midst. A profound caliber of leadership
is required if we are not to breed a new form of sectarianism in Australia
in which people hide between walls of both ignorance and fear.
Of course, the new stranger in our midst is Islam. Unlike other strangers
who have come to our shores in different migratory waves, and over time,
become part of the social fabric, the presence of Islam provides our society
with a qualitatively different challenge. Previous experiences of social
assimilation can no longer be relied upon to be effective necessarily
with the new stranger.
I believe in a non-discriminatory immigration policy and I welcome the
growing presence of such an ancient and venerable religious tradition
as Islam in Australia. The growing presence of Islam, however, will not
allow us glib responses of integration.
This is because Islam will not be colonized by Western valuesvalues
that we can presume, even unwittingly, to have total hegemony in the world.
Of course, any newcomer to Australia, as indeed to any other country,
must shoulder the expectation of abiding by that countrys law, promoting
its welfare as defined by the common good, and being appreciative of its
social history and development. But the newcomer cannot be asked to share
all the values, implicit and explicit, of their new home. These values
must be discerned, by all of us, according to principles that render state
law with something far less than absolute primacy. Even for myself, as
for any Christian, the states laws are subordinate to the law of
the gospel, another law than the states, which is not arrived at
Islam is one of the last bastions of resistance to Western hegemonyand
this is why it confuses us. It will not be swallowed up by the Wests
insatiable appetite to make everything and everyone like itself. At the
turn of the first millennium it resisted the advance of the Western crusaders
who could not defeat it relying on the logic of war. The resolution then
was a demarcation between East and West that has been in place for a thousand
years. But with the inexorable march of globalization, the demarcation
between East and West is tenable no longer. Now the West finds itself
in the East and the East finds itself in the West. This does not mean,
however, that Islam has become any less resistant to the advance of the
At the turn of the second millennium, the West and Islam meet again. In
this new meeting, effected by the force of globalization, we find ourselves
truly confronted with the other, the one who will not
be just like us who we can make into a mirror image of ourselves.
As with every encounter with the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected
guest, this can be a salutary moment for us if we can enter into the challenges
contained in such an encounterperilous if we either ignore it or
once again try to respond through the logic of war, even if such a primitive
strategy be displayed on an Australian suburban beach.
We are immediately drawn to the saying within the book of Hebrews in the
Christian scriptures, And do not forget hospitality, for by this,
some, not being aware of it, have entertained angels. (Hebrews 13:2).
Do we treat the new stranger in our midst as a possible angel or do we
allow our anxiety to demonize them, and thereby exclude both them and
ourselves from the rich possibilities of learning how to live together
precisely in our differences?
This is the question we face as a modern society. Yet, the ancient wisdom
of the Rule of St Benedict can help us to gain our bearing in the midst
of this challenge. Obviously, this spiritual classic will not address
complex issues of modern immigration policy. It will not provide us with
technical advice on the tensions inherent in issues of multiculturalism.
It may, however, orient our fundamental attitudes in the swirl of issues
such that we can commit to creative responses that are in the best interests
of a mature and humane society.
We know very little about Benedict of Nursia, the man. What we know is
largely hagiographical, collected in such works as the Dialogues of Gregory
the Great. His legacy, however, is profound. This legacy is realized in
the communities of men and women his charism has continually brought together,
in an unbroken way, for over 1500 years. These communities live according
to the principles of a very small text that has become known as The Rule
of St Benedict: a set of guidelines for the organization of the common
life. This small text is divided into seventy-three chapters, many of
which are only several lines, at most a few paragraphs. On first reading,
the Rule can be somewhat disappointing. There appears to be no spiritual
eloquence to lift the heart and mind only a compilation of, at times,
rather pedantic stipulations. A man of his own time, Benedict, however,
did not share in the modern preoccupation with interior states of psychology.
Like the great Greek playwrights, what concerned Benedict was not so much
our affective life as our practical life, our behaviors.
Behaviors expose the imagination. And the behaviors Benedict enunciates
expose the imagination of the Triune God, which he understood as the foundation
of our life as Christians.
The Trinity is not an ethereal doctrine but as the theologian, Jürgan
Moltman noted, a social strategy. The way we imagine God determines our
behaviors. From his Christian perspective, Benedict imagined God as Triune,
as a community of persons who have become one in their presence to each
other, with each other, in each other, by each other. In the divine economy,
the only currency is the currency of relationship. Made in the image of
this God, we realize our humanity most deeply in and through our relationships.
Enlivened by this divine imagination, Benedict sought to mirror the divine
life by establishing communities marked by the same qualities of openness
to each other, discernment through each other, mutual service and the
journey of vulnerability without which relationships cannot be realized.
In various practical ways he sought to realize the principle that the
Scottish philosopher, John McMurray taught many centuries later: we are
our relationships. We exist in relationship or not at all.
For Benedict this wild adventure was, however, a journey. It was a journey
from fear, that which closes us in on ourselves for self-protection, and
cuts us off from each other with a network of defences, into lovethat
which goes out beyond the self to the other. Faithful to the gospel, Benedict
knew that this journey alone is the source of human happiness. There is
no future encased within fear. We must die to our self and live for others.
We must die to fear and rise to love.
This journey is one and the same time both personal and social. The journey
is particularly realized in the exercise of hospitality, a practice he
outlines in chapter 53. It is one of the longer chapters of the Rule of
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he
himself will say, I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt
Once a guest has been announced the superior and the brothers
are to meet him with all the courtesy of love
All humility should
be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the
head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored
because he is indeed welcomed in them
The divine law is read to the
guest for his instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to him
abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot with
the entire community shall wash their feet
Great care and concern
are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them
more particularly Christ is received.
This is a lavish stipulation rendered more so when we compare the Benedictine
practice with an alternative Rule for monasteries, called the Rule of
the Master, which was current at the time of Benedicts writing.
There we get a very different tone regarding the stranger. The author
of this Rule betrays a pre-occupation, almost an obsession, that
the guest prove to be either a parasite or thief . . . institut[ing] a
series of measures to offset the possibility of the guest diminishing
the [communitys] material substance. (Tomlins, 1980). In the
Rule of the Master, preceding St Benedicts, the guest is under twenty-four-hour
Benedict displays none of this suspicion. In fact, he reverses the culture
of suspicion, as found in the Rule of the Master, and asserts a culture
of dialogue. This is even more extraordinary given the times in which
Benedict is living which was ripe for suspicion and fear. The Roman Empire
was in collapse. The so-called barbarians of the north were in a constant
strategy of attack such that by the end of the sixth century there
was practically no effective political order in Italy. (Fry 1981,
66) It was quite frankly an age of terrorism.
In the face of the terrorism of his own time, Benedict affirmed the pathway
of love, rather than the pathway of fear. This can present as naïvely
ridiculous and be thrown back as the usual Christian mush
to what are harsh necessities in a so-called real world. You
cant beat terrorism by love. The difficulty lies, however,
in a distorted understanding of Christian love as an uncritical acceptance
and naïve empathy for others. Genuine Christian love is not sentimental
just as it is not some pallid pity. The way of Christian love is primarily
the decision to listen to the other with the premise that I may have something
to learn from the other. The way of love is the commitment to always see
the other precisely as person and not through the lens of
categorization. These decisions are not particularly easy ones when everything
and everyone is burning around you. They werent in the time of Benedict,
nor are they in Bali or the streets of London or New York let alone in
the villages of Africa. Perhaps the way of love that Benedict asserted
was often abused. Yet, it is worth reflecting that we do not remember
the Visigoths, the Lombards and the Vandals as we do Benedict.
By calling us beyond a culture of suspicion into one of dialogue, the
Benedictine strategy of hospitality importantly resists and confronts
our innate tendency, both as individuals and as societies, to demonize
the stranger, the foreigner, the one in our midst who will not simply
be like us. The practice of demonizing the other by glib and lazy terms
such as queue jumpers and those Moslems or the
lebs is a triumph of the logic of suspicion. When it is done, consciously,
for political or even commercial advantage it is evil.
The art of demonizing the stranger works to exclude the other, rendering
them less than the persons that they are. To a Christian animated by the
imagination of a Triune God, and to the Kingdom of God, which is the Triune
life realizing itself in our midst, social, political and economic forces
that work towards exclusion, isolation and alienation are anathema.
In the memory of the Gospel, and in Benedicts practice of hospitality,
we must be committed to replacing suspicion with dialoguea genuine
dialogue, a dialogue that admits that both partners in the dialogue have
something to learn from each other.
For as long as Australia has a non-discriminatory immigration policy,
it must face the consequence that it will now have an abiding section
of its population who, while fully respecting the rule of law, will not
ascribe uncritically to Western values. Demonisation of this group will
result in the formation of ghettos, a triumph of suspicion and fear.
In countering the tendency to demonise the stranger, the Benedictine alternative
is the practice of an open conversation which seeks the primacy of the
person, and allows for the possibility that the one offering hospitality
is in fact the one who is blessed and who is changed. We do not leave
a genuine conversation unchanged. The Benedictine practice of hospitality
also works to bring us home to our truth. As the French writer Louis Massignon
Only in exercising hospitality towards another (instead of colonizing
him), 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 (Opera Minora III,
This conversation has yet to begin in Australia. I doubt that we are even
convinced that the conversation is needed or that we may have something
to learn in it. How do we stimulate conversation not about the other in
our midst, (which of course is the delight of radio talkback) but with
the other in our midst?
What might they have to teach us? To dare to ask this question involves
a fundamental social re-orientation.
We are dealing here with nothing other than a conversion of mind and heart
in the debate about the presence of Islam in our midst. Yet, even if such
a radical shift in our approach were to take place, it could only be sustained
through the development of the skill that such a stance toward the other
entails. For example, how are we forming our young as agents of genuine
conversation, as people who are filled with a curiosity about the other,
who have learnt the art of asking questions, and living those qualities
enunciated by Paul VI in Ecclesiam Suam (1963): clear thinking, humility,
trust, confidence and friendship, prudence?
The conversion of fear into love is effected only by mutual conversation
that seeks to understand the other, to feel with the other, to listen
deeply to another. We love the stranger by listening to the stranger,
by learning their names, rather than their labels, and by entering into
their story, often of incalculable pain and dislocation.
For the eminent Jewish philosophy of the other, Emmanuel Levinas,
the presence of the other announces, commands, perforates,
ruptures, unsettles. And that is their gift to us. For Levinas, as it
is implied in Benedictine hospitality, the other is always the prophetic
voice of revelation. In other words, our discovery of God, the Triune
God, comes only through a mysticism that is inherently social. This indeed
is at the heart of Matthew 25.
Each of us contributes to a culture of hospitality by refusing to use
labels and making contact with just one other person or family who are
judged to be different from the norm. Who is the other in our own neighborhood,
in our own street, the one who by their presence says, I am other.
I am different. I am not you. It is with these people, however we
identify them, that we are to discover the Truth that unites us socially.
Our hospitality can be practiced through the simple gesture of a smile
through to the sponsorship of a national colloquium. However, small or
great the gesture, we have through its practice taken Benedicts
example and substituted dialogue for suspicion, love for fear.
In the line of such powerful thinkers such as Levinas and the French feminist
psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her work Strangers to Ourselves, we might
use the conclusion of the American philosopher of religion, David Tracy:
Their voices can seem strident and uncivilin a word, other. And
they are. We have all just begun to sense the terror of that otherness.
But only by beginning to listen to those voices may we also begin to hear
the otherness within our own discourse and within ourselves. What we might
then begin to hear, above our own chatter, are possibilities we have never
dared to dream. (Tracy 1987, 79)
Or, as St Benedict would write, Christ is to be adored because he
is indeed welcomed in them.
David Ranson is a priest of the diocese of Broken
Bay, lecturing in spirituality at the Catholic Institute of Sydney where
he is also Academic Secretary.
Timothy Fry (ed.), RB1980: The Rule of St Benedict, in Latin and English
with Notes, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1981), 66.
Michael Kelly, The Benedictine Influence Australasian Catholic
Record 55 (1978:1), 17-27.
Robert Manne, Howard owes a debt to middle Australias credit-led
prosperity. Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 2004
David Tomlins, Hospitality in Benedictine Studies. Unpublished
Study Guide, Tarrawarra Abbey 1980.
David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion and Hope,
(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 79.