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WINTER 2006
Vol 40 No 2




Editorial
NO FOUNDATIONS

John Rate MSC
THE CHALLENGE OF POSTMODERNISM

Michael Fallon MSC
CATHOLICISM IN THE POSTMODERN WORLD

Martin Borg
HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN MARK’S GOSPEL: Physical or Spiritual?

Roy J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public Hospital Ministry

David Ranson
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality

Kevin Mark
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS

 



 

From fear to love
Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality

DAVID RANSON

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 vision—and indeed the reason for its long unbroken history—is 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, Sydney’s first Catholic archbishop. The humanism which characterized Polding’s outlook, his concern about the destruction of indigenous peoples, his own attentiveness to the identity of ‘place’—both geographic and social—were 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 Polding’s own response. Perhaps, Polding’s response is given fitting contemporary expression in McKenzie Wark’s, The Virtual Republic, (1997) which is quoted at the entrance to the National Archives in Canberra:
I don’t think that it matters what kind of signs or emblems one thinks of as being truly Australian. They won’t 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 Manne’s 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 values—values 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 country’s 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 state’s laws are subordinate to the law of the gospel, another law than the state’s, which is not arrived at democratically.

Islam is one of the last bastions of resistance to Western hegemony—and this is why it confuses us. It will not be swallowed up by the West’s 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 West.

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 encounter—perilous 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 love—that 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 St Benedict.

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 25:35)…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…The 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 Benedict’s 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 [community’s] material substance.’ (Tomlins, 1980). In the Rule of the Master, preceding St Benedict’s, the guest is under twenty-four-hour surveillance.

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 can’t 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 weren’t 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 Benedict’s practice of hospitality, we must be committed to replacing suspicion with dialogue—a 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 wrote,

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, 608-9)

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 Benedict’s 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 uncivil—in 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.

REFERENCES
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 Australia’s 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.