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Toward a Culture of Encounter

As I’m writing this, it is September 16 - just five days after many of us shared sad remembrances of the frightening and tragic events of “9/11.”  
Recently, at Sunday Mass, the priest led the congregation through a discussion – instead of a homily (or sermon). The subject discussed was “racism.”  I believe these discussions were held in all Episcopal churches in the country.  In all my years as an Episcopalian, I’ve never attended a mass without a homily, so I was surprised. 
These two events are, of course, related.  Fear and negativity toward “the other” have escalated in our country to alarming proportions.  The Church’s decision to hold these discussions surely reflects deep concerns.  I know that our country’s “emotional barometer” disturbs my clients, friends, family, and me.

One of my favorite passages from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer speaks of our world as “this fragile earth, our island home.”  Reading these words, I recall my first views of the earth in the early days of the space program.  I was amazed at the sheer blue beauty of it and how very small and fragile it appeared. I remember thinking that we all needed to join together to protect this tiny sphere. Unfortunately, today, rather than realizing our delicate status as a planet, focusing on shared issues and goals, we’ve become even more hostile toward each other - protecting our own separate neighborhoods, fearful of those who are different – of those who might do us harm.  

This past summer, I had a special conversation with my 15 year-old grand-daughter, Eleanor, who lives in England.  Her history class had just returned from several days touring World War I graveyards in Belgium. 
Eleanor told me of the varying emotions she experienced as she and friends walked among row after row of white identical stones - beneath each stone the remains of a soldier, and sometimes, more than one.  She described waves of complex feelings.  The setting, though beautiful and well maintained is, she said, as horrific as it is beautiful.  She understands that the causes of war are always complex. Nevertheless, it was “overwhelming” for her she said, as she imagined “the terror those soldiers probably experienced in the last minutes of their lives.” Her closing comment was, “What a dreadful waste!”

I’m glad Eleanor’s school is providing this experience for their students.  I hope it can motivate them, as adults, to live peacefully with their neighbors.  We have not been able to do this!  
Today, the news from all over the globe is about conflicts and hostilities, of hatred and distrust.  Many of us are convinced that we don’t get honest answers from our own leaders – let alone from those of other countries.  I do not understand the greed and motivation of leaders who are not serving their people.  
I am realistic.  I do understand that when people are frightened, hungry, hurt or traumatized, they are likely to strike out in anger.  I do.  You do.  They do.  And I’m thankful I’ve never been so threatened that I had to run from everything I’ve ever known, risking my own life -and my family’s as well - for any possibility of safety and a better life.  I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that is being endured all over this fragile planet – our “island home.”  The complex issues are, like the rows of gravestones - overwhelming. I don’t pretend to know or understand all of them – or any of them, perhaps.

Is there nothing we can do to avoid creating more graveyards, more dreadful waste? 

In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis offers hope.  Although he, too, lamented our lack of care for “our common home,” he called the faithful to move “away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture,” and instead foster “attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”   
(Reference link to full blog: “Laudato Si”: We Are All Part of the Solution)
“There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions,” he writes (211). “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknownst to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread” (212).  And there lies the greatest gift of the encyclical. While it paints a picture of a planet in peril, in the end, it brings a message of hope: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start” (205).
At the conclusion of our congregation’s discussion on racism, someone advocated the practice of “Namaste.” According to the Urban Dictionary, “Namaste” is an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India.  Translated roughly, it means “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.”  
The parishioner explained that it is a gesture in which the best part of “me” (the God or good Spirit) acknowledges that within you there is also that part.  Namaste, therefore, is an encounter of those two better parts.  
I believe that the practice of Namaste could provide the kinds of “encounters” espoused by the Pope.  However, Namaste is much more complex than simply making a pleasant gesture in Yoga class.  Here are some suggestions:
  1. Set aside some time for quiet meditation.  Get to know yourself.  Acknowledge - without harsh judgment - all the aspects of your personality:   the behaviors, thoughts and feelings you are proud of, and even those you are not.  Get acquainted with your “spirit” within. 
  1. Open yourself up to the idea that people of varying nationalities, cultures, races, religions are much like you:  having good characteristics (maybe even noble and selfless sometimes) and having not so good characteristics (selfishness, envy, jealousy).
  1. Imagine how it would feel to go deep within – to the very best part of you and to extend to another person a greeting that acknowledges that best part within them.
Then we will be ready for greeting “the other” in Namaste:  encounters whose goals are peace, acceptance and inclusivity.

And from the Sisters of Mercy (link above):  â€œLet that begin with me, and with us.”    
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