Barbara at St Paul’s Cathedral

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Be the change you seek in the world.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Leave room for Holy Envy.

The three rules of religious understanding between new neighbours of different faiths (by the Bishop of Sweden at the opening of a new Mormon temple in Stockholm in 1985):

  • If you try to understand another religion, ask its adherents and not its enemies.
  • Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  • Leave room for Holy Envy.

He didn’t explain what he meant by the last one – as soon as Barbara saw the two words together they drew her in like divine decadence or perhaps good grief – an intriguing oxymoron.
How could one of the deadly sins be holy?
Why is it vital for religious understanding?

Barbara decided to try it out with her students, most of whom were culturally Christian; there by choice or parental fiat; in the Christ haunted South.
Many students were getting distance from home as well as their home religion.
Religions of the world 101 was always full – students had questions about religion that they couldn’t ask at home or at church, or because they weren’t satisfied with the answers they got there, both about their own faith and the faith of others.
Word got out that they couldn’t pass without worshipping false idols and that there were free meals after the field trips.
Students didn’t even ask to see the syllabus before signing up. They were in for more than a scenic tour – including essential vocabulary words for each of the five religions – field studies were essential.
There would be no going back. Students would never again believe everything they thought or everything they were told about other people’s faiths.

When they got back on the bus their certainty had a great big crack in it, which is what the best type of education is designed to do – clearing space for more resilient material.
Barbara did try inviting speakers a couple of times but she got jealous of the vulnerability of her guests as they rose to the challenge of being perfect strangers.
She decided that she and her students should be leaving their comfort zone and go meet others in theirs – entering their sacred spaces without knowing the rules or where to put your shoes.
Offering hospitality puts you in charge . . . especially when you and your religion are used to being in charge.
Being a guest can transform you in ways that being a host never will. It levels the playing field. It puts you in receiving mode that gives you a lot less ego than in giving mode.
Seeing the world through other people’s lenses.

One of the biggest surprises for students who got off the bus was that no one tried to convert them. Christians had expected them to do to them what they had done to others. They were prepared to resist the evangelisation that they knew was coming. They would not bow when the teacher came into the room – they would keep their eyes open – they would trust Jesus to know they were there for extra credit and not for enlightenment.
But they did stand when the teacher for the evening came into the room – peer pressure proved stronger than prior resolve!
The teacher invited the regulars into a chant they knew by heart and then spend 5 minutes in silent meditation before he began his talk on cultivating happiness.

Had we ever noticed how quickly our unhappiness with not being in a relationship turned into unhappiness with the new relationship we had? Or with our unhappiness with not having a job?
With that the Monk had made his point – our happiness is not dependent on our circumstances that are always changing – tapping his head – our unhappiness is in here as we persist in trying to locate all of our problems out there!
While we spin our wheels trying to control things beyond our control we ignore the one thing we have within our power to change – our way of seeing things!

Another student reached a place of calm in meditation – it made him think of changing his whole perspective of what was going on in his life – not his religion, but the way he looks at things. As he said, this may be what we have been learning in class about other world views but I didn’t understand the concept until I saw it first hand at the monastery.

A world view can be troubling enough even if you didn’t know you had one, but when you visit another one that is not as disturbing as you thought it might be, it’s hard to deny that there are plural ways of seeing the world, of being in the world, that don’t match up as neatly as much as you might have hoped.

All religions are not alike. There are as many irreconcilable differences between them as within them – but there is a great deal to be gained by visiting the neighbours if you are a less than perfect stranger – how else could you have seen your own faith more clearly without seeing yours alongside theirs?

Some students were worried that they were losing their faith. Some had called home excited, only to be warned by parents. Maybe that’s why they took to the concept of holy envy – that there might be something holy in it.

The experience of the class was what was important – not the information. It was transformative.
They lived for 15 weeks with the kinds of questions that no text book or teacher can answer. They had considered the often contradictory answers of five great religions, discovering more diversity within them than they ever imagined. A new vocabulary – the lines between the religions blurred.

The hosts were out on the edges at their doors welcoming us in from the edges of ours. We found a local way to start being the change we sought in the world.
The thing in common wasn’t our religion but our humanity.
Such diverse ways that it seems that this might be the Creator’s will instead of a deviation from it.
A gift of difference – the ability to shake each others foundations so that the cracks in our separate certainties open up.

A basic tenet of the Christian faith is to see God’s image in those who are not made in our image; to seek and to serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbours as ourselves to do unto others as we would have them do to us.
Is it working? That’s the wrong question.
Are we cracked open yet?
I’m definitely cracked open. Holy Envy did that to me.

The best question – why have faith at all?
Is it to make sure we get to heaven?
Is it to discover how many faces God has and practice giving ourselves away every day to some perfect stranger as we learn how to be a better stranger ourselves.
We must be the judge of that.

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