He then rose up, left that place, and set out on a journey to the region around Tyre. . . . Right away upon hearing about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and threw herself down at his feet. (But this woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.)
Mark 7: 24,25
In their commentary on Mark’s gospel, John R. Donohue and Daniel J. Harrington point out that the narrative of this chapter “portrays an array of ‘boundary crossings’”. Jesus crosses the geographical boundary between Galilee and the region around Tyre, and he then crosses the religious and cultural boundary by encountering, listening to, and responding to the request of the Syrophoenician woman. These events follow Jesus’ warning “against the power of tradition to make void the word of God and calls into question purely external observance of food laws. Such laws often served as “boundary markers” between Jews and Gentiles.” (The Gospel of Mark, p. 237) The deep human and spiritual conflict thus portrayed is that between our need for security by setting boundaries and the impulse of the spirit and the Gospel to reach out and go beyond. It brings into focus the difficult and challenging call to embrace otherness rather than to retreat and retrench into the seemingly secure life among “our own.”
In the past few weeks in the United States the persistent message of our governmental leaders has been that “we” are in far greater danger than we realize. We are told of how many very bad others there are whose sole obsession is to harm us. The appeal is to our insecurity and fear, that we might become ever more dependent on authority and withdrawn from our sense of responsibility to and for others. As if it were not already too true of the human unconscious, we are being prompted even more to put ourselves first and to retreat within our geographical and cognitive boundaries.
There is a similar movement in the “restorationist” trends in the church. As with the Pharisees, we can always fall prey to the fearful stance that would confuse the foundational elements of the tradition with the temporal and accidental accretions that develop over time. We can attempt to appropriate the gospel as a gift to us and our kind, forgetting that of its very nature it calls us to cross and transcend boundaries. Mark’s gospel makes clear that this “boundary crossing” is not the mere transporting of our own limited perspective to other cultures in what we have tended to call missionary activity. It is rather the radical moving out of ourselves and our own worlds to which the Jesus of today’s gospel passage attests. He enters potentially hostile territory and there truly encounters, that is both speaks and listens to, “a woman who was a Greek.” The story is a striking and perhaps even “scandalous” one because Jesus seems to respond to being bested in argument by the woman. By the time of Matthew’s gospel it is added that Jesus heals her daughter because of “the faith” of the woman. But in Mark, he seems to have been influenced by, actually formed and changed by, the woman’s words.
As Pope Francis has so often taught, we are not called merely to tolerate the other, but to encounter the other. To do so, however, requires of us that we overcome our fear, our ever-consuming need to feel more secure, and rather dare to be touched and changed by the “foreign” perspective of the others who are so different from us. The form traditions and practices that develop around our own religious and secular cultures are helpful for us, but they are not ultimate. The revelation that we are children of God means that we are a single family. Although we need our boundaries, we must, continually, live with the tension of transcending them. We must constantly attempt to stretch beyond our limited comprehensions of what is human and beyond our fears of whatever is different.
As a young person, I was extremely shy and fearful, aspects of which remain to this day. As I grew a bit older, I would often actively wait for the change in disposition which would eliminate my timidity and fearfulness. Being a slow learner, it was probably not before approaching middle age that I came to the awareness that it was possible to both feel fear and act at the same time. One overcomes fear not by ceasing to feel it, but by daring to act in spite of it. My fearfulness would diminish, at least a little, to the degree that I acted while remaining in full awareness of it.
As self-evident as this may seem, it may be helpful in our practice of the gospel in our time. We live in a time of rapid change and of an unleashing of mobility and global connection that feels overwhelming to us. To feel fear in the midst of so much that is beyond our control is a very normal response. Yet, the gospel impels us not to be determined by that fear. We must balance our fear of otherness with the realization that there is life, and light, and wisdom across our borders. As a young person, I considered my fears to be a psychological and even moral failing. I failed to appreciate that our life and survival requires of us an appropriate fear of what threatens us. Yet, our capacity to discern what is really “the threat” is always a very limited one, influenced by our formative and deformative life experiences. It is evil and manipulative for others, especially those with power, to prey on our exaggerated and deformed fears. In our personal and in our political lives, we must wrestle with our fear by the practice, wherever we are able, of going out of ourselves and crossing our self-imposed boundaries.
Many years ago, as the number of brothers began to seriously diminish from its peak in the early 1960’s, the community in the United States began a process which we termed “retrenchment.” This basically involved leaving those diocesan or parish schools in which we worked, that were often in the cities and among changing immigrant populations, and bringing our brothers together into our own schools, which by then were usually located in the suburbs and that served the children of the immigrant population we had served and that had now risen in social status. At the time, the good reasons for this decision seemed to be self-evident. Yet, in retrospect, it may be appropriate to ask if a movement of “retrenchment” is ever compatible with the demands of the gospel. An unintended consequence of this decision for the community was a withdrawal into our own enclosed situations and among those with whom we had always worked and felt comfortable. From this point on, the community basically ceased to grow, not only in numbers but also in consciousness. With the absence of new members from different backgrounds and perspectives, there was no longer an inner dynamism within the group. Its self-understanding hardened, and it became, at a point, unable to receive the new life that comes from across those boundaries that our own fears impose on life and human connection.
Pope Francis reminds us that all of life is discernment. We have no control over most of the forces, local and global, that impact our lives. In the face of the conflicts and tensions these forces evoke in us, we shall, perhaps, always experience two conflicting tendencies: withdrawal and retrenchment, on the one hand, and, against all “common sense,” a going beyond and crossing boundaries on the other. A person, a church, or a nation can cross boundaries in order to impose its way and will and to gain power over the other. It can also cross boundaries in order to share and to seek life, to abandon itself to the spirit that lives and moves within the life of the other. To believe our life is greater or richer in putting ourselves first is an illusion. We are one, and we are connected. We know life as we share life, as we overcome our fears and offer what we have to those across our boundaries, and, as Jesus did with the Syrophoenician woman, we listen and are formed and affected by the life and words of those who are other to us.
The Church was born as outgoing. It was closeted in the refectory and then came out. And it must remain in the outside world. It must not shut itself off again. Jesus didn’t want this. And “outside” means what I call the outskirts, both existential and social. The existential poor and social poor impel the Church to go beyond its confines. We think of a form of poverty, linked to the problem of migrants and refugees: and more important than international agreements is the life of those people! And precisely in the service of charity it is also possible to find a fertile soil for ecumenical dialogue: it is the poor that unite divided Christians! These are all challenges for the religious in a Church projected outwards. The Evangelii gaudium aims to communicate this need: to go forth into the world. I hope for a return to that Apostolic Exhortation through reflection and prayer. It has matured in the light of Evangelii nuntiandi and the work done at Aparecida, urging a wide-reaching ecclesial reflection. And finally, let us always remember: God’s mercy is outgoing. And God is always merciful. You too should go forth!
Pope Francis, Meeting with Union of Superior Generals, November 25, 2016