The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame.Genesis 2: 25
And he said to her,” First, let the children be fully fed; for it is not a good thing to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered and says to him, “Yes, Lord; and the dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “On account of this remark, go: the demon has gone out from your daughter.”Mark 7: 27-29
In countless commentaries on the encounter in Mark’s gospel between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, much is made of her faith and her perseverance. And so should it be. Even as Jesus at first seems to rebuff her, her faith, hope, and love for and of her daughter lead her to continue to plead with Jesus until he relents and, because of her perseverance, heals her daughter. The very brief story, however, also gives us insight into what in the woman’s character allows for such persevering prayer and so can teach us a foundational disposition for our own practice of prayer.
What often strikes us in this story is what appears to be the harshness of Jesus’ initial reaction to the woman. It appears that Jesus is not totally free of the xenophobia and arrogance of his own tribe. Yet, if we wait upon the incident and allow it to speak to us, another possibility emerges for the way that Jesus addresses her. He is expressing to her the perspective of his group and people on hers. In this sense he is but representing the cultural and socio-historical view of his time and place.
If we place ourselves in the position of the woman in the story, we are likely to imagine that our own response to such a degrading representation of ourselves and our own group would evoke the violent and hateful reaction that was the perennial attitude of our people to our long-term enemies. Jesus’ words would surely evoke in us the sense of disrespect for us that we had felt from and expressed toward these others for generations. We would feel so personally diminished that any sense of self-esteem we may have developed would collapse. This is how racial and tribal enmity is fostered and persists not only for generations but through millennia.
Yet, given all of this history, culture, and now the repetition of the hurtful stereotypical language, the woman does not respond in resentment and rage. Rather, she takes up Jesus’ ugly metaphor and uses it to direct him toward a deeper reality. Even dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from children’s table. Of course, we know nothing of the historicity of this account. And yet, as presented, we see that there is something in this woman’s character that enables her to teach Jesus himself of the generosity and universal nature of the Mystery of God. Beyond our superficial and tribalistic identifications of each other lies our common humanity. The “dogs” have a place, even if it is not a seat at the table.
At least I have a very difficult time imagining myself being able to respond to Jesus’ insult as does this woman. So we must ask ourselves what it is that enables her to do so. What element of her character gives her the ground and the courage to not break the conversation and connection with Jesus. Of course, a part of this has to be her devotion to her daughter. Her love of her daughter is greater than her own pride, and even her own shame. Any possibility of gaining help and healing for her daughter is so much more important than her own ego that this priority influences her whole affective structure. Her determination to get her daughter the help she needs diminishes her own demand for personal respect and recognition. If this person can really help her daughter, then such slights to her own character armor are as nothing to her. In the moment she transcends both her own need for confirmation as a person and hundreds of years of tribal animosity.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to increased intimacy with God, self, and others is the power of shame in our lives. The presence of all of us in every cultural, historical, social, and personal situation is profoundly influenced by our sense of shame about who we have been, and are, and even can become. So much of how we react and relate to each other is controlled by our insatiable need to be recognized and respected because these desires and needs feel so fragile to us. The Syrophoenician woman, quite atypically, responds to Jesus by saying in effect, “You may see me as a dog, but even a dog has its place.” Somehow this woman stands on a ground, reinforced, no doubt, by her love of her daughter and intense desire for her healing, that is so solid that she is not shaken by the reminder of how Jewish culture sees her. She knows who she is and so is not readily shamed into the typical cultural reactions. This is, at least in part, what Jesus sees in her. She stays with him despite his attempt to drive her away, and so experiences in the healing of her daughter the power of his universal presence.
Most of us, at least intuitively, know something of the possibility of presence and prayer. We know that to be fully present to and to stay with God, in Jesus or in whatever way our own tradition speaks of God’s presence with us, is the way to come to know our own life and truth. Yet, to practice such presence is very difficult for most of us. To be by, with, and in oneself is among the most difficult of human practices. Why do we so actively and assiduously avoid ourselves? For most of us, one of the strongest obstacles to such presence to self and to God (and to others) is shame. When we are still, in body and mind, we are faced with our own nakedness. At such a moment, we are flooded with the accusations, past and present, of our cultures, our families, our colleagues, and ourselves. In our shame, we experience the deep and frightening desire to not be. We all face the experience of this shame. As Thomas Merton describes it, it is the realization that “I am my own mistake.” When the superficiality with which we surround ourselves and the illusions with which we deceive ourselves are stripped away, we stand naked and ashamed of that nakedness.
The woman in today’s gospel, however, is not ashamed to be called a dog. She seems not to be worried about how she looks to those gathered and even to Jesus. That is not the point for her. Her gaze is not directed inward to her own egoic needs and wounded eros but to her daughter. If there is possible relief and better life for her daughter, she will bear any humiliation. For, in love we know who we are beyond any social, religious, or cultural identity. As St. Paul writes: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13, 7) Love can do this because it is, finally, who are are and are called to be. In the way humans measure, we are nothing, but in the deeper sense we are made from and for love.
Usually in the gospel, Jesus stirs the deeper life in the other. In this story it appears that the Syrophoenician woman evokes the deeper life in him. It is he who is called up short in the limits of his conventional, cultural perceptions. His prejudices do not have their desired effect on this woman because she doesn’t care what he calls her. She has come to him by force of love, a love that is so much more than any external and cultural identity that is attributed to her. His attempts to shame her are thus fruitless. She knows already that in herself she is nothing, but in love she knows her very being.
We do not pray because we are worthy to stand before God. We do not receive the love of God or the love of another because we deserve it. We love and are loved because it is who we are. We learn who we are by risking the experience of all the ways we are our own mistake. Although shame, at that moment, may frighten us and have us feel as if we wish we didn’t exist, beneath and beyond that shame is the love that has nothing to do with what we have done or not done, what we deserve or do not deserve, or how we appear to and are seen by others. Jesus tells the woman that her daughter is healed because of the remark she has made. But the remark is but an expression of real faith, hope, and love. it is an expression of the truth and the core of her being. To know the healing and love of God requires of all of us that we stand before God, and before the world, in the truth of who we are, without concern for how others might shame us or the nakedness we might feel.
The first stage in contemplation is constantly to consider what God wants, what is pleasing to God, and what is acceptable in God’s eyes. We all offend in many things; our strength cannot match the rectitude of God’s will, being neither one with it nor wholly in accord with it; let us then humble ourselves under the powerful hand of the most high God and be concerned to show ourselves unworthy before God’s merciful gaze, saying: Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved. And again, Lord, have mercy on me; heal my soul because I have sinnedSt. Bernard, from a sermon “The Stages of Contemplation”
Once the eye of the soul has been purified by such considerations, we no longer abide within our own spirit in a sense of sorrow, but abide rather in the Spirit of God with great delight. No longer do we consider what is the will of God. for us, but rather what it is in itself. For our life is in God’s will. Thus we are convinced that what is according to God’s will is in every way more advantageous and fitting for us. And so, concerned as we are to preserve the life of our soul, we should be equally concerned, insofar as we can, not to deviate from God’s will.