Seeing People Through a Spiritual Lens

            There is ample evidence from evolutionary psychology and brain science that we are wired to make quick assumptions about people based on our culture, perceptions, and experience.  This can be particularly true in our current political climate.

            The spiritual traditions have offered us alternative ways of seeing people, aimed at encouraging us to not judge by outer appearances, but assuming every person has inherent worth.

            Quakers have held that every human has an “inner light” worthy of respect. This core belief led them to oppose slavery long before others in Europe and America.

            In the eastern traditions, a common practice is to bow to others with hands pressed together near our heart and say “Namaste,” meaning we acknowledge the sacred presence in the other.

            Fifteen centuries ago, St. Benedict created a book of precepts to guide the life of the monks. Rule 53:1 reads: “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)” This rule is still followed at Benedictine monasteries and has been adopted by many in the Catholic tradition.

            With this in mind, I appreciated the following piece by Mike Kerrigan, a lawyer in North Carolina.  He has been distraught by the “rancor” that is characterizing our culture and sought out a mentor from his past who might help him approach others in a better way:

            I reconnected recently with an old friend and Jesuit priest, Daniel Sweeney, with the intention of asking him.

            In the 1980s, Father Sweeney taught world history at Georgetown Prep, the high school in North Bethesda, Md., where I was a student. He’s now an assistant professor of political science at the University of Scranton.

            Surely my clerical companion, whether drawing on his priestly or academic vocation, could offer the customary good counsel to which I’d grown accustomed in adolescence. Still teaching by anecdote, Father Sweeney didn’t disappoint.

            He recalled a time he’d repaired from the hurly-burly of instructing adolescent males to the tranquility of a faculty lounge. Seated beside him was another Jesuit faculty member, James A.P. Byrne, a priest known for saintly serenity and heroic patience.

            Their peace was interrupted by an obscenely loud knock on the door. It was the kind of gratuitous pounding both men instantly knew had been delivered by the sort of student from whom they’d sought respite. Father Byrne got up, exchanged words with the impertinent young man, and returned to his seat.

            “Who was at the door?” Father Sweeney asked. “It was just our Lord,” Father Byrne replied serenely, his Irish eyes twinkling, “in one of his most unrecognizable forms.” [1]

            I hope to remember that description and use it when needed.

Image: “My Portrait Surrounded by Masks,” James Ensor, 1899


[1] “A Priest Finds Serenity in Humor,” by Mike. Kerrigan, WSJ, August 3, 2021

8 Comments

  1. John Bowers says:

    Good advice, but difficult to follow. I too am very concerned about the evolution of our society and the rancor that has replaced civility. It seems we are going backwards and becoming less “evolved” and more primitive. As always, good people need to stand up and make their voices heard. But, in today’s society, it doesn’t seem worth it.

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  2. Antoinette Lang says:

    This is so appropriate. We have to remind ourselves that we are human beings with souls that deserve respect and kindness. Yesterday I was walking to the beach on a trail with Allan and the grandkids. Lily at 4 and a half didn’t comment on the scruffy guy riding an ATV ahead of us. She just said “Isn’t that amazing he can drive on the trail like that, I can’t believe that he can ?! At the end of the trail he was sitting on a log. I smiled and he said I am clearing some of the logs and poison oak so I can trailer my kayak down here. Honestly most people wouldn’t even converse with him with his long hair and beard. I am careful and protective of my grandkids. I also want them to be kind to people no matter how they look.

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    1. Well said, Antoinette. We have to be thoughtful as we interact with people, but assuming most people are basically good can make a big difference

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  3. Your Uncle Ernie says:

    Good one!Tried to leave a comment, but lost the WordPress login wrestling match again.      Ernie

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  4. Steve, I love your blogs.

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  5. pcorrigan22yahoocom says:

    Seems like too many “unrecognizable forms” right now. I know I’m one of them to many. Maybe I can begin again to recognize my own intended form.

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  6. Terre Martin Sanitate says:

    Thanks Steve. I have some thinking and practicing to do.
    Of course I enjoy welcoming my most people in their disguises – nice, easy and ain’t I special. As I am starting to freak out again about the virus, yesterday, an unmasked, anti-vaxxer neighbor, interrupted my indoor gym plan and was arrogant. Namas……what – what was that again? What is he here to teach me? I initially use humor in my reactions, but I easily ignite lately. There is so much fuel around too. I am annoyed just writing about it.

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  7. Cragg Gilbert says:

    Very true

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