Seeking God in the “Land of Unlikeness”

by Melannie Svoboda SND on June 1, 2020

The poet W. H. Auden has written a beautiful poem called, “For the Time Being: Xmas Oratorio.” In it he suggests that we should seek God in three unusual places. One of those places is the Land of Unlikeness.

He’s saying, I suggest, that we must seek God in people, places, and circumstances that are unlike ourselves, that is, in things that are different from ourselves, unfamiliar to us, or even toward which we feel a natural aversion.

I chose this topic for my blog about a month ago and I even wrote a reflection on it. But the events of this past week made me rewrite what I had written. What events? In the U.S. the deaths from Covid-19 passed the grim mark of 100,000. The U.S. unemployment rate reached 14.7%, a record high. The brutal killing of George Floyd shocked and outraged millions of Americans. That killing sparked mass protests across our country with many of them erupting in death and violence.

Talk about the Land of Unlikeness! What’s there to like about the place we find ourselves at this moment in our history? Some of us may be so repulsed by what is happening around us, we may want to withdraw from this land. We may want to retreat to a place more to our liking, a place that is safer, more peaceful, more comfortable.

This current world reflected in our headlines raises all kinds of disturbing questions like: Why is all of this happening now? What can we possibly do to restore peace? How can we insure greater justice for all? Where are we heading as a nation? And where is God in all of this?

I think Auden’s answer to that last question is this: God is here. Yes, God resides even in this land of unlikeness. We must seek and find God in the the confusion, anxiety, intrepidation, and uncertainty that surround us.

Years ago I stumbled across this phrase: “the tyranny of personal preference.” That’s powerful! Our world becomes small if we surround ourselves only with people and things to which we are naturally drawn. If we do, then we miss out on a lot of personal growth and even breadth of vision. More importantly, we miss finding God in places we never thought to look.

What would Jesus say about seeking God in the Land of Unlikeness? Wasn’t the Incarnation itself a venture into the Land of Unlikeness for Jesus? As John says in the prologue to his gospel, “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” One translation says, “he pitched his tent among us.” Talk about unlikeness!

During his earthly life, Jesus often entered the land of unlikeness. He befriended men and women, the wealthy and poor, the healthy and sick, Jew and Gentile. He heaped praise even on a Roman soldier, enjoyed children, and respected the elderly. From the stories and imagery Jesus used in his teachings, we know he hung out with farmers, shepherds, housewives, builders, mothers and fathers—many unlike himself in significant ways. His encounter with a feisty Syro-Phonecian woman even caused him to broadened the scope of his mission.

And then there’s Jesus’ greatest teaching: Love one another—even your enemies. Often individuals become our enemies when we cannot see any likeness between them and ourselves. In extreme cases, we can even dismiss them as “monsters,” that is, as individuals who do not share our common humanity.

Toward the end of his life, Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem, the Land of Unlikeness, even though his own apostles urged him not to go. In Gethsemane he begged the Father to “remove this cup,” that is, to take away the horrific death he was facing. But Jesus did not run away. Trusting his Father’s love completely, he stood and faced his executioners.

Our current headlines have thrust us into a Land of Unlikeness. But our faith tells us that even this land has many graces for us. One of the most obvious graces is this: A renewed realization and appreciation of these truths: we share this world together… we are all interconnected… and we are all part of one common humanity. These truths are stronger and deeper than all our unlikenesses.

Let us pray: Jesus, we ask for the grace to find you in the Land of Unlikeness. Free us from the “tyranny of personal preference,” especially when love or duty calls us to greater selflessness and freedom. May we welcome people into the sphere of our lives who are unlike us in significant ways. May we face adversity and hardships with your courage and trust in God. May we do the never-ending work of securing justice for all. During this time of unlikeness, may we be open to personal growth, change, and the broadening of our perspective on life. We ask for these graces through the power of your Boundless, Persistent, and Daring Holy Spirit. Amen.

+ What are some of your thoughts and feelings about our current headlines? Does anything give you hope?

+ What effect does the current national and global situation have on your prayer?

+ Can you say in a few words what gave Jesus the ability to face his crucifixion?

We just celebrated the feast of Pentecost. I chose a very gentle Holy Spirit song by CeCe Winans, “Holy Spirit Come and Fill this Place.” Let us ask the Spirit to fill “this place,” that is, to fill our hearts, our churches, our cities, our world.

I warmly welcome you to respond below to this reflection, song, or someone else’s response. My readers and I value your comments!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas DeFreitas June 1, 2020 at 4:37 am

The words of the Pentecost sequence “Heal our wounds” have never seemed so urgent. But even the imperfectly healed can be agents of healing. I don’t have any of the answers. I hope I’m listening with respectful attention to the voices of outrage, who clamour for justice in the face of its repeated denial. I hope I’m unlearning the “tyranny of personal preference” and unlearning kneejerk reactions to experiences radically different from my own. I hope that I will have the courage to do what I can to push back against racism when I see it in myself or in others. And I hope, and indeed daily pray, that our nation might be governed by those who act with wisdom, prudence, restraint, compassion, and an unfaltering respect for human dignity.

But my hope is being sorely tested, if not battered, by the headlines, by the knowledge that many folks are unperturbed by injustice and in fact might even take a diabolic pleasure in it. The demagogic tenor of certain rhetoricians troubles me immensely (if we can dignify the invective and insult with the name of rhetoric). I can’t help thinking that the church needs a prophet of the magnitude of a Sister Thea Bowman or a Saint Katharine Drexel right about now.

Cardinal Cupich encourages me. And others. And our dear sisters and brothers in the Episcopal Church have a holy relentlessness in speaking truth to power.

I still don’t know what I can do. But the human capacity for love has not been made extinct by our nation’s recent turmoil. And that, above all, gives me hope.

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John Hopkins June 1, 2020 at 5:12 am

Thank you, Tom. Your words always make me think. God Bless!

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Kathleen Magiera June 1, 2020 at 7:36 am

Thanks for your wisdom Tom. We need Sister Thea Bowman’s words more than ever!

We also ask for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Land of Unlikeness. When I go into the nearby state prison to do the Catholic Communion Service or pray with the men in faith sharing groups, it truly is the Land of Unlikeness. I have learned so much from my incarcerated brothers.

Kathleen

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John Hopkins June 1, 2020 at 5:32 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie….
Good morning, all….

Troubling times indeed! Yesterday, many of the students at my school gathered with others in Boston to join in peaceful protest. But I was not there.

This morning one of my students had the courage to email the staff to stop “the distance learning” and just talk about the calamity of what’s going on right now. Yes, dear student, I need to, I will.

The “tyranny of personal preference” did not stop Jesus from encountering the young man in the gospel howling in the tombs, breaking the chains that tried to hold him, cutting himself with shards of pottery. His community did not “prefer” him so they relegated to a place of death, a place Jesus did (does) not fear to enter.

Come, Holy Spirit, and fire our hearts, our resolve, and our imaginations to bring peace and reconciliation to this earth that cries out for justice. Amen.

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Marian Carter June 1, 2020 at 5:57 am

Dear Sister Melannie:
Your words are so intelligent in this troubling time.
I can barely watch any of the news
You can see the terrible injustice that has been done with your own eyes.
But is is so heart wrenching to watch cities be vandalised and fires being set and people and policeman being hurt.
We have been dealing with this Hugh loss of life during this pemdemic.
It is so hard to deal with.
I will continue to pray for our country and the world.
God bless America.
Marian.

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Ed Johnson June 1, 2020 at 6:01 am

Thank you, Sister, for your thoughtful words this week. Throughout our nation’s history there have been periods when it seemed as if the fabric of society was unraveling. The Civil War; Reconstruction; Two World Wars; Civil unrest of the 1960s; Assassinations of American leaders, etc……We seem to be living in such a time now amidst a world wide pandemic, and massive civil unrest. How do we deal with this? How shall we process what is happening? What to do about it? Yesterday was Pentecost. The words of today’s video ask that the Holy Spirit Come and Fill This Place. Following Jesus’ death came resurrection, ascension, and the Holy Spirit, dwelling within each of us. I pray that the fruits of the spirit manifest themselves in what I think, say, and do……always and at all times. I truly do believe in the words of the song “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” And so with each of us.
Peace and Blessings to All

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Nancy Frederico June 1, 2020 at 6:40 am

Dear Sr. Melannie and family

Your insightful comments this morning have somewhat casts away the darkness that has fallen upon all of us. The sun is shining still. May we continue to live each day with even greater love in our hearts. Thank you Sr. for opening our hearts and minds once again, by this much needed reflection. Peace to all.

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Carol June 1, 2020 at 7:26 am

Good morning all! Happy June!
My heart aches at what is happening in this current climate. I pray & implore the Holy Trinity to descend upon us with Divine intervention. The madness needs to stop so justice can prevail, peace is restored & healing begins.

However, I find it difficult to reduce my stress & concern over what these current crises will do to the psyche of our young people. I fear they will come away from the pandemic, the civil unrest, the injustice of racism & poverty with a jaded view of what it means to be human.

Our Nation is in turmoil. We are all hurting, frustrated & in need of a marriage between common sense & love to prevail. No doubt the events of 2020 will go down in history as the brewing of a “perfect storm”. I’m struggling with hearing God’ s message to me about what I can & should do to alleviate the pain & spread His message. In troubling times I often appeal to the Holy Spirit to bestow peace, grace, & strength upon all God’s children. Now more than ever, we need to collectively pray for each other & to our Creator to help us.

For now, I will strive to let anyone I come in contact with to know I am a Christian by my words & actions; to show love, understanding & empathy.

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Amy Secrist June 1, 2020 at 8:40 am

Thank you so much, Sr Melanie! Always appreciate your conscious attention and response to our lives and our world. May you and your readers be blessed! My thoughts can be found in my latest blog post, The Spaciousnessof Love, revisited. Please visit:

https://thecatholicyogi.com/2020/05/31/the-spaciousness-of-love-revisited/

We share many of the same thoughts. Even even similar pictures!

All peace & blessings,
Amy

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Melannie Svoboda SND June 1, 2020 at 9:00 am

Amy, Thank you so much for providing the link to your beautiful website. I recommend my readers check it out. I really liked how you explored the definition of love: “our own capacity for spaciousness.” Then your refrain, “choose space.” Thank you for your wise and challenging words! Melannie

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Mary June 1, 2020 at 8:42 am

Good Morning. I live in Midland, MI where we recently had severe flooding as 2 dams broke in neighboring towns. These past 2 weeks I have witnessed and watched humanity at its best. People helping people. Total strangers giving food, shelter and clothing to other total strangers. It’s all about Sharing and showing love of neighbor. A beautiful thing to witness. It’s what Jesus taught us to do. And yet just 2 hours away in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids there is so much unrest and upheaval and protesting. It’s an emotional roller coaster for sure. God help us all. Peace and a Blessings

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Melannie Svoboda SND June 1, 2020 at 9:06 am

Mary, Thank you for reminding us to pray for the people affected by that other disaster in Michigan, the severe flooding from the breaking of those dams. And thank you for reminding us that sometimes in such a tragedy, we do see “humanity at its best.” The morning after the rioting in Cleveland, groups of ordinary people came to help workers clean up the mess. There they were, sweeping up glasses and debris. One man brought his two children to help, saying, “I want them to learn that this is our city and we must work to keep it beautiful.” … Thanks again, Mary. Melannie

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Pete June 1, 2020 at 8:47 am

I echo the comments above, we have all been thinking about these situations. So, what do we do? Do we sit back and let it play itself out, as it will? What will be the after effects with our younger generations? Is praying enough? We must continue on as a Christian community and believe that what WE believe in will prevail.
I’ve copied your prayer, Sister, it is giant! Thank you.

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Kim June 1, 2020 at 12:05 pm

That video song you chose was calming and beautiful. I have never in my life had the time or reason to contemplate life and what I truly feel. At Mass this morning I was quite bothered by the fact that during the petitions we prayed for the civil unrest to be resolved. I was very disappointed that one of the petitions was not for civil injustice to be resolved.
I concur with several of your individuals who commented, ‘now what do we do?’ Nothing is my guess. 99.9% of the people I attend church with look exactly like me. I will never know what it feels like to be someone else, I can only imagine.

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Teresa June 1, 2020 at 10:26 am

Isn’t our God magnificent!!! to show up in all the places of our lives if we only open our eyes to see. Thank you for reminding all of us to revisit the unlikely places and find God waiting there to embrace us with open arms.
I love the songs you provide and always pass them on!

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Kim June 1, 2020 at 12:07 pm

Sorry I meant my note to be in the general comments, not in a reply box

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Carole Iseli June 1, 2020 at 5:24 pm

Like so many others, “The Land of Unlikeness” has been my home since March. Who could have imagined? Somehow, though, our good and provident God has given me the grace to adapt, to change up my routine, to more intentionally put others’ welfare before my own. The “tyranny of personal preference” really resonated with me as I thought about those who refuse to wear masks in public because they believe that’s their right as an American. My brother so wisely commented the other day that there are also responsibilities that come with being an American. What can we do? Look for opportunities every day to LIVE the Gospel. Mother Angelica used to say, “We are all called to be saints. Don’t miss the opportunity.” Finally, Sr. Melannie, I loved your music selection by CeCe Winans, one of my favorite Gospel recording artists. From time to time I’ve chosen her music to accompany SND Associate faith sharing gatherings. Peace to all.

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Rita Cusack June 1, 2020 at 9:33 pm

THANKYOU Melannie, for this challenging Reflection. We are certainly living in a World of Unlikeness during these days….not only in America but Globally…. May the Holy Spirit come and fill our World with Peace …

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Jean Canatsey June 2, 2020 at 12:55 pm

Where do I begin? We are all living in a “World of Unlikeness.” Society seems to be disintegrating around us. It has been almost three months since we have hugged a child or grandchild! We are disconnected from our families, our friends, our government, and even our church. There is something a little weird about receiving communion in your hand as you leave the church building. Oddly though, I feel my spiritual life has improved.
My husband and I have been able to join an “At home church community” which we have long felt connected too and which is too far away to physically attend on a regular basis. We are saying the Rosary together for the first time in 64 years of marriage. I have more time to journal and to write to my incarcerated friends. Perhaps in time we will be able to assimilate this new normal into the old normal and become better people. We can only hope.

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JOANNE R. June 3, 2020 at 7:39 am

THIS SONG ALONG WITH THE WORDS LIGHTED CANDLES BRINGS TO ME ONE OF MY FAVORITE WORDS THAT IS H O P E. IF WE HAVE THAT AS A PERSON NATION IN OUR FATHER GOD WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS AS WE ALWAYS HAVE. THERE HAVE BEEN SO MANY TIMES IN OUR HISTORY OF EVENTS SUCH AS THESE AND WE HAVE ALL COME THROUGH, SO LET’S KEEP SONGS, WORDS AND CANDLES GLOW IN OUR LIVES AND LET THE HOLY SPIRIT FILL OUR PLACE.

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