catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 18 :: 2011.10.14 — 2011.10.27


Speaking with strangers

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.

Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome…

From Hamlet (act 1, scene 5)

Near the end of the first act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet has just spoken with a ghost. As he swears his friend, Horatio, to secrecy about what he has seen, the ghost’s voice erupts into the scene from offstage crying, “Swear! Swear!” We might say that in speaking to the ghost Hamlet has intentionally failed to heed the advice of so many mothers: never speak to strangers. Now this stranger’s voice, the sound itself as well as its import, make an ultimate claim on Hamlet’s life.

The interesting thing, however, is how Hamlet, in attempting to reassure Horatio, highlights two very different ways we can respond to the strange: we can recoil in horror or we can extend a welcome. Indeed, what is a guest other than a stranger we have decided to welcome? In either case, it is ourselves, our own attitudes and actions, that make the difference.

The single most important factor in deciding who is welcome and who is unwelcome seems to be the act of speaking. Speaking with a stranger (in the sense of conversing, having a mutual exchange, and not just hurling speeches at one another) seems to be the primary way in which we can welcome the strange. Will we, like Hamlet, decide to listen to a stranger, to allow the words of the stranger to make claims upon our lives, or will we dismiss them as mere babble that is none of our business?

Interestingly, the dynamics of speaking and welcoming show up in all of our political situations. A celebrated passage in Aristotle’s Politics defines man as the “political animal” because he alone has the ability to speak, which allows him to decide what is right and wrong, just and unjust. It might seem at first that this grand definition would make for a public sphere in which we all share equality as political animals, each having his voice heard. The truth, however, is that no matter how humans have been defined, the right to a voice has been systematically denied to many people. Historically, a voice has never been simply a voice. Even today, in many places the voices of some are seen to be rational and authoritative — proper voices — while others are just the noisy yelling of some strangers.

At the beginning of this month my wife and I celebrated the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, whose life has been a constant inspiration to us over the last few years as we attempt to welcome the strangers who hover around the edges of our lives. I have always found it a challenge to follow Francis’ example of inclusiveness. As one of Francis’ biographers writes:

In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost a sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man.*

Beyond Aristotle’s notion of the “political animal,” Francis’ view of creation led him to speak with even the most simple beings around him. One account of Francis’ life tells of how he convinced a young boy to refrain from selling turtle-doves for food. Instead the boy joined Francis’ order (The Friars Minor, now called the Franciscans) and brought the turtle-doves with him, to whom Francis said:

My dear sisters, simple-minded turtle-doves, innocent and chaste, why have you let yourselves be caught? I will keep you from some knight’s table and make you nests, so that you will be fruitful and multiply, as our Creator commands. **

The key to Francis’ interactions is that he refuses to measure others against the measure of himself before deciding whether to speak with them or not, whether they matter or not. In other words, he never assumes that another must cease from being “strange” before he or she can be welcome.

Perhaps the greatest single example of this principle at work in Francis’ life is in his famous visit to the Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Crusades. During a brief cease-fire between the Christian and Muslim armies, Francis went to see the Sultan, with whom he apparently spent several days in conversation and debate. Francis had hoped that the Sultan would convert to Christianity and thereby end the war between the two armies.

While it might seem that Francis, in wanting the Sultan to convert to Christianity, was just as intolerant as the armies who wanted to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, I think, upon closer inspection, we see how very different the two approaches actually are. Francis did not hope to annihilate the Sultan. Instead, he appealed to the Sultan’s freedom and independence to see what he — Francis — believed was the correct choice. This is the opposite of coercion that seeks to forcefully turn the stranger into oneself under pain of death. When he was unable to convince the Sultan, he departed in peace. Amidst the sad history of relentless violence of the Crusades, Francis’ interaction with the Sultan remains a bright glimmer of peace and hospitality.

So what does the life of Francis of Assisi have to say to us today in a world torn by religious wars, in a nation ever more sharply divided along ideological lines? I believe that Francis’ life quite simply points us to the principle of encountering the strange without fear. By this principle we will refuse to reduce, annihilate or reject those who populate the margins of our lives, viewpoints, and definitions of what is welcome. It is a principle otherwise known as love.

* from Saint Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesteron

** from The Road to Assisi by Paul Sabatier and Jon M. Sweeney

Further Reading:

The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by Paul Moses

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