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!