Stranger or guest?

Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J., died of a heart attack in the home of a prostitute in 1974.  Unfortunately he is probably better remembered for the circumstances of his death than that he was one of the leading Catholic theologians of the 20th Century. At the time I remember some talk that perhaps she was his mistress.  The official church version was that he was bringing her money to help with her lover’s legal problems.  I liked the unofficial version better.  So French.  So human.

Danielou’s is another case where titillation has crowded out thought.  Even though I had left the Church about six years before Danielou’s death, and was deep into militant atheism, I still admired his writings.  By “writings” I mean The Lord of History, which I now remember 50 years after reading as a long meditation on the Catholic doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ through time.  The idea that we all are members of a living body, which cares for all and for all time, still appeals to me as it is found in such Buddhist teachings as the Avatamsaka Sutra, known as The Flower-Ornament Scripture. (Cleary 1993).

One of Danielou’s ideas has particularly resonated with me throughout the years since I took The Lord of History off my father’s bookshelves.

It is thus a triumph of civilization, or even the supreme triumph of civilization, to have made a foreigner a guest instead of an enemy…. Before this step was taken, packs of men were at war with one another, like the wild creatures in the primeval forests. From the moment when a stranger is taken in as a guest, no longer an object of execration but one of peculiar respect, a new thing has come into the world.

We don’t have to look to Burma or other faraway places to see how tenuous this “triumph of civilization” remains, how much we have to struggle again and again to make “a foreigner a guest instead of an enemy.”  Today’s headlines are about Americans in Arizona demonstrating, like the ones in California did last week, against the arrival in their town of children and families fleeing the violent chaos of Central America.

 

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