Otherness and Spiritual Direction

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2017 at 8:30 am

“Towards a Non-judgmental Life

One of the hardest spiritual tasks is to live without prejudices. Sometimes we aren’t even aware how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we relate to people who are different from us in colour, religion, sexual orientation, or lifestyle as equals, but in concrete circumstances our spontaneous thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often reveal that our prejudices are still there.

Strangers, people different than we are, stir up fear, discomfort, suspicion, and hostility. They make us lose our sense of security just by being “other.” Only when we fully claim that God loves us in an unconditional way and look at “those other persons” as equally loved can we begin to discover that the great variety in being human is an expression of the immense richness of God’s heart. Then the need to prejudge people can gradually disappear.” – Henri Nouwen[1]

A spiritual director would find it necessary and helpful to consider studying Otherness, postcolonial theories, issues of race, equality and diversity for the purpose of giving spiritual direction and exercising spiritual discernment. A spiritual director, for example, could benefit from having a book like this to refer to; Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.[2] As an outsider myself to North America, I would also suggest Edward Said’s book, Orientalism.[3] This is a helpful book to help non-white spiritual directors understand how they might be perceived as the Other by those coming to them for spiritual direction.

Otherness is the term used to signify difference and separation from one group’s or one person’s position. The spiritual director putting herself in a position of privilege (having the status of being a spiritual director, having been trained in spiritual direction, having received spiritual direction, etc.) may forget that spiritual direction is humble listening to and accompaniment of the other. A person going for spiritual direction may understand the cost of doing so. The now often clearly stated “suggested” giving for the spiritual direction indicates a socio-economic class one comes from. A spiritual director who is paid clergy may not charge for giving spiritual direction as her/his employer (the church/denomination) pays her/his salary and s/he is assumed to carry out such direction as part of the pastoral ministry. Spiritual directors, on the other hand, who are part of a religious community or who are independent contractors may have suggested amounts a directee may contribute. In some retreat centres, a box for donation/payment is strategically placed before one proceeds to where offices are.

This pre-amble is simply to set the scenario of a certain standard that has been put in place for spiritual direction here in the west and which is also moving towards the rest of the world. All these assume that people seeking spiritual direction (not therapy) need to know that there is monetary cost connected with spiritual direction. Time is money. The spiritual director is to be taken seriously because the directee is reminded that s/he is coming to a person who is recognised as having achieved some expected standard of what it means to be a spiritual director. This expectation of met standards has to do with how societies view professionalism, education and status. These, to me, are part of what I consider “class.”

In many societies, there are class differences. There is this:


In India, there is the caste system which places people in social classes. While it is rooted in Hinduism, it has become so much part of Indian culture that I have observed Indian Christians who “put themselves unwittingly” into social strata, too. The Chinese have Confucianism which also places people in “their proper place” such as scholars, farms, artisans and merchants. There is also right relationships which are meant to maintain social harmony. These are ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger and friend to friend. Authority and hierarchy are keys to (Chinese) society functioning properly.

Spiritual directors need to recognise that they may not be free from all these beliefs, expectations and prejudices within their own paradigm. Theologically, we need to recognise that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[4] This implies that both the spiritual director and the directee will have brokenness. This brokenness could include ideas about class and class differences which may or may not hinder the process of spiritual direction. If the spiritual director has not yet recognized within her/himself prejudices about how people in certain socio-economic classes are stereotypically believed to behave and function, the spiritual director may put up blocks which may hinder openness, acceptance, empathy and compassion towards the directee. The directee, on the other hand, may be coming with her/his own class prejudices or feelings of superiority or inferiority. This may prove challenging in how the spiritual director may try to suggest movements the directee can make or the directee may become deferring towards the spiritual director and take everything with such deference that the directee does not listen for the Spirit’s voice.

Class differences can lead to judgmentalism if left unchecked. It would make spiritual direction a hard thing to do if the spiritual director harboured a spirit of judgmentalism towards the directee. If it was reversed, the directee would not be open to the spiritual director. I referred to this article in my reading ( and was glad to see this closing paragraph, “Social class differences come about because of the ideas and values you are surrounded by, the types of social interactions you have at home, school and work, and the sorts of institutional practices and policies that are common in your community,” she says. “That means that these differences are not immutable.” Attitudes towards class differences CAN be changed!

In the context of Christian spiritual direction, the recognition and acknowledgment of Otherness or of the Other is necessary and important – both in oneself and in the directee. It seems like the daily disciplines one practices are crucial in ridding oneself of prejudice towards the other as well as self-loathing. We need to name our brokenness, our prejudices, our gifts and our calling and allow the Spirit of God to continue the work of conversion and transformation. Paul wrote these words to the Philippian Christians,

“be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,”[5]

Regarding the other as better than oneself seems to be what will break the classism that is subtle and insidious. I believe Jesus shows us how to subvert the dangers of isms which rob the Other of dignity. His Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7 (and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke) speaks to the subverting of the world’s value systems which often elevate the powerful and oppress the other. In spiritual direction, we need to recognise that the sin of Othering is present in our societies and sadly even in our churches, but we have the responsibility of resisting those sins and of breaking down the structures that perpetuate them…starting with ourselves.


[2] Maurianne Adams e.a. (eds.) Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (NY/London: Routledge, 2000, 521 pp. ISBN 0-4159-2634-3)

[3] Edward W. Said Orientalism (New York:Pantheon Books) 1978

[4] Romans 3:23

[5] Philippians 2:2b-5

Are you afraid of the dark? (first draft) Nov 4, 2015

In Uncategorized on November 4, 2015 at 7:01 am

Are you afraid of the dark?

Maybe because your eyes haven’t adjusted to the lack of light. Maybe you think there’s a demon lurking nearby and the hairs on your neck stand to attention at that thought.

Are you nervous in the dark?

“I might trip or stub my toe.” You think. “There might be a werewolf behind the washing machine” you telepath your thoughts to me.

Is the darkness a bad thing?

The “they” tells me it is a bad thing. We hide bad stuff in the darkness, right? We don’t want the light to shine and declare our corners lost to the princely one, do we?

Darkness isn’t where God is, some say. Many say that God is Light.

So darkness is bad. Yes? Some things are best done in the dark. If you still develop film, you need darkness, not light.

But if God is everywhere. EVERYwhere. Even in darkness God is there.

Couldn’t this mean God can make the darkness good? Right? Okay? Holy?

If we persist in dualistic thinking, God and darkness don’t sync. Aren’t the unknown facets of God hidden from us, a mystery to us, thus keeping us in the dark?

And God keeps some of us in the dark for a touch of mystery.

Creative Writing Homework on the topic of Bullying

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2015 at 9:09 am

“Bullies always justify their actions by extolling their good intentions. That’s why the road to hell is paved with them.” Skye Jethani

———————————————————————————————-Maria Ling

She fumed as she watched Mark cycle by and call Matthew a sissy. She shouted at Mark but it was to no avail. Matthew was only 6-years old and a quiet, gentle boy. She quickly rushed him inside and tried to distract him. She didn’t know what to do. Should she comfort him and tell him to ignore Mark? Should she hug him tight and tell him she loved him? She felt that these things would not really help but she didn’t know what to say or do.

Sally grew up the third of five siblings who were mostly a rambunctious crowd. She was the mousey one. It was as if being the middle child had squeezed all the gumption out of her. She was slight of build and plain looking. She did not bother to comb her hair much nor did she take trouble with her dressing. As long as she was clean and neat, she felt she was all right.

Her mother, Jan, was also the quiet sort, the self-sacrificing wife and mother who did not complain about anything but took everything in stride. Jan did not retort whenever her husband came home late from work and shouted for his dinner. She dared not respond in any way except to quickly get his plate out from the oven. Russ was not a man to be trifled with. He was tough, big and strong and had a temper to match his build, if and when anyone crossed him. He was not one to be bullied. If anything, Russ could easily bully others. Coercion came easily to Russ. That’s why he was able to run a tight ship at the construction site. He did not suffer fools gladly which was why both at work and at home, the construction workers and his children knew not to do anything stupid or be stupid for that matter.

Russ knew not to be physically abusive with his wife and children but he had a way with words that cut them to their core. It was not name-calling so much as statements that broke their spirits. He could undermine them and say such insidious things that he chipped away at his wife’s and children’s confidence and self-esteem.

“You think you’re so clever, is it, Jack?” Russ said to his oldest son who had fixed the garage door on his own accord. The door made a loud rattling sound whenever the remote control was utilized to open it or close it. It was so loud that they had stopped closing it. Jack thought he could fix it with some grease and WD-40 spray. He climbed atop a wooden box and loosened some of the nuts and re-tightened them after spraying them with WD-40. He applied grease to the pulleys and hoped it would work. When Russ came home from work, he found the garage door half-way closed. Using the remote control in his car, he pressed the Open button but nothing happened. There was only the sound of loud clicking from gears that had gotten jammed. Instead of lessening the rattling sound, Jack inevitably made it worse. Now it was stuck. Russ let out a barrage of choice curse words. Jack tried to apologize but got no where with his father. He hunched his shoulders and left the house. He’d have to let his father cool down. He hoped his father would cool down. Russ left the car in the driveway.

Jan quickly got his dinner plate out of the oven and put it on the table for Russ. While Russ washed his hands, Jan called the younger kids to send them to bed. Russ expected Jan to take care of everything in the home and when anything was out of order, he never let her forget what a lousy decision he had made in marrying her instead of her younger sister, Penny. He blamed Jan for getting pregnant with Jack when he was preparing to go to university. He had to give up his scholarship for engineering school and find a job to support Jan and Jack. Russ took every opportunity to blame her for the loss of the dream career in engineering. Russ let go a salvo of hurtful words before he took his first mouthful of his dinner. Jan felt a pang of regret in the pit of her stomach.

Sally took Matthew to his room and sat him down in his beanbag and stroked his hair. “Matthew, you’re a good boy, you’re Mummy’s big boy,” she said. She didn’t know if he was hurting or not from Mark’s callous words. All she knew was that she was hurting. It brought back memories of her childhood with her siblings and her father who verbally abused each one of them. Her mother, Jan, seemed powerless against that man. It seemed as if he had no compunction for what he did to them. Matthew looked sadly at his mother. He didn’t say anything but just sat there quietly and slowly died on the inside. What Sally did not realize then was that Matthew had already lost all sense of self-worth and self-esteem. His heart was already in many broken pieces. He loved his mother in his own six-year old way but how could he tell her that long before Mark called him a sissy, he had already believed himself to be worthless and weak.

Sally had to leave home when Russ found out that she was pregnant at 14. Jan could do nothing to stop Russ from throwing Sally out. It wasn’t like getting pregnant was Sally’s fault. Sure, she consented but how can one call it consent when she was so broken by all the bullying she’d suffered at school at the hands of the schoolgirl gang. They strong-armed her into having sexual intercourse with the boys’ gang while they jeered at her. It didn’t happen once but on a number of occasions. And Sally was powerless to complain to the school principal or report it to the police. The bullying did not stop even after she left school in shame. No one stopped to ask her what happened, not the school nurse or the counsellor.

Jan sent Sally to live with her aunt in the next town. Hopefully, Sally would be safe from the taunts and judgmental looks. Hopefully, Sally could muster up the strength to move on with her life. Her aunt, June, Jan’s older sister was a single lady who ran a small bookkeeping business and was able to give Sally the necessary training to help her in the front office. Sally was fine working alone. She did her work well and answered the phone politely. Aunt June did not put too much pressure on her. But even Aunt June could not rescue her from what had already been done to her in the past. Sally was a victim and had a victim mindset. She did not know how to break that mindset. She did not even realize how her inability to stand up for herself was affecting how she was raising Matthew. She tried to protect him and coddle him but in so doing she was not preparing him for real life beyond the safety of their home with Aunt June. Matthew was like a handicapped butterfly that had emerged limping from a messed up cocoon.

Everyday at the day care centre where Sally sent Matthew, the other children would poke and prod Matthew with their fingers, with sticks, with crayons. Matthew just sat there quietly. Once when he tried to tell one of the child minders, she shouted at him not to trouble her but “to shut up, sit down and colour his book.” The other children had found an easy victim to gang up against. Matthew had lost his voice. He became a victim like his mother.

Who was going to protect Matthew? Can the cycle of bullying be broken? Would Matthew have to suffer like his grandmother, his mother and his uncles and aunts? Would the bullying ever end? Once this summer was over, he would be going to school, to first grade. He didn’t know what was in store for him. Was life all about others hurting him, calling him names but making sure there were no visible signs? Just because there were no bruises on his body it did not mean he had no bruises inside of him. Who was going to stop this madness? Who could he call for help? Could he even muster up the courage to get help? Maybe this was normal. Maybe this was how it was for everyone – the bullies and the bullied, only two groups of people in this world.

Conclusion but not concluding

I tell this story of Sally and Matthew, Jan and Russ, Jack and Russ because things seem very bleak to me and I do not know how to end this story in a satisfactory way. There are so many campaigns to stop bullying and abuse both of children and adults, as well as of animals and those who are helpless. Is there a cure for bullying? Is there an end in sight for the use of force and intimidation? How do we stop the powerful from abusing their power over those without power and without the means to stand up for themselves? How do we stop a child from pushing another child off the swing at the playground? Can we prevent a spouse from bullying their spouse? How do we break this cycle of force and cruelty?

In this journey called life, single individuals can make a difference, groups of like-minded people can save a bullied child, shelters can provide a temporary haven for abused spouses and their children but the task will be a life-long one. These problems cannot be solved in a few days or by electing the right leader, or starting an online campaign. But it can be done. Slowly.

And even if our best efforts don’t stop bullying of all forms, it is no reason to give up hope. Hope is what will see us through. It is the firm belief that even if there are bad and wicked people in this world with bad and broken systems of government, many people working together can stop the bullying and the harmful effects of exercising power over others rather than with the powerless.