Called to Be Friends? by Ellyn Sanna

We chose the word “anamchara” for the name of our company because it means “soul friend”—and we believe that the word “friendship” is essential to our mission: “to build bridges between spiritual perspectives and religious traditions; between the wisdom of the past and the demands of modern life; between ourselves and the Earth; and between ourselves and the Divine.” The connection between friendship and “bridges” is hopefully obvious. Included in that is the sense that friendship does not judge; it is accessible and accepting; it has a “Beginner’s Mind” that is willing to let go of old paradigms and learn new things from others. The Old English root word for “friend” is the same as that for “free”—beloved and without bondage—and that perspective of freedom and loving openness is one we seek to convey through our books.

Publishing from this perspective is a challenge that is both joyful and intellectually stimulating. Living from this perspective is a far more difficult and not particularly fun at all, especially in these days when everywhere we turn we’re confronted by voices shouting things we find not merely distasteful but downright frightening. Being friends with people who think like us is one thing; extending a spirit of openness and acceptance to people whose beliefs are so different from our own quite another.

This morning I’ve been reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes about two biblical concepts of peace: one is the “messianic” kind, the ideal perfection of lion lying down with lamb and a little child safely playing with wild animals; the other is what we are called to in the meanwhile, while we await a future perfection, a “here-and-now peace which depends on different groups with incompatible ideas living graciously or at least civilly together, without attempting to impose its beliefs on others” (The Dignity of Difference).

I also picked up this morning a book by Syaffaatun Almirzanah, a Muslim author, who writes about dialogue with other perspectives as a “spiritual pilgrimage” that calls us to venture into unexplored territory, unafraid, our defenses down, with no fear of being held captive or having to fight a battle but instead confident that we will return enriched, with new perspectives that will benefit our “homeland.” He quotes John Macquarrie as saying, “A creative dialogue is possible only if there is a complete openness, and no preliminary assumption that one revelation . . . must be the yardstick for all others.”

In When Mystic Masters Meet, Almirzanah compares this to the idea of the “desert” in the theology of Meister Eckhart, the Christian mystic—a place where we let go of all our ideas about God (and everything else we believe) in order to experience the Real, the Divine who cannot be contained by any of our ideas, a place where we are “detached from all that is familiar . . . filled with the potential to give birth to many things.”

There is only one goal of this pilgrimage into the desert, Almirzanah stresses: not conversion, not an attempt to merge perspectives into a false unity (or, in the words of Gospel of Matthew, to "cast our pearls before swine"), but to encounter God in new ways so that we can return with new insights for our lives. He quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Religion is a means, not an end. . . . To equate religion and God is idolatry. . . . Is it not blasphemous to say: I alone have the all the truth and the grace, and all those who differ live in darkness, and are abandoned by the grace of God?”

And all this is fine and good when I’m reading Almirzanah and Rabbi Sacks—but I’m deceiving myself if I think that my openness to the thoughts of these two authors, a Muslim and a Jew, means that I’ve entered Eckhart’s desert place. Ideologically, I’m already “friends” with these men; I welcome their ideas because they run parallel to my own. I’m far less willing to give the same respect to many of the voices I hear on the news and read on Facebook—let alone go on any sort of “spiritual pilgrimage” into their world.

But those people are simply wrong. I truly believe that. 

Of course, they say the same about me.

Rabbi Sacks says that the biblical story of the Tower of Babel has this to say to us: “that one of the greatest sources, perhaps the greatest source of human evil, is the fear and even the hate towards those who are different from me. It is that fear and hatred of difference that has led historically to violence, to war, and yes, to genocide. Babel is a society without space for difference; one language, shared thoughts, no difference.”

I am guilty of that fear and hatred.

Sacks goes on to indicate that we should all hear God’s call to Abraham:

“Leave your land, leave your birthplace, leave your father’s house, leave all the places where everyone is like you, and travel to an unknown destination. Become a stranger in a strange land. Go and live a life that is different from the people all around you. . . . Go and be different.”

This is the challenge I'm faced with today: how to be different. Different from my old complacent self who knows she’s right.

“The Bible commands us in one place to love our neighbor,” writes Sacks, “but in thirty-six places to love the stranger. . . . Because it’s much harder to love a stranger than your neighbor.” This is the greatest challenge to our faith, Sacks says, “to see the trace of God on the face of a stranger [in the face of one whose politics are not like mine, who supports a presidential candidate I do not like, who voices beliefs I find offensive]. Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image?”

If I'm honest—I don't want to. It's kind of fun to sit around sharing my outrage at those who don't think like me with those who do.

Lions and lambs lying down together may be as miraculous as today's political enemies having civil conversations that don't try to ram their beliefs down each other's throats. But I'm convinced that the story we tell about the world is the story we live. So my question today is this:

Is the story I tell about anamcharas large enough to reach past political boundary lines? 

Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich