Learning to be a Monk – Reflections of a Pilgrim

Students at the Australian Studies Centre (where I’m spending much of my time lately) start the semester by reading a thought-provoking essay by William T. Cavanaugh titled Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Mobility and Identity in the Global Age.

Cavanaugh looks at the ramifications of globalization and what it means to live in a world less divided by borders…though he would argue that the idea that we’re not still divided by national identity is silly.  (My word, not his…this guy doesn’t use words like “silly”.)

My interpretation of how he defines the terms is this:

Migrant – Refugees, workers and others who have “spilled across borders in all parts of the globe.”  People in this category often (but not always) end up falling under the umbrella of those who are a “readily exploitable source of cheap labor.”

Tourist – One (likely a Westerner with means) who travels for business or pleasure, generally seeking escape, whose presence does more to affect the culture which they enter than the culture does to change them.  Someone who views another culture as something to be observed or consumed but not necessarily engaged.

Pilgrim – Someone who enters a new culture with humility and is willing to embrace differences in others while moving towards a transformed self, more grounded in God.  (In the essay, he explores the idea of Christian pilgrimage but points out that other traditions have elements of pilgrimage as well.)  One who “sees all as potential brothers and sisters on a common journey” and chooses to rely on others and God.

Monk – “Those on whom the pilgrim [and migrant] depend….those who remain in place in order to offer hospitality to those who journey.”

Not quite what I mean.
               Not quite what I mean.

Our students (and therefore I) have been challenged through these last almost three months (and in the weeks left on our journey) to see our time Down Under as Pilgrimage, to operate in such a way that we enter into the land and the culture, trying to understand the whole of the national story, rather than viewing it as a removed third party.  We want them to grow in their understanding of others and themselves rather than operate in a typical Tourist mindset.  And now we’re challenging them to take what they’re learning about cultural difference and apply it back to parts of their own country’s way of seeing the world…in essence, to become Monks for others.

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This is no easy task!  It requires self-reflection and admission of issues within one’s own country, state and city.  It requires sometimes saying the wrong things or asking the wrong questions and the humility to accept correction.  It can be an emotional journey that leaves a person asking “Great.  But what do I do now?”

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Part of Pilgrimage is fitting into a culture rather than imposing your own ideas of culture upon the place where you’re standing.  One might think that to culture cross from the United States to Australia isn’t that big of a deal.  The language is the same, the culture is western, there are McDonald’s (aka Macca’s) everywhere.

But even in our “similar” countries, there are differences.  The Australians I’ve met have been generally more physically active and more laid back.  They typically ask less questions and have a bit of a different way of conversing.  They aren’t into individualism and being the best…and they’re happy to dissuade others from being so.

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And yes, there is a small language gap. I can mostly understand the words of my house mate, but I often have to stop her to ask what a word means…and when I have to do that, it can be uncomfortable…especially in the moments she looks at me like I have two heads for not knowing what she’s talking about.  (I generally do know but different words for similar things.)

One of our students, in the first week of the program, was told she could help herself to the “bikkies” on the “bench” and almost ended up missing out on having one of the cookies that had been sitting out on the kitchen counter because she had no idea what she had been offered.

Don’t believe me?  Click here to see what Australians have to say about that.

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Elder lessons on Aboriginal land, culture and history

There are differences in our cultures, but there are also similarities, some of which are not pretty.  I’ve learned about darker things like Australia’s convict history, and treatment of Aboriginal people, and Australian current refugee practices.  And I can’t come away from that without reflecting on the dark parts of my own cultural past and present.

I feel like I can see things a little more clearly because I am watching the US from afar instead of being in the middle of what’s going on now with the election cycle and #BlackLivesMatter and various other issues of race and national identity that are bubbling up in my own country.  I’m seeing us through an Aussie filter that is bewildered by our current political theatre and literally assuming that Donald Trump reflects true American values.

Being here has reinforced what I already knew… The world is watching and they’re not necessarily liking what they see.

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So how do we get to Monk-hood…those of us who want to be a welcoming presence to the outsider?

One of the concluding ideas in Cavanaugh’s essay is that if we are willing to enter the world as Pilgrims, we can earn the right and the ability…and the centeredness…to be Monks to others.  How can we become Monks who help others to feel at home without first understanding what it is like to be a Pilgrim or listening to the stories of the Migrant?

In my current Pilgrimage, I’ve been “Monked” by colleagues who have taught me about the nuances of culture – both white Australian and Indigenous and the people like our students’ host families (and my house mate) who invite Americans into their homes to live as Aussies do.

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   Aboriginal sand art – recovering the old ways

I’ve been “Monked” by Aboriginal elders and teachers and artists who have kindly explained to “Whitefellas” the wounding and long-lasting effects of institutional racism and unconscious bias and who have taught us how dance and story and art connects them to the land and to each other…and how those things are also bringing healing to hurting people.  Their stories have illuminated not only their own culture but have given me a deeper understanding of the wounds to people within my own.

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                A “green” Outback experience

I’ve been “Monked” by a sweet cattle rancher named Grace who welcomed into the Outback so we could experience a land that is harsh, difficult to manage and often drought stricken (though it’s quite green this season because of unusual rain).  I understand better now the plight of farmers and ranchers who often know what’s best for the land but have to deal with government officials and policies that go against their better instincts, and I’ve heard more stories of Divine intervention in times of greatest need.

Grace (back. L) shows us around the property.
           Grace (back. L) shows us around the property.

And I’ve heard the stories of some Migrants, so I understand better now the difference between coming to a country as a welcome guest who is deemed acceptable vs. coming to a country as a person seeking asylum.  And how important Monk-types were in shaping the Migrant experience into a more positive one in spite of what they might be feeling from the culture at large.

I hold all of these people and their stories now.  They have helped me to understand the culture I am standing in and in turn have made me more keen to provide that sense of welcome to others when I’m standing in my own country.

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I believe that at least 50% of the travel I’ve done has majorly shaped who I am as a human…how I see myself and how I see the world.  I love to journey.  I probably always will.

I have also always been someone who deeply about welcoming others even though I’ve not always been good at it.  I’m very grateful that my current Pilgrimage in a new country has given me a larger framework of welcome; that my experience Down Under has left me more equipped to be a Monk for others.

We need more Monks than Tourists in our world of Migrants and Refugees.  We need more Monks in our world of people who have not been offered an equal seat at the table. And that is a need I want to meet in whatever ways I can.

 

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