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Being “othered”

Holy_Trinity_IconFor someone who had a spiritual journey and formation in an eastern spiritual tradition before returning to the Church, the idea of God as a person, let alone three persons, was a challenge, to say the least. It was far easier to think of God as ‘consciousness’ or ‘energy’ or ‘no mind.’ The vast expanse of spacious silence found in prayer would invite such a perspective. It was not until I started asking “what is a person?” that my horizon widened.

“Person” is a mystery, as is God. Each of us is a mystery—do we really know the depths of the person we are married to? Do we really understand the depths of our own personhood? The whole concept of person is a fairly recent idea. It was not until the Church began trying to understand how Jesus could be divine, as well as the Father divine, and then the Holy Spirit. Does this mean three gods? The road to Nicea was paved with this question, with minds like Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. It was through the articulations of nature and hypostases that “personhood” developed. This is a wonderful world of exploration, but here is something from John P. Manoussakis’ God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic.

Manoussakis explores the phenomenology of experience, in the light of Husserl, how our experience is merely a projection of ourselves, that we are unable to see the “Other” because it lies outside the horizon of anything we can imagine or conceive. However, he offers a powerful solution in uncovering our ability to experience the other by being seen. John Paul Sartre’s concept of inverse intentionality goes something like this:

Given that every look is reciprocal, Satre writes, when I see the Other there is always the possibility to be seen by the Other as well. As far as I see the Other like this man who passes by the benches in a public park or as this beggar at the corner of the street, I see him or her as an object. The Other becomes really Other only at the crucial moment that I am seen by the other. When I cease seeing the Other and allow him or her to see me (in a wonderful exchange of reciprocal gazes), then the Other leaves the realm of a thing among other things and regains his or her status as a “subject” in relation and communion with me (who, in turn, I become decentred and vulnerable in my relation with the Other). ( pg. 21)

Manousakis suggests “the look of the Other surprises us. It forces us to become suddenly aware of ourselves: “First of all, I now exist as myself for my unreflective consciousness. It is this irruption of the self which has been most often described: ‘I see myself because somebody sees me.’ In the look of the Other, it is not only the Other who is given to us, but in the most paradoxical way, our very own self becomes apparent. Could we think of a phenomenology where the I does not look, and does not see, but instead experiences the Other’s look? When the I instead of seeing is seen, when it discovers itself caught in the horizon of God, when it is the I that appears to God and not God that appears to the I? (pg. 22)

This is the experience of praying with icons. We are somehow held in the gaze of God, held accountable. In the icon, there is no perspective: we are the ones who have the backdrop, for we are the ones being viewed through widened eyes. We stand before the icon, grasped by God. Manoussakis argues that opportunities to dispose ourselves to the horizon of God, for example in hymn, doxology, sacrament, and prayer, are the true means of theology, the true experience of God, and the true encounter with the mystery of personhood—God’s, and our own.

This idea of being “othered”—the moment we discover simultaneously the subject, the “I am” of the other who looks back at us, held in their gaze, profoundly speaks to the idea of our personhood as being grasped in relationship. In fact, Manoussakis argues that it is relationship that anticipates and counter-intuitively precedes being. Our personhood as mystery is first in relationship. Trinity Sunday speaks to us of this great mystery the mind can only reach toward. The mystery of personhood, freedom, divine life is relationship.

Have you been othered?

Gregor Sneddon

About Gregor Sneddon

Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter in the Diocese of Ottawa and the Rector of St Matthew’s, Ottawa. He received an MA from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and is the founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach of Eastern Ontario. Gregor is a council member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and serves on the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He is a husband, a dad, and enjoys being in the woods, a good dinner party and swinging the blues.

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One Response to Being “othered”

  1. This is lovely. Helpful, but also just fun to read!

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