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Forget the proverbial cat; the religious personality thrives on the unfamiliar ground that sparks Godly discovery

There are Jews and Christians that do dialogue. And there are those that “do” dialogue.

In the do group are folks who talk, make friends, and go places they’ve never gone before. That type of dialogue is real and a little scary. It’s for the rambunctious.

Then there’s the “do” group. It’s for the sedate. When you “do” dialogue you spend long afternoons in a multi-purpose lounge, usually under a vinyl banner saying something like “Sharing Together.” Sometimes, there’s Nescafé.

As I have discovered, not always to my delight, there is a “dialogue world” and a lot of people who “do” it. They even have their own vocabulary and canon of saints.

One such patron is Krister Stendahl, a deceased Lutheran bishop from Sweden. It was he who — in the 80s — invented the Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, consult the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.”

By “holy envy” Stendahl meant that we should acknowledge good things in other traditions that we wish could be reflected somehow in our own faith.

That’s not a bad idea, actually. And I don’t want to dump on Stendahl or the people who sit patiently on folding chairs through those formalized dialogue forums.

But better than “holy envy,” and much closer to my own experience, is curiosity.

“Curiosity killed the cat!” our eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Keller, liked to say. Then she added: “But satisfaction brought him back!” And then she would say something about photosynthesis.

I thought of Mrs. Keller’s cat when I previewed the church’s readings for this Sunday, which start with Genesis 15: “The Lord God took Abram outside….”

To me, this harks back to, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” And it points forward to that mildly famous fragment from Exodus, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

What does God do? He brings people out.

I thought of the cat last week while showing our monastery to a friend. It was a tense little visit, since the friend is vigorously frum and we had to avoid all places connected with worship.

(Our tagline: “The Krakow Dominicans. Practicing avodah zarah daily since 1222.”)

But an old monastery is a great place for inspiring curiosity.

We shuffled through the cloister-walk with its ceramic floor that exudes a damp sebum in winter. We passed walls studded with glossy stone monuments and portrait busts paid for by the rich of the 15th and 16th centuries. Under our feet, beer-hall-like vaults stretched over a subterranean dumping ground for (the archaeologists tell us) over 10,000 skeletons that have accumulated over the centuries. This is the boney mess left by the custom of anonymous mass burial, an expression of monastic humility.

We peered into the refectory with its overwhelming fresco of a bloody Christ. (Bon appétit.) We climbed high into the “new” 18th century addition and glided through the lectoria with their dour rows of Polish encyclopedias and — he was glad to discover — an annotated edition of the Torah in Hebrew.

I didn’t even bother to open the wardrobe of embroidered copes rescued from the Bolsheviks in Lviv or show him the sagging wooden shelves in the archives where incunabula, monstrances and books of the dead have their homes.

My pious Jewish friend seemed a little nonplussed at what he saw. He wasn’t in any way jealous, nor would I have wanted to evoke that emotion in him. But he approached our buildings with the snooping inquisitiveness of Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings: he was on unfamiliar ground, he was curious, and he learned something.

Holy curiosity — so different from envy — has electrified me as I pass into the forbidden sanctums of the synagogue and beit midrash. A blessed bewilderment takes me as people around the Sabbath table start to sing and the Hebrew words blur together in a mass of thrilling throaty fricatives.

Going out means taking a risk. It’s exciting. The heart rate jumps, and God can jump in.

Curiosity killed the cat. But it won’t kill me.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.