Tending the Soul: Movement to the Margins

“God is at home. We are in the far country.”   - Meister Eckhart

“Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make people holy by his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”   - Hebrews 13:12-13

In every society, in every city, in every neighborhood, on every playground there is “inside the camp” and “outside the camp.” The contours of all human gatherings have their margins.

When I first began to spend time in Bangkok slums, I observed this: destitute people build their homes out of discarded scraps, in unusable swampland where city sewage flows. Residents of these “crowded communities” are shunned and shamed by people with permanent homes and mailing addresses. As I spent more time, however, I further observed this: there are top dogs in any slum. They have the largest sheets of corrugated tin for roofs, and linoleum spread across their plywood floors. They resourcefully splice electricity in from the service mains, and lash TV antennas to bamboo poles. They collect “rent” from quadrants of the swamp and from boarders in precarious second-story rooms.

But make your way further back through the shacks—you’ll need a decent sense of balance on the single-file boards stacked atop posts driven into the muck—and you’ll come to the edge. I once stumbled upon a clan taking turns sleeping on a board lashed to a couple large rusty gas cans, so they wouldn’t sink. I gathered from their wild sunken eyes, starved frames, and needle-punctured arms that they were heroin addicts. “Do you want to cross the canal?” a man asked. “We can take you on our boat, cheap.” “How about my daughter?” To the little girl who was staring off at nothing in particular, I smiled and offered something to the effect of nice to meet you in Thai. “Do you like sex with small girls?” the man implored. “Please, any price.”

Christ carries the disgrace of a squatter,
A trespasser, under the threat of eviction.
In the words of Jesus in Matthew's gospel:
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in."

It is at this far forsaken edge, the writer of Hebrews seems to suggest, that we may find God at home. “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Deeply steeped in the Jewish sense of holy places, this passage comes at the culmination of a treatise reframing the meaning of ancient rites of sanctification in the “holy of holies” – the innermost sanctum of the Temple. In an almost shocking way, the writer re-locates the holy not inside, but outside.

I am playing with medieval mystic Meister Eckhart’s language here, saying that God is at home on the far margins. If the holy is outside the gates, and we are to visit God there, surely it is not God’s permanent home. It bears no secure address. It has no tin roof or linoleum floor. If “the outside” is God’s home, it is under condemnation. Christ carries the disgrace of a squatter, a trespasser, under threat of eviction. In the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.”

Could it be that in Jesus of Nazareth, God is revealed to be a sojourner, an alien, a pilgrim? If so, what is the shape of the divine pilgrimage? How does the Spirit move, and where does the holy rest? What does God seek as treasure – as a lost coin, lost sheep, or lost son? What sights and destinations does God rejoice to see?

I recently heard someone explain that following Jesus means putting away bad habits and making a good clean start in life. If so, whew. That’s safe. That’s familiar country for me, inside the holy city gates. Got my bad habits, but got ways to manage and disguise them too. From long practice, I’m pretty good at it! Purity is a fairly universal religious impulse, and more power to us all for trying to better ourselves.

But there is another religious impulse—the impulse to pilgrimage. To leave the familiar and move toward the Other, on a journey that may stretch us, beyond where we’ve settled in. To answer a call, following trustworthy signs and arrows, and risk the places they might lead us.

For apprentices of Jesus, might it be that trustworthy signs actually lead to the edges outside the camp?


For Soul Tending

Who or what is at the far edge of your familiar world - “outside the camp?” At the edge of your family, your workplace, your community, your society? What steps, small or large, might you be prompted to take to be present there? If you already are moving that direction in some way, what internal movements of soul are you experiencing as a result?

Scott Dewey, director of Centering Way, is a spiritual director and community chaplain.