A Catholic priest and scholar, at a gala dinner recently, closed an after-dinner talk with a story he’d shared some months before with an assemblage of Muslim religious leaders in Cairo. The story was about a Jewish rabbi and teacher who asked his adolescent students a question.
“Can any of you tell me,” the rabbi asked, “the exact moment when night turns into day?”
The students, awkward and shy in their early teens, looked down at the ground as young people sometimes do and shuffled their feet, uncomfortable with venturing a guess at what seemed a tricky question with too many possible answers. The rabbi prompted them with a suggestion.
“Is the moment when night turns into day,” the priest ventured, “perhaps that moment when there’s enough light so that you can tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?”
A student, eager to please his teacher and end the discomfort of his fellow students, answered “Yes, yes, that’s exactly the moment night turns into day, the very moment when you can see the difference between and olive and a fig tree.” The other students audibly sighed with relief.
The rabbi smiled patiently at his young charges.
“Let me tell you when I believe night turns into day,” he said. “Night turns into day, my students, when enough light shows on the face of the stranger standing before you that you may see in him the faces of your brothers and your sisters. That’s when night turns into day.”
The priest told this story just two days after a fanatical gunman filled with racial and religious hatred murdered 50 men, women and children in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques.
Taken to the inevitable tempting extreme of generality, that horrific event and scores of others like it might tell us that we, as a society, are wandering in a terrifying and dangerous night. As I mourn the toll of human life that fanaticism takes, I sense myself overtaken too, too often in recent years by a feeling that the dark of night and light of day are at war with one another in our world.
It may be just an incremental antidote at the scale of a single individual, but we grow stronger collectively by keeping our doors open to the many and varied day-makers, the beacon-guides whose optimistic eyes offer the possibility of brighter days ahead. Let’s help them shine.
"One face that lights when it nears you" by ki.nzica (CC BY-NC 2.0)