Being the Stranger

Elizabeth Gadd photo

Photo by Elizabeth Gadd

And she bore [Moses] a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.    ~Exodus 2:22

And Jesus said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.     ~John 8:23


I have an image in my mind’s eye:  Moses seated on a chair; his shoulders slumped, his body heavy with the great weight that is on him.  The people keep coming and keep coming with their complicated divisions and their petty squabbles. It doesn’t matter which: Moses must decide between them all. His eyes are growing red-rimmed and his voice hoarse.  He turns his head for a moment and looks towards the great mountain of the Holy One and sighs.

Moses is lost here.  Though he is doing what he believes is required of him; though he is doing what the people have asked of him, Moses has lost the voice of his calling.  The man who continually drew apart to hear God’s will for the people, the man who was a stranger both amongst the Egyptians and amongst the Israelites, now sits in the midst of the people and deals in their daily affairs.

It takes another stranger, Jethro the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, to see what has happened.  Jethro did not make the journey out of Egypt with Moses and the people; he caught up with them months later at their encampment at the foot of the mountain.  He sees Moses on his seat, bogged down in the people’s business, and he says:

Hearken now unto my voice; I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to Godward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God.
~ Exodus 18:19

To me that is one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture: Be thou for the people to Godward.  Moses, through the whole of the Exodus story up to this point, was shown to have an inability to speak in front of people, and therefore God had appointed Aaron as a spokesman for Moses.  Moses had always been for the people to Godward, while Aaron faced the people directly.  Now, for whatever reason, his own misunderstanding or pressure from the people, Moses was acting as governor and arbiter, a role which Jethro reminds him, is not the one to which he is called.

You, Moses, belong on the Mountain of God; not in the midst of the people.

When author and ecologist David Abram conducted his extensive research into the traditional cultures of Bali, Indonesia, Nepal and rural Asia, he made an interesting observation concerning their shamans and sorcerers.  None of those with whom he spoke,  though they were the primary healers or ‘doctors’ for their communities, considered healing-work to be their first function.  Abram discovered that, in many cases, the shaman created or encouraged frightening stories and rumors about himself so that only those in most serious need of attention would dare to approach the shaman for aid.  This, as well as situating his dwelling beyond the edge of the village, ensured that the shaman had the necessary privacy for what he considered to be his primary work.

For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance. . . [T]he shaman or sorcerer is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds, the primary strategist and negotiator in any dealings with the Others.  And it is only as a result of her continual engagement with the animate powers that dwell beyond the human community that the traditional magician is able to alleviate many individual illnesses that arise within that community. (1)

To me, that sounds a lot like Moses, and it also reminds me of the Sufi image of the mystic as one who stands where the two seas meet.  She who stands at this edge, wanting nothing for herself, in an attitude of emptiness and service, becomes an open doorway between the Absolute and the created. (2)

It reminds me of St. Paul’s beautiful hymn to Jesus, another stranger:

Let this mind be in you,
that was also in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
coming in human likeness. . .
he humbled himself
~Philippians 2:5-8

It appears to me that all of the examples above are images of contemplation, at the center of which is deep humility and the constant turn “to Godward.”  The contemplative stands where the two seas meet, in this world but not of it, being the stranger. She loves the world with a big open-hearted love, but she doesn’t hold onto the desire for this one thing or that one person, and has no attachment to any particular outcome or circumstance.  She is absorbed in God, and her will harmonizes with the Divine Will.  She is emptied of personal agendas and ambitions, and understands that she is a bit player in the great mystery of transformation and emergence and love, and has given herself over to its service.

As we walk the contemplative way, towards union with God, we ebb and flow like the tide.  But we always rediscover our intention and surrender again and empty ourselves again. St. John of the Cross reminds us that we bring more “profit” to the world in one hour of mystical prayer than in many many hours of good works.

Jesus described himself as the gate through which people could go in and come out and find pasture (John 10:9).  That is exactly the work of the mystic, the one turned “for the people to Godward,” who holds open the flow of nourishing grace between heaven and earth.



Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. pp. 6,7

Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn. For Love of the Real: A Story of Life’s Mystical Secret. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Press, 2015.


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