Many years ago, I led a workshop at a beautiful retreat center overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Our morning session had just ended, and it was a gorgeous, sunny day. A long afternoon break lay ahead—perfect for a drive up the coast.
I grabbed my keys, and off I went, sniffing happily at the fresh, tangy air. The road curved gently, hugging the coastline and revealing one dazzling view after another. Eventually, I pulled over at a small restaurant that overlooked the ocean. I’m in luck, I thought as I walked in. It’s empty. I can sit at the window and watch the waves roll in.
As the waiter handed me the menu, I noticed another man who was leaning against the kitchen door. A heavyset fellow with a paunch, he was obviously in no hurry. He must be the owner, I figured.
My coffee arrived, and still he stood there, clearly observing. I wished he would leave, but no. There he remained, hovering like a hawk. A couple of minutes passed as I sipped my coffee and tried to ignore him. But then, alas, he sauntered over and started asking me questions. Was I a tourist? Was I on vacation? What was I doing here? His demeanor wasn’t exactly unfriendly, but clearly, I was being checked out, as if my right to enter his territory were under question.
Inwardly, I began to bristle. I don’t remember whether the word ‘redneck’ actually crossed my mind, but I had definitely pegged him as one. Of course it didn’t help that, as fate would have it, he quite literally did have a red neck.
Rednecks scared me. I saw them as overweight bullies prone to abusing women, politically conservative, racists, and bigots. Whenever I encountered someone who seemed to fit the bill, I would draw a wide circle around them. And so, though I was answering the café owner’s questions, and appeared to be connecting with him, in truth I had already rejected him and wanted nothing to do with him.
My usual strategy would have been to put up walls and discourage any contact. But this time, I couldn’t get away with it, the reason being that just before we broke for lunch, I’d given the workshop participants an assignment for the afternoon. It was a practice I call “Seeing with Sacred Eyes.” And the instructions were these:
Whenever you encounter someone, mentally greet them as God. Inwardly, bow to them, and honor them as embodiments of Spirit.
“If you’re uncomfortable with the word God,” I told the women at the retreat, “no problem. Just use whatever words work for you. You might greet them as sacred beings or as embodiments of the great Mystery.”
The practice of inwardly bowing to someone is a wonderful way to evoke the perception of them as unique, special, and sacred. And since only the heart is capable of perceiving others as sacred, this practice automatically leads us to heart-thinking. And is this not what we all long for—to see the sacred all around us, all the time, and to live in a world imbued with mystery?
But sitting in that restaurant, my instructions felt like a tall order. Dismayed, I considered my redneck. Surely the divine Beloved wasn’t supposed to look like this! He wasn’t supposed to have a beer belly and hairy hands.
But there he stood, not in the least deterred by my lack of encouragement.
“Okay,” I sighed, “here goes.”
Then, I inwardly began to talk to him.
All I can say for sure is that when we judge people, we go blind to their divinity. But by opening our hearts, we call forth the best in them.
“No matter who you are,” I told him, “I know that God lives within you, and that you are one of His manifestations. Please help me release my judgments, which are rooted in ignorance and fear. The truth is, I know nothing about you. All I know is that you’re somewhat overweight and inquisitive. Please forgive me for judging you. I bow to you. I honor you and thank you for your presence.”
I continued to talk with the man. Outwardly, nothing had changed. But my inner world felt very different than it had five minutes ago.
I didn’t tell my new friend that I was leading a women’s workshop in which we were exploring the archetypal meaning and symbolism of the divine marriage. However, I did tell him that I was leading a retreat for fifteen women. Having gathered this information, he finally appeared to be satisfied and retreated to the kitchen.
I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I was free to drink my coffee and enjoy the play of sunlight dancing on the rolling waves. Half an hour later, I asked for the check, paid, and stood up to leave. But as I headed towards the door, my red-necked friend came running out of the kitchen.
“Wait, wait!” he cried. Surprised, I stopped.
“Just a second,” he panted, quite out of breath. So I waited, though for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what he wanted now. Turning on his heels, he raced back into the kitchen. A minute passed, then another. I started getting impatient.
Finally, the kitchen doors flew open and he burst out beaming. In his arms, he was cradling three steaming hot pies. Looking at me with a shy grin, he explained, “This one’s cherry. This is apple walnut. And that—that’s rhubarb strawberry.”
Seeing my puzzled look, he added, almost apologetically, “Well… you see, I made them for your women. I thought they might enjoy them.”
I was dumbfounded. While I was having my coffee, relieved to be rid of him, he’d been baking up a storm to make a special gift to a bunch of women whom he’d never met. Would he have acted any differently, had I not honored the divine presence in him? Who knows. All I can say for sure is that when we judge people, we go blind to their divinity. But by opening our hearts, we call forth the best in them. And there it was, in his simple gesture of hospitality, kindness, and welcome.
The above excerpt is from Evolving Toward Peace: Awakening the Global Heart (Two Harbors Press 2013). It has been posted with the author’s kind permission.