We all become at least slightly disoriented when we meet a person who is different. This disorientation is often mixed with fear and distaste, maybe even disgust. If we encounter someone really strange, such as a visitor from another planet or a ghost, our fear can easily turn into panic. Although most daily strange encounters are less drastic than that, we often find that we react with fear and disgust before thinking rationally when meeting even a mildly strange person. If we get to know the stranger, however, we often find that person to be a gift to us.
Fantasy stories give us the opportunity meet with the strange, the weird and the frightening and learn to overcome our fears enough to see the potential giftedness in these encounters. In “Merendael’s Gift,” the opening story in the collection From Beyond to Here, a boy named Eddie encounters a very strange creature with an elusive and frightening appearance, yet the creature communicates to Eddie a desire to give a gift that is very important. As the story unfolds, Eddie has deal with his fears, not only of the creature, whose name is Merendael, but of losing his social standing with the boys he hangs out with. Each story in Creatures We Dream of Knowing brings together one or more allegedly fantastical creature and one or more children. In “The White Tree,” for example, a mysterious white plant growing quickly where four backyards meet frightens some people but offers great musical gifts to those open to receive them.
As a Benedictine monk, I follow a monastic rule that enjoins hospitality as a major apostolate, second only to the ministry of prayer. We are constantly challenged to open our hearts to strangers, some of whom seem strange and some of whom really are difficult to deal with. Hospitality, of course, is a Christian virtue. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that, like Abraham, we may entertain angels unawares when we offer hospitality. I discuss Benedictine hospitality in my book Tools for Peace.
The story “Merendael’s Gift” and the others in From Beyond to Here and in Creatures We Dream of Knowing can help readers of all ages reflect on the challenge of welcoming the truly strange stranger into our lives and learn what God would have us learn from them.