Arts and Culture

Emphasis on Encounter

Faith & Thought

Since writing last week’s column about Pope Francis’ consistent ethic of life and his hope that we can transcend a “throwaway culture,” which disregards the value and dignity of each individual person, and create a culture of encounter, I have been thinking about how important the word “encounter” has become in the way that I think about God, myself and my neighbor.

I think that the idea of encounter first became important to me many years ago when I read Edward Schillebeeckx’s book, “Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God.” The book profoundly influenced my thinking about Christian revelation and theology. So does Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter.

The following statement is written on the cover of my copy of Schillebeeckx’s book:

“Ironically – and providentially – at the very time when massive forces in our commercial and technological culture threaten to depersonalize man, philosophy and theology have become more concerned with the notions of person and personhood than at any previous point in their history.”

Perhaps the easiest way to focus on the meaning of encounter is by contrasting it with what it is not. I will use the term “impersonal” to characterize the opposite of encounter.

To relate “impersonally” to others — whether those others be God, human persons, animals or objects of nature — is to reduce those others to some relatively superficial idea or image of them while missing the depth, mystery and beauty that each has. It is meeting these others on the surface, meeting them superficially rather than meeting them as they really are.

Several factors can work against encounter. The way we relate to God or fail to relate to God can be greatly influenced by our religious education or lack of religious education. I think it can be greatly influenced by our prayer life and by members of our family and members of our religious community.

At this moment in time, I don’t see much in our culture that would encourage us to allow God to enter deeply into our lives. However, I do believe strongly, along with Pope Francis, that God is part of everyone’s life. I also believe that the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is the powerful presence of Infinite Love trying to move us to encounter the Father.

What works against us encountering one another? What comes to mind immediately is racism. Years ago, a friend of mine said to me: “There is no more racism in this country.”

The moment I heard him, I thought that he must live in a different world from the one I inhabit. Of course when I heard his remark, I thought he was wrong, but I did not realize how wrong he was.

Back in 1963, I joined Dr. Martin Luther King on his March on Washington. It was one of the most moving experiences in my life. I traveled on a bus with about 20 teenagers of color. I don’t know how many times on that bus we sang “We Shall Overcome.”

On the way home, my experience of the trip and the magnificent talk by King at the Lincoln Memorial moved me to think that racism had been overcome. How naïve I was.

During the trip home, we stopped for lunch in Baltimore and discovered the restaurant we were sitting in would not serve people of color. I think that progress has been made in our country against racism, but racism is still rampant.

Any type of prejudice or bigotry works against encounter. Prejudice blinds us to the value, dignity and beauty of the other.

Pope Francis has convinced me that I must be much more sensitive to what we are doing to the world of nature. Also reading theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s wonderful book, “Ask the Beasts,” was an education for me.

This fall, I am joining a new discussion group and I believe that one of the topics we will discuss is what more can we do to preserve our planet.

Pope Francis in promoting a culture of encounter is urging us to enter more deeply into a relationship with God, with our brothers and sisters, with animals and with nature. Put simply, I believe that he Holy Father is urging us to deepen and expand our capacity to love.

I think all of us are limited in the number of close, intimate friends we can have, but there is no limit to those we can love. No one of us can accomplish the revolution of love alone, but each of us can try to deepen our ability to encounter. I have come to believe that there is no such reality as a small act of love.

When we love, we are aided by the Holy Spirit. When that happens, our love takes on a new power.


Father Lauder presents two talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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