Thursday, December 31, 2009

Stop, Look, Listen: A Personal Encounter with Christ

An hermano recently wrote in to the Renovación Website saying that he must be dense because even though he knows a lot about the Bible and his Catholic faith, he has never had a personal encounter with Jesus. I have been spending a few days in (mostly) solitary retreat at Holy Cross Abbey and have jotted down a few reflections in response to the man's implicit question:

1. The Soil: Read the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20) and honestly ask yourself: What type of soil am I? Is my soil shallow and lacking in nutrients because I have not nourished it through private prayer, communal faith experience, and the sacraments? Is it choked with weeds -- worldly concerns and anxieties that blind and deafen me to God's presence? If I have not adequately prepared the ground that is my heart to receive Him, it will be very hard to have a personal encounter with Christ.

2. Expectations: Sometimes we have an unrealistic image of what a personal encounter with Christ looks like. Read and meditate on the prophet Elijah's encounter with God in 1 Kings 19:9ff. We think that a personal encounter is going to be something like Moses' burning bush but, in this case, the Lord was not in the dramatic hurricane or earthquake or fire. He came to Elijah in a "tiny whispering sound" (other translations say "in the murmur of a gentle breeze"). If we are looking for earth-shattering experiences, we may miss the times when Christ is speaking to us gently. We may not hear or see Him because we are looking for something else. Many people in Jesus' time missed a personal encounter with Him because they had an image of a Messiah who would be a powerful conqueror and ruler, not a tiny babe born to a poor couple who took refuge in a stable. They did not recognize Him.

This expectation of a dramatic encounter with Christ is also fostered by some of the testimonios in the prayer groups. The hermano used to be an alcoholic, wife beating, adulterous SOB until he met Jesus and now -- gloria, aleluia -- he is as saintly as Mons. Oscar Romero! ...The vast majority of us were never that bad, and few of us will ever be that good. Instead of wishing that we had a powerful conversion story to tell, we should be thanking God that our lives did not sink so low that a divine 911 was required.

For most of us, the encounter with Christ is not a sudden and complete makeover but the beginning of a slow and gradual transformation that brings our lives more into conformity with His. We start to hear what He hears, to see the world as He sees it and react accordingly. We will still stumble along the path but if we have really encountered Christ, we know that when we fall, we have only to reach out and He will take our hands and help us up again.

When I took the Life in the Spirit seminar many moons ago, we did an exercise that seemed a little trite to me at the time but can be quite useful. We took turns telling about our week from the perspective of how we had seen Christ acting in our lives over the past seven days. You learn to recognize the miracles in ordinary life -- things you used to take for granted or attribute to "luck" -- and give God the honor and the glory for them. Today, in our grupos de oración, the prayers we offer aloud, especially the oración de gracias, serve a similar purpose if performed sincerely and thoughtfully.

3. The Gifts of the Spirit: If there is one thing I would criticize in the Charismatic Renewal, it is the excessive emphasis that is given to the gift of tongues. We start to think: Well, if I'm not speaking in tongues, I must not have really been baptized in the Holy Spirit. If I really had a personal encounter with Christ, I would be able to [insert your charism of choice here]. Who said everyone has to speak in tongues? Read 1 Corinthians 12:4ff on the spiritual gifts. In fact, tongues and the interpretation thereof are the last two gifts listed. Of the first, "the expression of wisdom", we hear almost no discussion in charismatic circles but yet it is every bit as necessary, if not more so, to building the Christian community.

Interestingly, the commentary in the New American Bible I was using as I wrote this posting says: "The Corinthians seem to have developed a disproportionate esteem for certain phenomena, especially tongues, to the detriment of order in the liturgy. Paul's response to this development provides us with the fullest exposition we have of his theology of the charisms." This is still true in the Charismatic Renewal today. The ranking of the spiritual gifts (tongues are last) is repeated at the end of the chapter (1 Cor 12:28ff) and St. Paul concludes: "Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts." That's "greatest", not "flashiest". It is useful to take time and meditate on our lives and role in the Christian community, to recognize what gifts we bring to the table and cultivate them.

4. Sit down and shut up: How can you have a personal encounter with Christ if you are never at home, if you are always on the run? How can He speak to you if you are always talking? But, we say, we are praying. We are talking to God. Yeah...and God can't get a word in edgewise! If we treated our friends the way we treat God, we would soon have no friends at all. A lot of us never think to spend time with God or talk to Him unless we want something, and then we don't listen to Him unless He is telling us exactly what we want to hear.

An encounter with Christ has to be a two-way street. Christ wants to speak to us but we need to listen. We need to make time to speak with Christ through prayer, to get to know Him through His Word, and listen to Him in silent meditation. That is why so many people say that they have never had a personal encounter with Christ even though they are super active in their parishes or religious communities. We need to be less like Martha and more like Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Some feminists see Mary as subservient, sitting at Jesus' feet but, in fact, she was quite radical for her time because in those days only men were allowed to sit at the feet of a rabbi or teacher. Martha, on the other hand, was not a bad woman either, but her constant preoccupation with chores was turning her into rocky, weed-infested soil.

To have a personal encounter with Christ, we don't need to go to some special seminar, or buy the latest Bible with the most elaborate commentary, or join another committee in our church. We only have to do what our parents taught us to do when crossing a street: Stop, Look, and Listen.