Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).
What is the master motivating goal of your life? Raising healthy, thriving children? Financial security? Many fascinating travels? Contributing to social justice? Those are reasonable answers, of course, and few of us would exclude them from our motives.
But if none of those quite seem to hit the spot and you search the motive behind those, you may land on the motive to know God intimately, to truly encounter God, abide with God, love God. If you find that motive in the heart of your heart, you are a contemplative.
Contemplation does not begin there, however. Rather contemplation begins with a sense of being known by God. What can one do then but pray from the heart? A love affair begins then, and whatever your occupation or station, your experiences and tasks become gestures and words in the flirtations, quarrels, and reassurances of lovers, of God and you.
When you review your life, where did God meet you? Where did this reality set in that God knows you lovingly and offers glimpses of the divine face? In my case, the standard answers apply: Worship, conversation with a faithful mother, meditation on scripture, and so forth all prepared me. But my burning bush was as unexpected as, well, a burning bush.
My experiential intimacy with God flamed up not with monastery retreats, silent prayers, or mystical ecstasy. It started with listening to lonely, depressed, mentally ill, desperate, even suicidal people share their raw feelings and wrenching quandaries.
I was a kid in high school and college serving as a volunteer crisis telephone counselor. So I came to these conversations with basic listening skills, variable maturity, and little life experience. Thank God it was not my job to give advice, just to listen and suggest community resources.
Knowing that I knew little about life, I went to each work shift with a prayer. In fact, each work shift, each phone call, was a prayer to me. Telephone counseling became telephone contemplation. For by that time, Jesus’ words in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats shaped my vision:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… [For] Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me
(Matthew 25:34b-36, 40b).
In those words I found the answer to my deepest questions: Where does God meet me? How do I draw near to Christ? The clear answer: Go to the suffering and the vulnerable, the ones who confess their brokenness and loneliness, the ones who feel ashamed or who believe they would be shamed if others really knew them. Meet them with kindness, acceptance. Share their pain. There you meet the crucified one. There in your solidarity with him as a fellow sufferer, he will say to you, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
You should worry that a boy like me answered crisis calls from unsuspecting people. Yet, looking back over four decades later as a seasoned therapist, I can tell you very good things happened not because I knew answers, but because I knew that I had no answers. I only offered my willingness to suffer with Christ as I suffered with each caller, perchance to share his sufferings, perchance to rise to new life with him. He met me there. He still does.
So telephone counseling became telephone contemplation. Since then I learned that the Matthean image of encountering Christ in suffering people moved Mother Teresa, Walter Rauschenbusch, Jim Wallis, and other Christian leaders much more remarkable than me.
How do you serve? Whom do you serve? Who meets you there?