The last two weeks I have been looking at Pope Francis’ challenge to us “to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”
Last week I wrote about setting aside a time each day for prayer as the basis for the encounter with Jesus Christ. But Jesus is totally free to encounter us at any time, and just about in any way, so while we need the stable foundation of a daily practice of prayer, we also need to develop an on-going awareness and alertness for the presence of Jesus. He can show up in many different disguises and in many different situations and places, and we have to constantly be on the look-out for Him.
Maybe a sunrise while driving to work, or a sunset on the way home, touches you in a way that leads you to say “Thank You” to the author of that beauty. Maybe during a difficult day of work when you have way too much to do and many people hounding you with too many demands, you suddenly push away from your desk, take a breath, and realize that having talents and abilities, and having a job, are good things. And you just quietly say “thank you.” Maybe in the smile of stranger, in a phrase of a song from church last Sunday that pops into your head, in a random act of kindness you receive, in a hug from one of your children, a “hello” from a beggar on the street, a quote from Scripture that comes to mind and helps you decide the right thing in a decision you are facing, in these and a great many ways we encounter Jesus. It can even be a mystical experience, such as Thomas Merton had on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, KY in 1958, when he experienced the glory of God revealed in God’s love for all the people he saw hurrying by on that busy street corner.
So we have to keep our antennae up and our sensors on to perceive the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Jesus.
It is important to recognize that the encounters with Jesus are all not warm, fuzzy and rosy. There certainly are personal encounters with Jesus that are experiences of strength, comfort, and especially peace. We should savor those. But these are not the only, nor even the most common, encounters. Jesus also challenges, corrects, re-directs, and even convicts. These encounters are uncomfortable and embarrassing. It is easy to try to hide from these encounters and avoid them. However, they are never meant to harm or even to punish us, but rather these encounters are always directed towards growth. Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus ever speak of feeling guilty, because guilt never helps us move forward. Guilt always looks back to the past. Jesus does talk about repentance, and repentance is always about moving forward in a new direction. Jesus is always about growth and more life.
Jesus can also be encountered in tragedies. Often when terrible things happen people are caught up short, put aside the trivial matters that so occupied them before, and begin to focus on things of greater substance and worth. That was certainly true in New York City immediately following the tragedy of 9-11. People saw, at least for a while, the great if fragile value of human life, and for many of us, Jesus was in that awareness.
The more we practice this kind of openness, the better we usually get at it. We can find that Jesus has been hanging around a lot more than what we had suspected.