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An encounter is not an exercise in power.

This is how Jean Vanier begins his chapter on “Encounter” in his latest little book, “Signs: Seven Words of Hope.”

Jean Vanier, Signs

It demands real humility and deep vulnerability. To be present to the other, to listen to and regard him or her wish with respect and attention, allows us to receive in our turn.

He goes on to tell the story of an assistant at a L’Arche community who spoke about her involvement with people who worked as prostitutes. One encounter she had was with a man she knew was dying of an overdose. He told her this: “You never accepted me as I am. You always wanted to change me!” Vanier asks, “How could she recognize him as someone deeply wounded and reveal to him the beauty of his nature that was hidden behind his human poverty and addiction?”

True encounter is a shock to our ego; it throws us into our own impotence. To live it, we have to recognize our own weaknesses and our own need for help.

He elaborates by saying that “each true meeting exposes us to our own vulnerabilities. ‘Doing good to’ allows us to keep our power, but in a true encounter, we lose all power and all preoccupations.” And thus he exposes that not all “good doing” is an honest encounter of persons. Some charity is meant to keep the distance between an “us and them.” But we want so much to be “recognized and not possessed.”

To love someone is to reveal to that person their profound beauty and so to help him or her reveal it to themselves.

Vanier says the greatest joy comes from “a deep integration of the person.” Isn’t this what we want – more than balance? Often I hear people talk about “juggling” so many parts of their lives, and just trying to keep in balance. But I think balance is a limited metaphor.

Elaine Fogel

Image: Elaine Fogel

I like the notion of integration better. Integration speaks to weaving in something of substance that can’t be dropped due to a lack of skill or alertness. It speaks to having something in you that is cellular, and not just additive. More things to juggle does not actually achieve more “balance.”

This applies to relationships as well. We want (demand) more than “friends as acquaintances.” We know inside that more friends does not mean more friendship. We know that more friendships of that kind does not lead to “a deep integration of the person.”

So Vanier says that through “the sacrament of encounter…I have discovered the presence of God in my presence to the other.” He writes about a doctor and a former Mafia member becoming friends as he entered into palliative care. “As he became frail, the sick man could discover his own deep identity through becoming someone’s friend.” This, Vanier so beautifully expresses, allows us to become “artisans of peace.” (check out the poem titled Artisans by Andrew Rudd).

One translation from the French, expresses that famous verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount this way: “Blessed are the artisans of peace, for they shall be called the children of God.” Peacemakers, reconcilers, the wise artisans who beautifully go about creating space for shalom – this is what all who follow Jesus are called to. The Apostle Paul describes persons who are in Christ as “Ambassadors of Reconciliation.”

May you enjoy the sacrament of encounter

May you discover more of what it means to become more integrated in disintegrating times

May you know the peace that comes from being reconciled with God, with others and with yourself

May you see yourself becoming more and more an artisan of peace.

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