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The Theology of Encounter – A Reflection

March 6, 2020
Twin Owls overlooking Estes Park

When I think of the myriad of encounters I have had over the course of my life, it is amazing! So many places… so many people… we come into each other’s lives for a season. Some stay for a while and other last a lifetime. When I was in the military we made friendships quickly. After all, in the officer corps, each year about a third of the officer corps on the base would rotate out to a new assignment. For the time we were together, the collegiality was good. Once we moved on to new assignments, we often lost touch with each other and began building relationships all over again. This was even more so with our families. It wasn’t always easy… and long-term relationships were difficult to maintain. As I look back on it now, I can appreciate the monastic vow of stability.

Stability… not the constant moving around, but rather becoming rooted and grounded in the community of faith and life. In the parish ministry post AF retirement, I see the grounding happening in a new way. I also see the grounding within my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). We are a connectional church and relationships can and do run deep.

As I consider this and some of the writings of Thomas Merton, I can see in my own life the value of relationship. In the book Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine by Susan McCaslin and JS Porter, I have read the following about the Theology of Encounter which truly resonates within my soul.

From the book, Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton’s Dance with the Feminine by Susan McCaslin and JS Porter I read the following: The theology of encounter isn’t a phrase he drops into a journal: it’s his way of approaching people. He builds relationships and makes friends. He remembers that spirit comes to us by way of the body… Whatever Merton knows, he knows through deep reading, reflection, and encounters with particular individuals with whom he develops relationships and friendships. He practices the Theology of encounter… For Merton, friendship and relationship are the highest forms of knowing. He seems to know intuitively that we are all made larger by our friends. We become human by our relationships… The theology of encounter leads to the theology of kindness and respect.

The theology of Encounter leads to the theology of kindness and respect. I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with other military members or in my work in the church. Before you condemn or criticize someone, get to know them. When you see them as an individual human being instead of a stereotype, then you can embrace them as sister… as brother… in this kindness, respect, and love, the world can indeed be turned around. What a lesson this can and must be for us today.

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