Just for the record, these kinds of encounters are not unusual where I serve, which is an urban parish in the heart of the city. From time-to-time a particular encounter stands out, like this one. She and I spoke for a few minutes with her standing next to my car. I finally parked, got out, and proceeded to sit and chat with her on the back porch of the diocesan Pastoral Center, which is located just across the plaza from the Cathedral church where I serve. Needless to say, for the next hour and-a-half she told me all her troubles, difficulties, and set backs that resulted in her being in a place of destitution and desolation. I was able to give her some assistance, a good referral, and what I hope was some practical guidance. Thankfully, most of her physical needs were currently being met.
In these kinds of encounters it is difficult to discern what is true from what is false, greatly exaggerated, or understated. The way I have learned to approach it, this doesn't much matter, at least not up-front. Suffice it to say that after she became a Christian she quickly became involved with a series of people who were all too eager to take advantage of her in various ways. Hence, one of the things that I told her was she needed to affiliate with a group of believers among whom structures of accountability exist. I also told her that even this was not 100% guarantee, but decreased the probability of bad things by orders of magnitude. I also spoke to her about the need for relational boundaries and that the success of someone guiding you spiritually is best gauged by decreasing need and dependency, not increasing dependency.
I am convinced that these encounters are not accidental. Nonetheless, when I walk away from them I always wonder why, in the context of my life and God's larger scheme of things, they happened. It's not the kind of question that really has an answer. One thing I know was reinforced for me through this encounter was how limited I am. Another, more important thing, was how much it means to another person just to sit and listen with concern and speak very little. She was wondering if she had made God angry and was being punished, which seems (understandably) to be a recurrent theme with people in dire situations. I said that was important for her not inflict what she imagined to be God's punishment on herself. I also taught her a new word, "axiomatic," which I used when I told her that God's love for her is axiomatic, which I explained just means that it is a given no matter the circumstances, and that, unlike us, God isn't fickle, moody, or manipulative. I tried to explain that God's love is not something she ever need worry about, no matter how "bad" she feels she has been.
After we parted and after I ate lunch, I read this from John O'Donohue's book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom: "Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace." I am convinced that my encounter today, while clearly on the turbulent side, was graced.
She and I are supposed to meet later this week. I have no idea if she will be there (I tend to doubt it), but that is up to her. It was also no accident that the reading for Evening Prayer today, from Week I of the Psalter, was,
Praised be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of consolation! he comforts us in all our afflictions and thus enables us to comfort those who are in trouble, with the same consolation we have received from him (2 Cor. 1:3-4)