Although I think I will be repeating things which a certain number of you have already heard and are very familiar with, I would like to take up the same subject of the encounter which we have been discussing last time from a slightly different angle. I have said that the word encounter defines the total situation of the Gospel, that all in the Gospel is an encounter. We have spoken last time about the encounter which is at the centre of all things, that of man with God and with a God revealed in a peculiar way, a God whom man would not have chosen to invent to himself, a God vulnerable, helpless, a God defeated seemingly and therefore a God contemptible for all men. And against this background we have discussed the fact that the Gospel and this basic essential encounter upsets all our scale of values, that it claims from us a complete change in our approach to what is great and what is mean, to what is of value and what is worthless. I would like tonight to speak of that encounter and try to analyse a certain number of its characters.
First of all it is obvious that the encounter of which the Gospel gives us innumerable examples does not consist simply in the fact that people meet, that they happen to be in the same place and that they perceive one another’s presence. One can be in the same place or can perceive one another’s presence without this meeting being an encounter in the sense in which the Gospel shows us encounters of men. We meet people in the underground, we are pressed against them, we perceive them as volume, as heat, as smell, in a variety of ways; we meet people continuously in the street, we may even run into them, without even thinking that we have met a person. So there are a certain number of things which are the conditions of a real encounter and not of the collisions of world which happens continuously between us and other individuals.
First of all an encounter presupposes the we recognise the existence of the other and that we recognise the fact that the other has got a right to exist in himself, in relation with us possibly, but certainly not in function of us. The fact that we have perceived a person, an individual, of course established at once a relation, but this relation must be also recognition. We must recognise that the other has a right to be himself however it affects us and we must be capable, — and this is an essential further point — we must be capable of stepping back in order to look at him, to discover his real presence, to appreciate and recognise and evaluate his otherness and to take a stand, but a stand which does not define the other only in function of ourselves, putting ourselves in the centre and evaluating all other phenomenons, as periphery as satellites. To do this a certain number of conditions are necessary. We must be capable of distancing ourselves, of taking a step back in order to look from a position that allows us to see. I think I can best convey what I mean by reminding you of the way in which we look at a piece of art, whether it is a painting or a statue. We must stand at a given distance in order to be able to see what is offered to our examination. If we stand too far, we cannot see the details which the artist wanted to convey. If we come too near a painting we loose the sense of its fullness, we see only part of it and therefore a distorted part, a part which is not related to the whole. If we try to do the same with a statue, we discover that there is only one point in space from which each of us, according to the quality of his eyes perhaps, can look effectively at a statue; if you stand too far, you have a blurred impression, but if you come too near, you loose instead of gaining because a statue is not like a human face which can be examined closer and closer, and reveals an increasing number of details; a statue works in such a way that it conveys its significance from a certain distance by a certain amount of details, but you cannot find anymore of them by coming closer; by coming closer what you will discover is only the quality of the texture, the fabric of the stone, no longer the statue. The same is true with a human person, we must be placed at a certain distance that will allow us to see all that we are capable of seeing, not all that can be seen, but all that we can see; but if we come closer, that is if we establish a relationship, a relatedness that does not respect this law of distance, a mutual independence, we loose sight of what we are to see.
The Gospel speaks of looking with a clear, with a limpid eye; is it not worth mentioning perhaps that the eye is the only sense that allows us to perceive dispassionately? Now, when I speak of distance, it is not obviously a question of physical distance, it is not by moving away from someone in space that we can discover more or less of the person, but it is a way of distancing oneself in such a way that a person is seen related to us — because outside, apart from the relation, we can see nothing, we can perceive nothing, be aware of nothing — but not in function of us; we must be free from the person, and the person must be free from us. I have already quoted this example taken from Charles William’s novel “All Hallows Eve”: a girl called Lester was killed by a falling plane and the story confronts us with the becoming of this human soul disembodied, which gradually discovers what it has to discover and gleans what it is capable of gleaning from the earth in order to enter into the other world. At a certain moment this girl’s soul is standing on the banks of the river Thames; she looks at the water of the river, but for the first time she has no revulsion of disgust; she sees the waters heavy with refuses, opaque, dirty, and yet she perceives them for what they are, as pure fact. Because she has no physical body capable of imagining a perception of these waters, the drinking of it, the bathing in it, the soul has no reason to shrink away from them. The waters are what they are to be, they are adequately waters of a great river, carrying away into the sea the refuses of a great City. This is the way in which she distances herself from these waters, she sees them, but not in function of herself, she sees them for what they are, for a fact, and for a fact that is adequate to, shall we say, their vocation, what they should be, and then because she is free of self-centred reaction to them, she begins to see more than she was able to see before. She sees through this first lay of opacity layers of decreasing darkness, of increasing translucency, then of transparency and at the core, at the heart of this river, she perceives a stream of pure shining water which is the primeval water, the water as God has created it and at the heart of these waters, she perceives, she sees, those waters of which Christ talked to the Samaritan Woman. Well, here we discover a process which is the opposite of our usual way of seeing and of responding.
Usually we see opacity and this opacity makes us incapable of seeing any light beyond, or else when we perceive transparency, translucency, we discover somewhere at the core of it, a darkness and this darkness is born usually from the fact that we relate this person to us and we begin to judge, taking ourselves as a criterion or as the centre of things. So that if any encounter is to have any value it must begin with the recognition that the other exists, with the acceptance of his otherness, with the acceptance of his right to be profoundly distinct and different from us, it must lead to look at him from the right distance that allows us to see beauty and in such unrelatedness or such freedom from ourselves, from self-centredness, and from him in his self-centredness, that will allow us to see him as Lester saw the river Thames. But this is not enough because we cannot have clear vision unless we either love or hate, with the difference that hatred makes us capable of perceiving every flaw, every failure, everything that is wrong, but makes us blind to the rest; while love allows us to see things both good and bad and give them their true value, yet without condemning, without rejecting.
In the same novel, in the beginning of it, the soul of Lester is standing on one of the London bridges, where death has overtaken her; she stands there an unfathomable amount of time, we cannot guess how long it was because all she can perceive is herself, the little spot of bridge on which her feet rest, the plane that brought her life to an end, and around no one: the bridge is deserted, there is no city around, just buildings with black holes, nothing alive, because at that stage she is related to nothing, she loves nothing, hates nothing passionately, and therefore response to nothing except her own self, until at a certain moment, her husband chances to cross that bridge and she sees him. I dare say he also sees her and runs because it is rather an unusual thing to meet one’s departed wife’s soul standing on a bridge; but she sees him, because he is the only person she has ever loved, however unsatisfactorily, however selfishly, possessively, but he is the only point which she ever perceived outside of herself, recognised, accepted, included that is true into her own life, but allowed to exist apart from her self-centredness.
You may remember this passage in the Screwtapes’ letters where the old Devil wonders at what Christ means by loving, he explains that he cannot believe in love when Christ speaks of it because he sees that Christ claims to love and yet allows his creatures to remain free and independent, He does not try to possess them, while the Devil explains that when he loves, he wants to possess and he explains to the miserable nephew whom he is teaching the art of devilry, he explains to his nephew “But I love you, and the more I love you the more I want to possess you and one day will come when I will take all of you, when I will possess you totally, when I will devour and digest you so that nothing is left of you except what is in me”.
Well, this is the extreme of the opposite of love, but in the case of Lester she had something that was intermediate: nothing existed for her except this man who had a certain right of existence because love had disclosed to her that he could exist different from her, unidentified to her and yet related in the deepest sense and to the deepest degree. At the moment when Lester discovers her husband, she begins to discover other things, because the discovery of him sets into motion memories of other people related to him, to her, to them in all over widening circle of relationships, in which love was present to a certain degree and a certain extent, and from them upwards, she begins to rediscover the earthly city, the city of men, and moves towards the knowledge and the discovery of the city of God.
This example again shows another in which both relatedness and distance, freedom from self and from the other person’s self-centredness which culminates in the mystery of love is essential if we want to meet, if there is any meeting at all in view for us. And we see in the Gospel how that works continuously, how only those who have a spark of love for Christ begins to discover each other around Him, or else those who have a spark of human love become capable of discovering Christ; apart from this there is no discovery either of Christ or of the neighbour understood otherwise than a physical presence. But this is not enough, it is not enough to accept the existence of the other, not enough to see him even with incipient love, we always run the danger of destroying all our vision, all our understanding by false judgement, because even things which we have discovered, that has disclosed themselves to us in terms of meaning and beauty can be made meaningless, and to use the words of Alice in the Wonderland “uglified” by the wrong judgement, the example which I have already given to some of you is this anecdote from the Life of the Desert Fathers.
One of them, together with a group of disciples comes to one of the cities of Egypt, they settle at the gate of the city and they see a woman coming in brilliant array and in the gleam of her beauty. All the Disciples cover their head in order not to see temptation that comes at them: and they escape that kind of temptation to a certain degree, but they do not escape another temptation, they want to see what their Master is doing, and so, from under their cloaks, they look at their Master to see what he is doing, and they see with dismay, because they are too respectful for indignation, that he is just looking at this woman which is walking past their group; when the temptation has passed (the story does not tell us how their discover that the temptation was already within the gates) but when the temptation has passed they turn on to their Master and say, How could you do that! How could you look at this woman coming towards us, passing us!? And he says, with the purity of saintliness, he says: how dirty you are, you saw temptation coming your way, I just was entranced by the beauty which God had created, it never occurred to me that it was temptation!
We see that in the given case, whatever we have seen or recognised, judgement can be right or [wrong]. The moment they have called this woman temptation they have condemned her, rooted her out and refused her the right to exist in her own rights and in her otherness; and therefore become incapable of distancing themselves, because the wrong judgement as well as the refusal to accept the other person’s existence links us to the other person and makes us prisoner of this wrong and falsified relationship.
If you look at the Gospel you will see how continuously all the situations which I have described occur one after the other in the different parables and actual events of the Gospel and how often they are interwoven with each other, how often people find their way to God and to each other or on the contrary cannot find it because these essential rules of an encounter do not find place.
Answer to a question
The parallel I meant to draw is a parallel between the way in which Lester could see because she saw dispassionately and the way in which we do not see because we look passionately, this is what I meant to convey. Now as to the appreciation of things, there is in every one whom we consider the ideal “Peter” or “John”, then there are things which belong to his becoming, which are unfulfilled yet but are quite legitimately there and which we may very well dislike because they do not fit with our convenience or our taste or our point of view on what he should ultimately become and then there is what is objectively wrong and sinful, and I think that when we look at a person, we should be careful not to lump together everything which is not already heavenly beauty and fulfilled Kingdom of God with sin and evil, and condemn it. Then once you have made this distinction, if you turn to sin, to what is definitely wrong in the person you can take 2 different lines: you can simply condemn that is the person, together with its [his] sins, or say this person is afflicted with an illness, which is called by all the names which sin possess and is to be cured. But I think it is very important to be able to dissociate the two, someone who is evil is someone who is a wounded person, but one must be able to look at the two separately in the same way in which a physician says, ‘this is a sick person’, but does not identify the person with the malady.