Only through trust can we encounter others

  • August 11, 2010
One of the three things that give meaning in life, according to Viktor Frankl, is an encounter with someone or something. An unanticipated encounter I once had raised many questions about meaning and trust.  

I hadn’t seen my friend Eric in a couple of years; he’d gone one direction to attend school, and I’d gone another for a new job. Now he was in hospital, critically ill.

The hospital corridor led to the room I’d been directed to; seeing Eric’s name beside the door, I went in. It was good I’d double-checked the name, as the man in agony in the hospital bed bore no physical resemblance to the young, self-possessed, clever, good-looking man I remembered. But from the seemingly old, old man, skin stretched over bones, the familiar voice of Eric welcomed me. We talked over earlier days… talked about the days between, leading up to this astonishing encounter with a young friend dying in agony through AIDS. I didn’t see him alive again.

Eric had opened his heart to me, showing me the suffering in his own life, the hopes and burdens he carried. That first glimpse of inner pain was as astonishing as the hospital glimpse of outer pain. How connected are body and soul.

Eric died many years ago, but I’ve encountered him since, from time to time. Some kind of trust in life, in God, died for me with him. How could the Lover of Humanity allow such suffering for His beloved children? Is love ever safe? How can one trust again, after discovering the pain of death and the unbearability of life? C.S. Lewis once referred to God as “the Great Vivisectionist” — one who experiments on live animals; this moment gave me some sense of how a man of faith and understanding could speak of God in such a way.

Since that death a newer, stronger trust has come to birth; but it’s taken time. And encounter with the cross, where what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls our “great grief cry” is hurled into the universe, to find out if there is God to answer us.

Another young man, in a different century, wrestled with the great grief cry. He’d experienced loss (a beloved friend died at 19), betrayal (a group of religious people he’d trusted proved to be charlatans out to dupe people for personal gain), his own weakness and sinfulness (for example, at his mother’s insistence, he abandoned his beloved in order to pursue his career, knowing her heart was breaking too). His mother watched and worried none too patiently, praying he would come to Christ. Perhaps for him, too, trust was difficult; trust in others, in himself, in truth.  

Finally, after many encounters along the way, he met the living God. Realizing that accepting this ultimate encounter meant radical change, he hesitated on the brink. His heart urged him forward, but his will held him back. At last the young man, known to us as St. Augustine, took the leap.

Later, he wrote of his long wild search for encounter with God, no less complete and beautiful because of his tangles getting there:

Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new!

Late have I loved you…

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your embrace.

(Confessions Book X chapter 27)

His leap into the encounter with God did alter everything, including his relationship with his mother, Monica, which had been difficult. He had a remarkable encounter with her the summer after his conversion.  

As they stood overlooking the garden, reflecting on what eternal life would be like, they seemed to ascend higher and higher through and beyond all things until together they encountered God. This perhaps couldn’t have happened without the tumultuous path they’d travelled. Since each of them was open to God, it connected them with Him and one another. We can’t really encounter another except in God.

Only a few days afterwards, Monica fell into her final sickness. This mystical encounter at Ostia helped them both prepare for her death.

We learn to trust in the encounter with another; and we can’t encounter others unless we trust. Trust is amazingly resilient. Even when we think we’ve lost it, it can flower anew. But to let go and enter in requires trust, as with St. Augustine; and rightly so, for such encounters change us forever. Through them, we can learn to love, to suffer, to die and be raised from the dead.