Wise Mentors on The Way
In a paper I read recently, one of my students talked openly about growing up with an abusive father. As she reflected back on those years, she was especially upset by religious people who had offered cheap maxims such as “Everything happens for a reason” and “God always has a plan.” I have heard these same expressions so many times in life, and I consistently find them lacking. While they may provide comfort for some people in some circumstances, they do not sufficiently account for human freedom, agency, and sin.
Extending “sympathy” to another person with these saccharine sayings may lead them to question God’s goodness (or even God’s existence, for how could THIS be part of God’s plan?) and to doubt the wisdom of the Church. We effectively become like Job’s friends, offering words that lack understanding and fail to comfort. In my student’s experience, the sayings led her to blame herself. She must have done something to deserve this treatment if a good God was allowing it. Worse, she began to think God didn’t love her. This, of course, re-victimizes the victim. What she needed, and fortunately found, was compassion—a word that means to suffer with. Genuine compassion doesn’t have easy answers; it simply refuses to leave another person alone in their suffering. And it offers assistance when assistance is possible. Through compassion, we suffer together, and lessen the pain. As my student wisely noted, she was helped not by words but by one person who extended compassion through an “enduring show of solidarity.”
The reading this weekend from 1 Samuel is a familiar one to us. Samuel hears God’s voice but thinks it is Eli calling him. “Here I am. You called me,” he says to Eli. Samuel, after all, did not know what to make of his experience since “At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.” I am moved by the quality of advice that Eli gave to Samuel, after discerning the experience correctly. At first, he did not recognize what was happening in the young man’s life, but “Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’’”
Isn’t this the case with so many of our young people? God is certainly moving in their lives, but they are not yet familiar with the ways of God. They need mentors. They need teachers who are patient and wise in discerning what is happening in their experiences. What a tragedy if all they receive from us is the trite expression, “Everything happens for a reason.” How much better if we respond as Eli did, teaching them to discern the voice of God, and to assume the posture of a loving disciple: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”