Skip to main content

God meets you where you are

One of the big surprises in the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, where Catholic bishops have gathered to discuss an immense variety of issues related to the family, is how often a particular phrase keeps cropping up. It’s a saying we heard often in my Jesuit novitiate, because it was beloved by the assistant novice director. “God meets you where you are,” David Donovan, a marvelous Jesuit who died several years ago, used to say. Father Donovan used that expression over and over again, in both conversations and homilies.
In a nutshell, the popular saying means two things.
First, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect before we can approach God or before God approaches us. Your spiritual house doesn’t have to be perfectly in order for God to enter.
Second, God meets you in ways that you can understand and appreciate. If you are scholarly or more introverted, for example, you may meet God by being inspired by a book you read. If you’re a more social person, you may meet God in a group setting. If you’re someone who loves nature, you may meet God by the seashore. God meets you as you are, where you are, and in ways that you can understand.
It may sound obvious. But it can also be threatening. Because for some people that phrase implies a dangerous laxity. If God meets us where we are, is there any need for change? Doesn’t it mean anything goes?
This question lies at the heart of many of the debates at the Synod on the Family, which was convened by Pope Francis last year and is entering its home stretch this week. Nearly all the participants at the synod have been careful to state that there are many issues on the table. After all, the topic of “the family” raises a constellation of concerns, and family issues will differ from country to country.
Still, much of the discussion has focused on two neuralgic topics: the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, and the pastoral care of LGBT Catholics. The first is a flash point more in the Catholic Church; the second in both the Church and the wider world.
If God “meets us where we are,” then we can see a possible dilemma: there may be less of a need to follow traditional rules that have held the community together. And many of these rules come from Jesus himself — who, for example, spoke against divorce. So many sincere believers feel great concern about a possible setting aside of rules.
On the other hand, if the church focuses too heavily on the rules, it will prevent people from feeling that God can meet them where they are, because they’re not where they should be. And the last thing the church should be doing is preventing people from feeling that they can approach God, and God can approach them.
As a result, many of the discussions have been animated by this simple idea of God meeting a person where he or she is.
Cardinal Wilfred Napier, archbishop of Durban, for example, responding to comments made by a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, tweeted, “‘Meet people where they are’ sounds nice, but is that what Jesus did? Didn’t he rather call them away from where they were?” Later, Napier allowed that Father Rosica’s comments were more nuanced. “Look,” Father Rosica had written, “God loves you as and where you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to go further.”
By way of comparison, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington D.C., explicitly said the church needed to “meet people where they are” in an interview a few days ago.
So there is always a tension. God calls us where we are, and then God invites us to a new place. There is a healthy spiritual tension between who we are now (the person whom God created) and whom God calls us to be (the person God intends for us to become).
There may be no better example of this than the story of the call of St. Peter in Luke 5:1-11.
Peter has been fishing all night, unsuccessfully, when Jesus turns up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and asks him to take out his boat “into the deep.” Despite the fact that they’ve caught nothing all night, Peter agrees. Once in the middle of the sea, Peter lets down his net, which is filled to bursting point.
Seeing the immense catch of fish, Peter falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the face of the divine, Peter, like all of us, is made painfully aware of his own limitations. Then Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” 
Jesus is well aware of Peter’s limitations and sinfulness (Plus, Peter just told him). But notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Since you’re sinful, you don’t get to follow me.” Rather, Jesus calls Peter as a sinful person. There’s an implicit call to conversion, but first Jesus accepts the man as he is.
And before Jesus could call Peter, he had to journey from Nazareth to Capernaum, the town where Peter lived and worked, a distance of 40 miles. Quite literally, Jesus came to meet him where he was: by the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus’s miracle that day was also in Peter’s own “language,” as it were. The miracle wasn’t bringing someone back to life or even changing water into wine, miracles he would perform elsewhere. Instead, Jesus focused on fish. And if there’s one thing Peter was an expert in it was fish. Jesus was, again, meeting him where he was.
Conversion — a change of heart and life — is essential. Peter would leave everything behind to follow Jesus. But first Jesus needed to take the first step and meet him where he was, both physically and spiritually. It’s up to us, as a church, to go and do likewise.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America. His new novel is “The Abbey: A Story of Discovery.”


Popular Posts