One of the people that stand out in my memory when I was engaged in the ministry of spiritual direction was a young man, James (not his real name). When I first met James he had completed a degree in film and was involved in film-making, and was becoming quite successful in his endeavour. But James was also struggling. He was depressed and the depression was becoming more significant. I met with James regularly over perhaps a twelve-month period, seeking to listen to him and understand something of his life’s journey. Through our conversations it became apparent that though he was becoming quite successful as a film-maker he actually didn’t like what he was doing. He had taken it up more from the expectations of others than from his own passion. When we did explore what Jame’s actual passion was about we discovered something quite surprising. James actually enjoyed making things with his hands; he loved carpentry. And more, he had always had this secret dream to make wooden toys. He had always brushed the thought aside though as being ludicrous. However, over time we recognised that this dream was what gave James the most energy, the most excitement. It was memorable to see him come alive when he spoke about it. Over the course of our time, he began to let go of the expectations of others that had become an enormous imposition, and he started to find the courage to begin again, faithful to where is passion lay. James went on to become, and still is, one of Australia’s finest makers of high-quality wooden toys.
My time with James was a lesson about withholding our own expectations of how others should be, and instead about listening to them with remarkable attentiveness for where and how they come alive, for where their unique sense of passion is, for where and how they gain a sense of purpose and energy in life. Wherever this might be, is the foundation of their true future. Wherever this might be in our own life is the foundation of our own future. When our deepest desires are given some space to be named, and importantly given the encouragement to be entertained, it is extraordinary what new life is released for us. This is the spirit-led task of encouragement, one of the most life-giving gifts that we can give to one another. Encouragement literally means to draw out the heart of the other. To encourage another is to recognise the nature of their heart to draw this out into a space in which it can grow fully as itself.
This is what Jesus gives Zacchaeus in his encounter with him in today’s gospel. Zacchaeus lives under the weight of other’s accusations and expectations. He lives trapped under the stereotypes by which others dismiss him. It is not accidental that in the story he is described as short. He has been dwarfed by such a burden; his life has shrunk. He is not living his potential; his future is shrivelled. Yet, he longs for more. It is in this longing that Jesus meets him. Jesus immediately sees his longing, the way in which he is searching for something more in his life, the way in which he is trying to rise above the crowds of messages by which others have kept him at a distance from his true life. Jesus speaks to this searching, this longing, this desire in Zacchaeus. Jesus draws this hope about himself out into the open. Jesus truly en-courages him. He draws out the heart of Zacchaeus. It is this encouragement that frees Zacchaeus. Because someone else has seen him in a new way, Zacchaeus sees himself in a new way. What was truncated into a meanness of vision and spirit, now becomes open, hospitable and welcoming. Largesse replaces defensiveness. Hospitality replaces self-protection. Life flows. Salvation dawns.
Salvation comes to our own house when we act this way, when heart speaks to heart, as John Henry Newman termed it. As Jesus gave Zacchaeus this gift in his encounter with him, may we always look to give this gift to one another.
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