The year of grace 1654. Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement. From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.
The God of Jesus Christ. Your God will be my God. – Blaise Pascal, text sewn in his jacket
The other day, I shared with someone the story of my life-changing encounter with Christ back in 1987. Though I rarely talk about the story in detail, the effects of it are in my awareness 24/7/365. It is the only single experience of my life that consciously defines every other waking moment.
The person I shared this with asked me what word I would use to describe this continuous awareness.The word that sprang to mind immediately was contingency. I know, only a theologian could make something electric sound so technical. What I mean when I say “contingency” is that, at every moment, I am radically dependent on the will of Christ for existence. He, the Word “through whom all things came into being” (John 1:3), the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). THIS is exactly what crashed into my life that night in 1987, the awareness of Christ — to quote St. Catherine of Siena — as the ONE WHO IS, and of me as the ONE WHO IS NOT. He looked at me, as if saying, “I hold you in existence.”
Back in 1997 on the tenth anniversary, I wrote in my journal a sentence that summarized it: “He thinks of me, therefore I am.” This truth, even as I type this now, is for me more real than anything else in life, without exception.
The other word I used to explain to this person my “ongoing awareness” was purpose. To use German-American poet Charles Bukowski’s marvelous phrase, before encountering Christ, I was “cut loose from purpose.” A rudderless life. I had nothing to live for other than myself, and even that was dicey. In this singular event, my whole life instantaneously, without any reflection or analysis, took on a total meaning. As I told the priest I went to Confession to two weeks after this event, which was my first confession since I was seven:
I know this: to love in Christ’s footsteps. That’s it. Everything. Sounds cheesy when I say it, and I don’t really think I know what it means other than I have to do it. But because of the kind of person I know I am, I’m thinking it’s probably not going to be fun.
It wasn’t. I still vividly remember that confession, that conversation, the room we were in, the desk, the chair, the priest’s facial expressions and his responses to my comments.
That event set in motion a storm in my life that would, over the years, progressively dismantle my egocentric straw house, and challenge me to rebuild my life on rock, out of love. I had no idea what was waiting for me, what the cost of this new sense of purpose would be. But neither did I know just how extraordinary was the world that was opening up to me. Six months later I would take my first biblical class and have my mind explode with fiery passion for learning this Christ. Twenty one months later, in November of 1988, I would meet the woman who would become my best friend and, six years after that, become my wife. Then, the crown of our love, our children.
All these would become for me the clearest, surest footsteps Christ set in the ground as he walked ahead of me, beckoning me to follow him. All along asking me, again and again: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs, Feed my sheep.”
life’s purpose? The answer is absolute, transcendent and universal; supremely costly and outrageously simple: “To walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6), by loving just as he loved.
The rest? Simply supporting detail.