Some weeks ago I was in Oxford for an event at my old college. I had a little bit of spare time and so I visited the bookshop, Blackwells in the Broad. Making my way downstairs to the theology section I took the opportunity to look at books published in the past five years or so that I had not seen before. I noticed one book by an author known to me. He is now a retired professor and he used to work at Durham University. We knew each other slightly back in the 70s when I spent two years in Oxford reading for a research degree in the branch of theology known as Patristics. The book my former acquaintance had written was entitled Modern Orthodox Thinkers. I pulled it off the shelf to see if I knew any of these individuals that were being described in the book. In fact there were several accounts of people I had known in Greece in the 1960s or later in Britain. Two people especially stood out, both now dead. One was an Englishman, Philip Sherrard, who mentored me in the studying I was doing while in Greece while the other was a Greek theologian called Dimitris Koutroubis. Dimitris was an extremely important influence on me and we kept up a fitful correspondence for around 10 years until shortly before his death. I was particularly pleased to see that his influence on theological thinking in Greece was being recognised in the book. When I got home I sent an email to the author and told him how pleased I was to see tributes to people I had known and whose encouragement I had greatly appreciated. Last Wednesday I went to visit the author of the book at his home in Darlington. It transpired that he had not personally known either of the two people who had helped me so much all those years ago. He was especially interested to see surviving letters that I still have from each of them.
My visit to Darlington last week has allowed me the opportunity to reflect on the work of encouragement that we both give and receive throughout our lives. Although I no longer study Orthodox topics, I am still grateful to each of these individuals for the way they mentored and encouraged me at that precise moment in my life. I began to think of what this gift of encouragement might mean for both giver and receiver. First, I have come to see that encouragement takes place when one person is prepared truly to listen to what another person is saying. This act of listening often allows the individual in need of encouragement to articulate much more clearly what they are trying to say. Active listening does seem to open up thoughts and ideas that might never appear if the thinker tried to do his/her thinking alone. Listening is thus sometimes a deeply creative process. The second part of the act of encouragement is the ability to help another person to see possibilities for the future. In a pastoral setting this work of encouragement might reveal a new start or a new way of doing things; in an academic type of mentorship it might be the ability to help a person see how half-formed ideas could be developed. I particularly remember receiving this kind of intellectual encouragement from Dimitris. This helped to carry me through from having some hunches and unformed ideas in the 60s into undertaking a complete research project in the 70s. I wonder whether I would ever have undertaken this project if there had not been one person who early on was genuinely interested and encouraging me in the work I was doing then.
These two distinct stages in the process of encouragement need a little further reflection. The first stage which I identified was the act of attentive listening. This involves something close to empathy. It demands from the encourager the ability to listen and to feel at the same time. But then we also saw a second stage. This allows both parties to take the material which has been shared and see how it can be brought together in a new way and taken into the future. The listener/encourager needs here a gift of insight or intuition. He or she needs the skills of imagination to be able to pull out from what has been shared the possibilities, the creative possibilities for the future. If all goes well the one who seeks encouragement begins to see new directions in which to resolve a problem whether it is personal or intellectual. Effectively what happens in the encounter is that the encourager has allowed a special environment to be created. Within this setting some emotional resolution or an intellectual development comes to flower.
As I began to think further about this process of encouragement, I began to see the links it has with what we describe as healing. For some time now I have come to see that healing in whatever context it takes place, has much more to do with creating a special environment than in doing something to another person. Whatever type of healing happens, Christian, medical or spiritual, it is a process that seems to tap into a mechanism for self-healing which exists in all of us. The best that another person, a would-be ‘healer’, can do is to provide the best possible environment within which that healing process can take place. In the case of healings in the Gospels, physical change seems often to have been linked to the fact of Jesus assuring the sick person of God’s lavish promise of forgiveness and acceptance. Being close to Jesus himself would also have created the response in the sick which we loosely describe as faith. These were incredibly powerful environments or settings in which the body of sick person would have been stimulated to move towards healing. The examples today of Christian healing that I myself witnessed have nearly always taken place against the background of some significant emotional shift in the person. Sometimes this has involved sudden new insight or a fresh encounter with the divine. In every case something external seems to have provoked an inner change in the person. It might have been new forgiveness, an encounter with love or a moment of reconciliation with another. In the case of small child falling over, what better environment for feeling better do we have than the warm embrace of a mother who cares? In future blog posts I shall have more to say on this topic of the relationship of healing and the way that others can help to create a healing environment. It is an idea that has not been fully worked out in my mind.
Encouraging another person in the ways I have described above is one of the most precious things that we can give them. Through us pain can be assuaged, questioning can be satisfied, all through encouragement, using the gifts of listening and empathy. Also through this encouragement we and those whom we seek to help can begin to face the future in a new way. The whole process, taking another person’s experience and helping to order it before moving it on to a fresh future, is an intensely creative form of interaction. All of us can do this for others, just as each of us can receive it from others. This past week two significant individuals in my life were brought back into my memory. They encouraged me intellectually and enabled me to explore at some depth the traditions and insights of another branch of Christianity. I was grateful for those encounters. Out of that gratitude I am perhaps better able to recognise the importance of doing the same for others as much as I can. May all of us be involved in the practice of the giving and receiving of encouragement, so that we and other people may blossom and flourish because of it.