...to love another as a person we must begin by granting him his own
autonomy and identity as a person. We have to love him for what he
is in himself, and not for what he is to us. We have to love him for
his own good, not for the good we get out of him. And this is
impossible unless we are capable of a love which ‘transforms’ us,
so to speak, into the other person, making us able to see things a he
sees them, love what he loves, experience the deeper realities of his
own life as if they were our own. Without sacrifice, such a
transformation is utterly impossible. But unless we are capable of
this kind of transformation ‘into the other’ while remaining
ourselves, we are not yet capable of a fully human existence.
From Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, New York, 1960) Page 104.
This is a very deep thing Merton is saying here, and it has huge implications not only for pastoral care, but also for the life of prayer. To pray for someone is to love them, in a way just as practical as feeding them or clothing them or listening to them. But if our love is to reach the depths of identification Merton is hinting at here, then our prayer may look very different from the conventional intercessory model.
On the home page of The Mercy Site I quote Michael Ramsey: "Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart."
In order to love, to pray, like this we need to become entirely vulnerable to the world, defenceless, without keeping ourselves back from the sometimes unbearable reality confronting us. But we don't, truly we don't, need to be able accurately to delineate the problem, sociologically, medically, economically, politically... still less do we need to be able to dream up an answer to it. God knows all about the problem, far more intimately and accurately than we ever could, and he, the all-wise God, knows how to bring his mercy to bear on it. No, what he needs from us is our love - a love that cares enough to risk breaking our hearts for those who suffer, as Jesus was broken for us.
We need to be open to the pain of creation, but open in and with God. Such openness in our own strength might overwhelm our minds and hearts - but to be open in Christ, through the Spirit, is the most redemptive act we as humans are capable of. And we are all capable of it. It doesn't require a degree, any special aptitude, rigorous training - it just needs love.