Today’s gospel reading is a reminder that the values and behaviors of a Christian, a son or daughter of God, must be drastically different from the values and behaviors of the world around us. We are called to be strangers compared to the world around us. We are called to be like aliens in a strange land. Perhaps nowhere in the entirety of the gospels is this more on display than in today’s reading as Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us these life creating words, “Love your enemies.” So often we see the Lord acting and speaking in ways that turn the world upside down, and this is no exception! Our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t tell us to do the things that are easy or come naturally, He tells us to do what is quite difficult and will take work for us in our current state. Have you ever known someone who loved their enemies? Or does that seem like a foreign concept to us? When we are angry with someone or feel that someone has hurt us or done us wrong, how do we react? How do we respond?
A little more than a week ago we celebrated the memory of a great modern saint, Silouan of Mt. Athos, who reposed in the year 1938. This wonderful and holy man, taught with amazing words of eloquence although he had never had any formal schooling in his life. We learn that he had a very deep, intense and profound prayer life in which he entered into a living relationship with God. One of the most beautiful of his teachings is something that he repeated quite often, about loving our enemies. Listen to his teaching, this is a lengthy quote but it’s so good,
“The soul cannot know peace unless she prays for her enemies. The soul that has learned from God’s grace to pray, feels love and compassion for every created thing, and in particular for mankind, for whom the Lord suffered on the Cross, and His soul was heavy for every one of us. The Lord taught me to love my enemies. Without the grace of God we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love, and then even devils arouse our pity because they have fallen from good, and lost humility in God. I beseech you, put this to the test. When a man affronts you or brings dishonor on your head, or takes what is yours, or persecutes the Church, pray to the Lord, saying: “O Lord, we are all Thy creatures. Have pity on Thy servants and turn their hearts to repentance,” and you will be aware of grace in your soul. To begin with, constrain your heart to love enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, will help you in all things, and experience itself will show you the way. But the man who thinks with malice of his enemies has not God’s love within him, and does not know God.
If you will pray for your enemies, peace will come to you; but when you can love your enemies – know that a great measure of the grace of God dwells in you, though I do not say perfect grace as yet, but sufficient for salvation. Whereas if you revile your enemies, it means there is an evil spirit living in you and bringing evil thoughts into your heart, for, in the words of the Lord, out of the heart proceed evil thoughts – or good thoughts. The good man thinks to himself in this way: Everyone who has strayed from the truth brings destruction on himself and is therefore to be pitied. But of course the man who has not learned the love of the Holy Spirit will not pray for his enemies. The man who has learned love from the Holy Spirit sorrows all his life over those who are not saved, and sheds abundant tears for the people, and the grace of God gives him strength to love his enemies.”
In our world it is the most difficult thing in the world to imagine that we can love our enemies. We are taught to hate everyone who stands in our way. In fact the world that so often claims to preach tolerance, quickly shows it’s true colors, it’s contempt and hatred for anyone who so much as has an opinion that is not popular or favorable by the majority. Do we react similarly, like the world around us, or do we react in the way of St. Silouan? Do we really, actually, love our enemies? I believe this is a really fundamental question for a Christian to answer.
St. Silouan’s rule is like a powerful litmus test of our knowledge of God and relationship with Him. If I truly know and love God, I feel His mercy and love in my life. I see His generosity towards me although I am a sinner who does not deserve anything. This living relationship informs and illumines my heart and it impresses upon my being and dramatically changes how I relate to others, not just those whom it is easy to love, like our friends and family, but those whom it is humanly impossible to love. Instead of seeing people around me as enemies, I begin to see them as my brothers and sisters. Instead of condemning them and hoping that God judges them, I begin to pray on their behalf and ask God to show mercy to them and reveal Himself to them.
The answer for St. Silouan isn’t that you try to understand the concept with your mind and earthly wisdom, the answer is that you grow in your prayer life, in your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who comforts us as we struggle to learn to pray. Prayer is our way to accept God’s invitation to enter into this love and open ourselves up to Him and to be healed through repeated encounters with His powerful love. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love because He is love, God is love. And we might ask, “How much love does God have for His enemies?” Let’s conclude with the words of St. Paul who tells us that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” May we also grab hold of this great love that has been offered to us! AMEN.