By Elizabeth Scalia | OSV News
For love of the house of the Lord
I will ask for your good. — Ps 122:9
Sometimes Jesus’ words are so familiar to us we stop noticing the whole of what he is saying. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), is a pretty interesting adjuration. For one thing, this rabbi who demonstrated the fullness of unconditional love with his death on the cross is saying something that, on its surface, seems shockingly out-of-sync with the notion of Christian love: people will have enemies.
We’re advised not to, of course. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mt 22:37-40).
But what if our neighbor is, kind of, an “enemy” as well — someone who we have learned to distrust, are happy to dislike because it feels so righteous to do so?
Complicating things further, what if we don’t really love ourselves all that much? We all have moments — or decades — where we’ve cast ourselves into such a hellscape of self-loathing that we’ve become our own enemy. In which case loving our neighbors as we love ourselves sounds downright harrowing.
Or, what if we really do love someone, but they’ve hurt us and we’ve distanced ourselves from them while stewing over our hurt feelings — revisitinging every perceived slight the way one irresistibly revisits a canker sore with a tooth, only to wince each time we do it?
Sometimes we Christians do have legitimate enemies — Jesus acknowledged it — people we’ve learned to give a wide berth to for our own physical, mental or spiritual safety. Jesus says we have to love them but how do we do that without setting ourselves up for more pain?
Happily, the Master doesn’t make us wait for an answer; he cuts directly to the chase, saying, “pray for them…”
I used to think that “loving an enemy” meant nothing more than wishing no ill toward them — that as long as I sought no vengeance or resisted wishing harm upon them, I was doing alright.
But a passive “hope you don’t get leprosy” is not the sort of “loving” that Jesus is commanding.
When I can, I like to run in the deep end of a pool for an hour or so. It sounds boring but in summer, that’s where I do my best praying. My intercessory prayer list is long, full of family, friends, co-workers and some people I pray for simply because I know no one else is doing so. I jump off the Divine Mercy chaplet to pray for everyone on my list (and sometimes, anyone who just pops into my head, because maybe the Holy Spirit is nudging prayers on their behalf).
I run and I pray, until it all becomes a kind of rhythmic supplication before God: For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on [name], and on the whole world, I pray, moving from name to name.
Strangely, the more I pray, the more names occur to me — priests and bishops; people in the news who seem troubled, or half-mad. The five-decade prayer climbs into seven or eight, every time.
Lately, the prayer has included those I’ve pulled away from — “enemies” I never wanted. “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on [name, who hurt me].
Two things have come from my prayers: First, I’ve seen where I’ve probably hurt these folks, myself — usually through oblivious self-interest, which makes others feel unseen or unheard, stinging aplenty. Seeing that our slights have gone both ways somehow softens all the woe-is-me.
Second, one day while praying I realized that all my resentments had seemed to melt away.
Jesus nailed it; it’s nearly impossible to feel bitter toward someone when you’re praying for their good — and praying “mercy” for anyone is an unqualified good.
I recently bumped into someone I’d been praying for after first muttering to myself about her for months. As we caught up, I discovered once again that I really liked her, and that we’d both hoed some hard rows over the past few years, leaving us humbled but also stronger and wiser and perhaps a bit more willing to assume the best, not the worst of others. Or even ourselves.
I continue to pray for her each time I run, because prayer is good. But now the supplication is joined to thanksgiving, because praying for the good of my “enemy” — for the love of God — had cleansed away all the ache.
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Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News.