“I say this not by way of command, but to test the genuineness of your love by your concern for others.”2 Corinthians 8: 8
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?”Matthew 5: 44-46
During my senior year in high school, I had made the decision to enter the religious life. My mother, especially, was not pleased with that decision at the time, and her feelings about this played no small part, I suspect, in her uttering words I have never forgotten. One day, and I can’t exactly remember the context, I was present as someone mentioned to her their appreciation for my attention to them. In response she said, “Yes, he loves everybody but us.” I think this so struck me because I understood, at some level, the grain of truth in it. It was not that I did not love my parents, but I was aware that I loved others in a way I did not love them. Now I can say, of course, that the reverse is also true: I loved them differently from the way I loved others.
There is for me no more challenging passage in the gospels than the one we read today. To be a true follower of Jesus is no child’s play. To be a child of God, says Jesus, is to love those who persecute us, to love those who are unjust as well as just to us. It requires that we pray for the one who has enraged us. It is the challenge to recognize our relationship to those we hate and who hate us. At least for me, this teaching of Jesus often seems impossible to follow. It seems to go against the grain of our very consciousness. Evolution has formed us to gather with those who support us and will defend us and to fight or flee from those who threaten us. Our very survival is based on recognizing this difference.
Jesus, however, summons us to recognize a deeper possibility in ourselves. He says that as children of God we are capable of bearing in the world God’s universal love. For most of us, however, we know this capacity far more in its potential than in its reality. One way of understanding our journey of life is that it is a path of being formed every more fully into our distinctive potency to be, in the world, a bearer of this love.
I suspect that like many late adolescents I experienced the difficulty in loving my parents, for all the need I had of them. No doubt these two realities are inextricably intertwined. Their faults and their failings were often very focal in my mind. They did not really exist for me, at that time, as real unique persons separate from who they were and what they did for me. So, I loved my friends and even some of my teachers. I even thought I loved God. Unlike my parents, I had yet to experience those times that I hated them. It was many years later that I learned the truth that we always love and hate the same people. I was attracted at this time, however, by those whom I did not yet hate. I desired and sought a love that was not at all conflictual, and so I needed to seek this love with the others.
Usually when I read today’s gospel passage, I think of those I hate as those who are more distant from me. I do not think about those I love that I also hate, those with whom I live in much closer proximity. To love those who hate us, and whom we hate, requires that we confront those things in ourselves that are our own obstacles to loving. The great spiritual teachers often remind us of the importance in our lives of those we do not like, for it is they who are the greatest agents of our formation in love.
One of the most confusing things about love for me comes from my taken for granted perspective that the measure of love of another is related to how good I feel in their presence. Of course, there is some truth to this. Yet, to absolutize it is to identify love with pleasure and to dis-identity it with pain. And so, seeking pleasure and seeking love become synonymous. In pleasure, I am satisfied with myself. There is no need for me to change or to grow. When I experience pain, emotional as well as physical, I am moved to an active reflection on what is wrong and what needs to be changed. So, the presence of confusion, conflict, and disappointment does not signal the absence of love but a summons to discover anew its meaning and to enter more fully its depth.
What my mother said all those years ago reverberates in me when I think about how for much of my religious life we have experienced as tension the aspects of community and ministry in out lives. To be honest, I think I would have to admit that our description of our life together in community is often quite remote from the lived reality. This has begun to change with age and diminishment as we are no longer able to deny our need for each other. In our most active years, however, we, in large part, sought to minimize the demands of life together in favor of the work of our ministries. Our greatest gratification came from serving others and the time and effort that building life together required seemed to us to get in the way of that work. I wonder, though, if we didn’t avoid those requirements of community not so much because they were an interference in our ministry but because they were so difficult. We reduced the call to community to being present for prayers and meals, and to fulfilling our assigned tasks in the house. And we discovered, when there were no longer rules commanding us to do so, that there was little else that bonded us together.
From the 19th century up to the later part of the 20th, the great “work force” in the church consisted of the multiple religious communities of women and men. These communities discovered that a certain interpretation of the evangelical counsels facilitated great efficiency and productivity in that work force. The vow of poverty allowed for services to those who were unable to pay for them, and so the establishment of schools and hospitals for populations that would otherwise remain unserved. The vow of celibate chastity created a work force that was free of relational entanglements and responsibilities. The vow of obedience allowed for a mobility and indifference in the work force that could sustain the corporate commitments of a group. At their core, however, the counsels as lived out in vowed commitment are far more than a means to efficient service. They are a “way” of deepening in relationship and in love.
The human way, however, is a way of constant learning and formation. To incarnate our deepest capacities for love through our will requires us to be constantly learning anew how to “bear the beams of love.” We do this by loving, both those who love us and those who do not. The locus of this, in the primal traditions of the vowed life, is the community in which life is shared. It is by negotiating life with those who are different from us that we deepen in love. Absent committing ourselves to others in a way that requires us to encounter our own selfishness and arrogance and to care for those for whom we don’t feel care, we spend our lives seeking fulfillment in others, including those we pretend to serve.
As an adolescent, I loved (sought out) others in the hope of finding a value, acceptance, and peace that I did not find “at home.” I’ve since discovered in retrospect how much of what I craved was present at home. Yet, there was also a fear in my house of the messy and conflictual humanity through which we would together have had to pass in order to know the love beneath it. Until age and sickness forces a stability born of resignation on us, we can spend our lives looking for the love we desire in a place without that messiness and conflict, not recognizing that it is ourselves who carry this with us wherever we go.
So, Jesus says, learn to love by not fleeing and fighting when you feel hate. God’s sun and rain fall on us all alike. God showers the gifts of creation on us in all that we are. At the level of our unconscious this is unfathomable. We love and we hate, but God loves. As spirit, we are a capacity to know God’s love for all. But we can only do this in prayer, that is in openness to become so much more than we sense ourselves to be. We need not close in on our hate, our resentment, our disgust of others because that is not all they are, or even are to us.
I find it hard to pray for those with whom I am angry because I know that to do so will mean that I must give up my anger and hatred. This is the ratification of Jesus’ teaching. When we pray for those who persecute us, or simply whom we dislike, we discover that our hatred and dislike dissolves. Our prayer brings us into the communion where God showers God’s gifts on both of us. Love is not as fragile and as fleeting as we think it is. To learn this lesson, however, requires that we practice loving where we find it difficult. This is how we discover that we are all held in God’s love always and everywhere, so that we need not feverishly pursue love but simply receive it.
Instead of looking to a relationship for shelter, we could welcome its power to wake us up in areas of life where we are asleep and where we avoid naked, direct contact with life. This approach puts us on a path. It commits us to movement and change, providing forward direction by showing us exactly where we most need to grow. Embracing relationship as a path also gives us a practice: learning to use each difficulty along the way as an opportunity to go further, to connect more deeply, not just with our partner, but with our own aliveness as well.John Welwood. Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship, in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, June 17, 2019