This is the ninth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the eighth installment, Steve dropped into a retreat in Louisiana.
A week before Lent began, I was preaching. In the gospel, Jesus instructs his listeners (and us!) to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6: 27-38)
I admitted to my congregation that I found this hard and as I surveyed the crowd gathered in the pews of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, I admitted to anyone listening that I was bad at this. I wondered out loud what it meant to love an enemy. A few months earlier, I had proposed, one Sunday afternoon, standing at Howard Thurman’s pulpit, that “time is how we spend our love.” (I’d borrowed this line from novelist Zadie Smith’s husband, Nick Laird and his poem “The Last Saturday in Ulster.”)
I admitted, this worked with people we enjoy, people we’re close with – it’s a great definition for a certain sort of love. It’s certainly true for me. My closest friends, even my best friend in the whole world, I want to see them all the time. And it doesn’t matter what we do. We go out for coffee. We sit and catch up. We go to the movies. We go for walks. Time is the way that love not only is spent, but a way that it grows.
But with enemies? I told my parish that maybe we needed a different definition of love for enemies.
As I’m writing, I’m in the middle of an eight-day period of silence for retreat and prayer. It’s been hard-going. After I preached about loving enemies, I decided I should actually try and build a habit of praying for mine, especially with Lent approaching.
So, I made a list and came up with about eight or ten people from various moments in the past few years of life. And I prayed for them every day at Mass.
One was someone who–although we barely knew one another–spoke poorly of me, seemingly everywhere he went.
One was someone who treated me poorly (for years) because I was “new.”
One was someone who, as a friend put it to me: “Saw your wounds and assumed they were flaws to be fixed.”
Slowly, in the days of silence, praying for enemies began to work on me. In ways that were sometimes without resolution, in some ways that brought me deeper into experiences of pain. Sometimes in praying, I find that I undergo “things” and sometimes it’s a while before I’m on the other side of understanding what I’ve undergone–both of the experiences with which I’m praying and the experience of praying itself. Landscapes sometimes shift from dark and confining to light and expansive. Even after praying for various enemies for a few weeks now, I find that I alternate between those. I did in the days of silence, too.
Sometimes I was angry at the people on my list. Sometimes I tried to feel compassion for them. Sometimes I could see enemies as people who were broken, human, and made mistakes. In that, I could ask God to love them and forgive. But nothing about this was easy. It still isn’t. Some of them had done me some serious harm. Some of them were other Jesuits.The pain in the initial experience of harm was augmented and deepened by trying to articulate the experience and finding it disregarded.
People do evil, harmful things. Sometimes even intentionally, after you’ve told them that what they do is harmful. Sometimes people are disordered and unwell. I entertain no illusions that this isn’t so, and I imagine I’ll feel it even more deeply after ordination when I begin hearing confessions.
My retreat director commented to me: It’s time to pray for a disarming of the heart, regarding people who have wronged you. I did so and ardently. But there was so much to get through – sometimes my heart is surrounded by fences of barbed wire and guard towers with guns and dogs.
I wondered, too, how many people’s lists I might show up on, if, for instance, my community took up a habit of everyone making a list of enemies so that we could all pray for our own.
I’m certainly a sinner. Sometimes I’m difficult about settling arguments. Or I can be sharp with criticism of others. Sometimes I don’t love other people. Sometimes I don’t even like some other people.
But I wonder if this makes me someone’s enemy—I rarely, if ever, work to directly, intentionally harm even someone I don’t like.
But innocent I am not.
I’d fallen into an unusual arrangement for retreat this year, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, partly because I’d chosen to make retreat on my own during spring break. I was living in a Jesuit community for the week and commuting to a monastery for spiritual direction.
My director—a kind monk, who laughs infectiously and listens well—keeps asking me to invite Jesus in. He’s not wrong and that’s hard for me. He’s actually spot-on right.
Our conversations often take place at an early hour when I would usually be in bed. Some days, I’ve been really challenged by his invitation. Gently, deeply, cuttingly. And I get back in the car and drive back to the community. Half-an-hour of radio silence and praying while driving the meandering small-town roads of New England.
Accidentally, maybe, it’s brought up for me all the times I failed to love. I spent an afternoon praying through a list of people I had lost touch with over the years, especially since entering the Society in 2012.
Often it was just a neglected email. Some in my inbox are a decade old by now. Sometimes I just lost touch as I moved to another city to start a new mission. Text messages can be especially hard to keep track of.
I have a friend in England who wrote me around Christmas just before the pandemic, whose email I neglected.
I have, too, an old friend who asked if she could begin spiritual direction with me, as a way of picking up our friendship again. I said no to the direction. (It’s the equivalent of trying to be a therapist for a friend.) But I also haven’t picked up the friendship.
I recently came across an email from a couple in Israel I knew well when I was living in Paris, almost fifteen years ago. Same with a couple in Hawai’i.
This doesn’t even touch a small pile of letters that’s in a box in my closet–they ended up there, taken off my desk when I moved to Boston. One is from a woman whose son I knew growing up: they needed my prayers.
Sometimes it was because of an experience of hardship, or overworking, or depression on my part. Or just the sensation that time passing had become a widening chasm in a friendship. Reaching out after a long while is sometimes daunting.
These were people I liked, I loved, in whose presence I rejoiced and with whom I wandered the world. None of these were on my enemies list. Not even close.
Sometimes I just needed someone to come and find me when I was misplaced. It didn’t matter if that someone was Jesus or a neglected friend.
I told my congregation that we were obliged to love our enemies not only because Jesus had instructed, but because of what he had done—that while we were sinners yet, God loved us such that he always wanted to be in friendship with the human race. And so sent his Son to us, who had done much to distance ourselves from God.
I told them that maybe the way we could love our enemies was to will and intend their good—Jesus himself comments along these lines. I wondered interiorly: Was this enough?
An image of Jesus holding his sacred heart all aflame looked out from the sanctuary of the chapel as I preached. Silent and thankfully not telling my congregation how much I had failed at this.
My monk-director would say to me often in our conversations: But Jesus is searching for you. We’d often discuss various life experiences, struggles, graces, friendships. And of course, prayer.
I have a good friend—I’d say my closest, if I weren’t being insecure about loving and being loved. He’s come up in these direction conversations in this time of prayer and silence because he routinely mediates Jesus’ love to me.
As though a friendship could be a sacrament.
In direction, I’ve sometimes said that I “pray” but more often I’ve told my director that I “sit.” Which is exactly what I do. I sit and I wait. Silences arise and I sit in them. Sometimes I get lost in a thought and I return to sitting. Sometimes I discourse with God and still I sit.
Today, as I returned to my room after lunch, great streams of sunlight flooding my room, I sat and I thought: sitting is so much of what I do. With my good friend, we do a lot of things to spend time, but in essence, at the most fundamental part of things, this is what we do. Doesn’t matter much to me what we’re doing: we sit. It’s about sharing. Or experiencing. Or about presencing. Or about sitting.
I said to my director, about my friend, about Jesus: One has already found me. One is searching for me.
And I wished that I could love enemies this way, too. The weight of anger and hurt and pain and justice all seem like so much darkness next to these sunbeams of presence, desire, and time (which is how we spend our love.)
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.