Praying for My Enemies: A New Lenten Discipline

Lent is almost over, and I must say, I am relieved: this is not my favorite liturgical season. Give me the little pleasures of Ordinary Time, or the serene expectation of Advent, rather than the sober confrontation of the forty days. Still, I understand why the church invites us into this time of fasting. Regularly in our spiritual life we need to examine our conscience and invite God’s purification. We need to make a new start. And so once again I bring the old questions before God: Where am I falling short in my love of neighbor and you, Lord? Since fasting can take many different forms, I then try to choose a spiritual discipline in keeping with my own specific weaknesses and tendencies to sin. Giving up candy or alcohol is one thing, but let us not overlook the value of prayer and works of mercy.

In that spirit, this year I selected a new discipline. I got the idea from a personal encounter and a book. The encounter was with the Christian peace activist, Jim Forest, and the book was one he wrote: Loving Our Enemies (Orbis, 2014). Like me, Forest is an American living in the Netherlands. In the 1970’s he moved to Alkmaar for his work for an international peace organization. He’s been in Holland ever since, where he has served as International Secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. During this time he’s written several fine books on peace, reconciliation and Christian spirituality. You can read more about his work at his website: www.jimandnancyforest.com.

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Meeting Jim was a delight for a number of reasons. First, because he has been friends with some of my great heroes, including Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Metropolian Anthony Bloom. (Forest wrote biographies of both Merton and Day.) Second, because like my father, Jim is an ex-soldier who has long been an outspoken critic of war and the culture of violence. And third because Forest is not only friendly, but also exceptionally knowledgeable and wise. As is his wife, Nancy.

I read Jim’s latest book, Loving Our Enemies, in the aftermath of our meeting. Therein he reminds us of Jesus’ words: “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This is, Forest emphasizes, not expressed as a “counsel of perfection”—that is, as advice for the spiritually advanced—but as a command for us all. Forest then goes on to show how Jesus himself put these words into practice. In the book’s second half, Forest tells stories and offers suggestions for how we ourselves might learn to love our enemies. In a time when the evening news is full of reports of war, terrorism and the tensions within multicultural societies (see the armed guards on the streets of Paris), I find this to be a highly relevant book. In answer to that depressing news, Loving Our Enemies provides proactive, concretely spiritual remedies. A good example is Forest’s recommendation to make a list of one’s own “enemies,” and to pray for them.

I put that word “enemies” deliberately in quotes, because when I first thought of embracing this as part of my Lenten discipline, I wondered who in fact my enemies might be. I don’t live in a war zone, after all, but in a quiet neighborhood in Holland. But Forest challenges us to consider all those we naturally avoid. Who do we feel ill toward? Who do we resent? Who stands in our way? Another good question: When you pray, who do you not pray for (because you’d rather not think of them at all)?  This exercise was for me an eye-opener. When I made my own list (written in code, out of embarrassment!), names popped up from out of the distant past. Apparently I’d never forgiven some for the pain they’d caused me. Just as striking: I realized that some people on my list I avoid because I had hurt them. I was ashamed to remember the pains I myself had inflicted.

In the Gospel we often hear Jesus say, “Fear not!” He knows that our fear—for the unknown, for the “other”—hinders our friendship with God and neighbor. One who is afraid keeps his distance, and out of fear he builds walls. But we must cross the distance, we must tear down the walls. This is God’s will, and prayer, sacraments, personal contact, cooperation and acts of love help us to carry it out. Thanks to Jim Forest for this timely reminder.

Timothy P. Schilling writes from the Center for Parish Spirituality, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The center is sponsored by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.

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