And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
The older I get the more I love St Augustine and find amazing comfort and insight in his words.
What I find most attractive in Augustine’s work is his incomparable genius and skill in understanding and articulating the Christian life in all its glorious and paradoxically specificity. Reflecting on Christ’s command to us, the bishop of Hippo says that Christians “are . . . prohibited both from loving the world and, if we understand rightly, are commanded to love it” as well because, as Jesus tells us in this Sunday’s Gospel, we are to “love [our] enemies.”
And who are are enemies he asks but “the world, which hates us”?
How are we to find our way through these two, seemingly, contradictory commandments? We are called by Christ to not love “what the world itself loves,” that is to say we are not to love the faults that the world love. Rather,we are to love what “the world hates, namely, the handiwork of God and the various comforts of His goodness.” The great sorrow of the world is that the “world loves the fault . . . and hates its nature. . . . [Perversely the world] loves and hates itself.”
We overlook I think how easily our own self-hatred obscures from our vision God’s love and mercy for us. Let me rephrase that please: In my self-hatred, I have blind myself to God’s mercy and love for me, and for my neighbor. The content of this self-hatred is less wickedness, and more (as Augustine suggests throughout his writings and sermons) my disordered love of self–I love the very faults in myself that obscure my nature. I have, perversely, fallen in love with the pale imitation of myself that I have cobbled together out of the bits and pieces of my own experience and the half-truths I have heard throughout my life from society and other people. And it is this false image of myself that I have grown to prefer to the person I am in God’s eyes.
St Ambrose says that the “law commands . . . revenge . . . . [But the] Gospel bestows love for hostility, benevolence for hatred, prayer for curses, help for the persecuted, patience for the hungry and [the] grace of reward” for those who, having stumbled, repent, rise from their sins and strive again to be faithful. So, if this is what the Gospel offers me, why do I not run towards it? Why don’t I believe the Gospel that Christ proved through His death on the Cross?
This morning I read in the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast that in ancient times
[If] you reviled the idols, they would stone you or put you to a miserable death. Now in our times, every passion has taken the place of an idol. And if you reprove or criticize the passion that you see overcoming each person that all shour, “Stone him, because he has reviled our gods.”
I do not believe because I have replace the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the rather little god I have made out of my passions.
Even though these little gods disappoint me, even though I know they will disappointment me and leave me humiliated, I worship them out of fear. There is something comfortable of worshiping a god of my own creation, that I can place right there on the shelf above my desk. To worship a god of my own creation makes me a god myself–I become what I fear and so become fearsome myself.
And again, the Church stands in stark contrast to all of this, the real question is how do I leave behind my fear and enter into love?
“How,” St Cyprian asks, will you love your enemies and prayer for your adversaries and persecutors?” He continues:
We see what happened in the case of Stephen. When he was being killed by the violence and stones of the Jews, he did not ask for vengeance but forgiveness for his murderers. . . . [The] first martyr for Christ . . . was not only a preacher of the Lord’s suffering but also an imitator of His most patient gentleness.
One of the great challenges of the Christian life is moving toward the good not out of the perverse self-hatred that Augustine identifies, but out of a real attract to what is good and with a sense, however immature and unformed, of our own worth as God’s beloved child. Taking our cue from Cyprian, maybe we would do well, especially at the beginning of our spiritual life or at those moments when our spiritual life seems to be at a low ebb, if we simply imitated Stephen.
It seems to me that, whatever it might be in full flower, being merciful means to renounce vengeance. And if I can’t quite renounce it? Well at least I should not want to want it. Though often out of fear or pride, I do not want to be punished or humiliated or shamed. No matter how deep my sin, I do not want to have someone take vengeance on me.
The beginning of mercy, the first step of fulfilling Christ’s command in the Gospel is this: Let us not seek vengeance against those who have hurt us. If we, if I, can at least do no harm, I give goodness the chance to be planted, to root itself and to grow in my heart and yours.