The three classical spiritual practices that the Church urges us to embrace during Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I would strongly encourage every one of my readers to follow this recommendation, perhaps intensifying each one of the three during the holy season. But there is another Lenten discipline that I would like to put forward, inspired very much by the Gospel readings this week: forgiving an enemy.
There is enough anger in the Catholic community to light up the eastern seaboard for a year. I say this not to pick on Catholics in particular; I would say it of any group of human beings. We are—all of us—sitting on a lot of unresolved rage. Thomas Aquinas defines the deadly sin of anger in his typically pithy manner as an irrational or excessive desire for revenge. Every one of us has been hurt by someone else, aggressed, unjustly harmed, insulted, perhaps to an extreme degree. And so, naturally enough, we harbor a desire to respond in kind. Now, there is such a thing as justified anger, which is nothing but a passion to right wrongs. Think of the “anger” displayed by Jesus as he cleansed the temple or by Martin Luther King as he led the civil rights movement. That righteous indignation is to be praised. But many of us, let’s be honest, cultivate an excessive, unreasonable passion to get back at those who have harmed us. We spend an extraordinary amount of time fantasizing about what we might say and do to our enemies if we ever had the opportunity or the requisite power. This is what Thomas Aquinas means by the “deadly sin” of anger.
And this is precisely what Jesus is urging us to extricate from our souls precisely through the admittedly wrenching act of forgiving our enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord teaches, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder. . . .’ But I say to you, ‘that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. . . .’ So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there. . . . First be reconciled to your brother or sister.” And in what constitutes, in my judgment, the rhetorical and spiritual highpoint of the Sermon, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies.” This teaching makes no sense unless we are assuming that we have real enemies—that is to say, people who have unfairly and aggressively harmed us. But the Lord is summoning us beyond the desire for revenge, even beyond the strict justice of the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” principle. He is insisting that we love those who have made us angry, that we desire their good.
About twenty-five years ago, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was accused by a young man named Steven Cook of sexual misconduct. In a speech given at Mundelein Seminary shortly thereafter, the cardinal said that he was devastated by this charge, indeed so demoralized and traumatized that he had taken to praying, spread-eagle on the ground in his chapel, that the Lord might deliver him from the shame and hurt that he felt. After two agonizing months, Cook withdrew the charge, admitting that it was based on a false memory. Who would have blamed Cardinal Bernardin if he had said, “Good riddance!” and never had a thing further to do with Steven Cook? But the cardinal didn’t do that. Instead, he travelled to see the young man, brought him the gift of a Bible, anointed him (Cook was dying of AIDS), and offered his forgiveness. That’s what loving, and not just tolerating, one’s enemy looks like. Some decades ago, an Amish family—mother, father, and son—was making their way, as is their custom, by horse-drawn buggy. A car filled with rowdy teenagers came up behind them and commenced to tailgate them impatiently. Finally, they swerved around the buggy and one of the boys hurled a brick in the direction of the horse. The projectile missed the animal but struck the young man, killing him instantly. Who could possibly have blamed the grieving parents if they had turned on their son’s killer? Instead, they appeared at the teenager’s trial and begged the judge for leniency—and then, during the time of his imprisonment, they visited him regularly. That is another icon of enemy love.
Might I urge all of my readers to call to mind an enemy? Hold an image of him or her in your mind—someone who has done you real harm. This Lent, contrive a way to love that person, to heal that relationship. It might be a phone call, an email, a visit, a gesture—but as a salutary Lenten practice, do it.