I think we can all remember learning about Jesus’ command to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. This Sunday’s Gospel is good news, but for many of us it is certainly now new news. When I was younger, this teaching seemed so simple and easy. It seemed like hatred and anger were simply bad people who had chosen to live poorly. Then I encountered the reality of the world. Things got me angry, and I discovered that people could be malicious and cruel. I even encountered this among people in the Church, and what I discovered is that it’s really not that easy to love the way Christ calls us to.
The hurt and frustration people cause us is not something that we can make magically go away. We want to forgive and forget, but something gets in the way of this incredible ideal that seems so essential to happiness. We might even read self-help books that make compassion and inner peace seem so within our reach. However, the more we try to force ourselves to love, the less loving we seem to be. We can feel that in trying to fulfill this command, we seem to be trying to force square pegs to fit into round holes. Sure, it sometimes work, but we have a sense that the spiritual life is about more than just getting by.
What might help is if we begin by recognizing some aspects of the spiritual life which complement what Jesus is talking about.
First, our emotions are not the problem. When we encounter pain, injustice, hatred, malice, it is quite natural and normal to feel angry and upset. Jesus is not saying, “Do not feel angry or upset.” However, how you act on those emotions is distinct from the feeling itself. Self-mastery is not a state in which we no longer feel hatred or pain or other uncomfortable emotions. Instead, self-mastery is when we learn to love in the midst of pain and confusion. This does not come automatically.
Furthermore, it does not involve repressing or ignoring our emotions, but learning to express them to our Lord and spiritual friends in appropriate ways. In the context of our relationship with Jesus and our friends, we learn to recognize patterns in our life and listen to our interior life with curiosity and sensitivity. We do all of this in the light of the Gospel which reveals the depths of what it means to be human.
Second, inner peace which gives us the freedom to love unconditionally is a gradual process of conversion and growth. The spiritual life is not about quick fixes and easy solutions. You may confess the same sins time and time again, and it may take a while before you conquer particular vices and particular sins. You may spend years revisiting hurt and trauma in your life, continually bringing the pain to the Lord. Although we all want to be a saint immediately, what is important is perseverance and patience. Often connected with our frustrations towards other people is our attitude towards ourselves. Being patient with our struggles can help us in empathizing with others.
In this way, we can have a different vision of progress in our lives. Instead of quick fixes, we can expect a life in which our progress is gradual and takes time. Perhaps today you may not feel particularly loving, but you make a specific intention to listen to others and be open to them despite how you feel. Perhaps you decide to complain a little less, and go out of your way to complement someone else. Perhaps you need to identify a couple of key friendships, people with whom you can share the Christian journey. The key is baby steps.
So let us focus on taking those little steps which will draw us closer to God. Let us focus on small things we can do to reach the goal which is nothing short of participating in Christ’s unconditional love.