Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Friend or Foe?

Tuesday of the 11th Week of Ordinary Time
Closing Mass @ MAS Retreat 2018

Picture: cc Lauras Eye

My dear brothers, you’ve probably heard about the social media storm that was triggered about a week or so ago by little Prince George, the four-year-old son of William and Kate. Pictures had surfaced of the young prince playing with a toy gun. Photos of him happily pointing the gun at another boy, and at his sister, and even at his mother. Very quickly, people criticised Kate for letting this happen. Others, however, defended her. Saying that there was nothing wrong with it.

I’m not sure how you feel about all this, brothers. But when I first heard about it, I couldn’t help but find it highly ridiculous. So much fuss over a boy playing with a toy gun?! But, on further reflection, I began to see a bit better how those photos could be so offensive to some. Especially given the painful reality of gun violence in the United States and elsewhere. Even so, a part of me still wishes that life could be simpler. That a boy could play with a toy gun without drawing criticism. Pointing it at whomever he wishes, without having to consider who the target might be.

If only life were that simple. If only love was that simple. If only I could love everyone in exactly the same way. Without having to first figure out whether that person was a friend or an enemy. Just point and shoot. Which, I have to confess, is how I tend to understand what Jesus is saying in the gospel today. Love your enemies… for your Father in heaven… causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. Doesn’t this imply that God loves both God’s friends and enemies in the same way? But what does it really mean to be a friend or an enemy of God? And does God really love both exactly the same?

Pondering these questions, I’m reminded of how Father Ignatius begins his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. As you know, he begins (SpEx 314 & 315) not with a description of consolation and desolation–that comes later–but rather by first drawing a sharp but crucial distinction between two kinds of people, moving in opposite directions. One going from good to better, and the other from bad to worse. Isn’t this how a friend of God is distinguished from an enemy? By the direction in which one’s life is moving. And isn’t it striking how Ignatius says that the good spirit acts on each of these kinds of people in opposite ways? Encouraging and consoling the friend. But discouraging and even depressing the enemy. Indeed, don’t we find something similar in the first reading?

As much as we may consider Elijah a friend of God, Ahab is quite clearly God’s enemy. The king himself confirms it, when he says to Elijah, So you have found me out, O my enemy! And it’s quite clear why Ahab considers himself God’s enemy. It’s because, when Elijah meets him at Naboth’s vineyard, the king is moving in a direction contrary to that of God. He is on a path of death and destruction. After having allowed his wife to commit murder on his behalf, the king is in the process of swallowing up the victim’s property. And there’s a reason why he is doing this. Ahab consumes another’s land, because he himself is being consumed by the flames of greed. What is God’s response to all this? How does God love this enemy?

God makes the sun of God’s mercy to shine, and the rain of God’s compassion to fall, upon the wicked king. God sends Elijah to do two things. First to disrupt the king’s chosen destructive path. By uncovering his hidden sin, and the terrible consequences they will have for him and his household. Then to douse, to extinguish, the flames of the king’s idolatry. And to ignite, in their place, the pangs of conscience. To disrupt and to douse. These are the actions that God’s friend is sent to perform for God’s enemy. As a result, the king repents. But he could just as easily have refused to do so. And persecuted Elijah instead. The prophet would then have had to do something more. The same thing that Jesus does for us. Elijah would have to suffer and perhaps even to die… To disrupt, to douse, and to die. This is how God loves God’s enemies through God’s friends. This is how Jesus loves us, when he comes not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:32).

Again, I’m not sure how you feel about all this, my dear brothers. But I must confess that these readings make me rather uncomfortable. Especially coming as they do at the end of our retreat. After 8 days praying together as friends in and of the Lord, why should we be drawn now to ponder how God treats enemies? What possible relevance might these reflections have for us? Perhaps their significance becomes clearer when we ask ourselves the question where? Where are God’s enemies to be found? Isn’t one likely place precisely where we will soon find ourselves returning ad dispersionem? In the world to which we are sent as servants of Christ’s saving mission. The same world that, in so many ways, remains stubbornly set on a course leading to destruction. Consumed by the flames of idolatry of various kinds, especially the worship of money. Like Elijah before us, are we not sent to proclaim a word that somehow disrupts this path? That douses this flame? And that may lead us to have to suffer and, in some way, to die? Doesn’t our ministry of consolation require us not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable?

But that’s not all. If we are truly honest with ourselves, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that God’s enemies are to be found not just ad extra, in our mission, but also ad intra, within our very lives as well? Both in our communal and personal lives. In those places where, like Ahab at Naboth’s vineyard, we may still be set on paths of self-destruction. So that even as we leave this retreat, do we not need to remain watchful for the ways in which God is inviting us to love one another, and to allow ourselves to be loved, not just as friends, but also as enemies? Needing to have our paths disrupted, our flames doused, else we cause suffering and death? 

My dear brothers, much as I wish that love were as simple as an innocent little boy shooting people with a harmless toy, the reality is far more complex. For isn’t it true that, all too often, before one can be loved as a friend, one must first be loved as an enemy? Before I can be loved as a saint, I must first learn to be loved as a sinner.

My brothers, if all this is indeed true, then what must we do–as individuals and communities, as apostolates and as a whole Region–what must we do, you and I, to keep growing, not just in the courage to love as friends in the Lord, but also, when necessary, in the humility to be loved as his enemies as well?

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