The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies. When you will love your enemies, know that a great divine grace will be living in you. When you love this way, your prayer has born its sweetest fruit. — St. Silouan
I was talking with someone at a retreat I gave a little while ago. He shared a really great insight:
About ten years ago I had a crusty old Jesuit as a spiritual director. He’s now deceased. I loved him because he was merciless on my erroneous zones, and he kept me honest.
Once I was sharing with him some lofty experiences I had had in prayer, and some of the deep insights I had received. He listened in his usual dispassionate way. After I finished he said, “How are you doing with your sister?” My sister and I had a falling out months prior, and he knew she was a thorn in my side and we didn’t ever get along well. Thinking his attention must have wandered as I spoke, I said “Excuse me, Father?” He repeated his question again. I said, “Well, as I told you last time, I’m not ready to re-connect with her yet. Still too raw. But with all due respect, what does that have to do with what I’m sharing with you, Father?” He said, “Well, when you’re ready to forgive her and reach out again for the umpteenth time and face the unpleasantness of love, then I’ll be impressed with your experiences in prayer. Until then, it’s all rind, no meat.
Next time you get filled up by your prayer, be sure to spend it on your sister.”
The man said to me, “What was THAT?” We laughed.
My first spiritual director, a Trappist monk, was of the same mind as that crusty old Jesuit priest. He was a St. John of the Cross devotee, and told me once to
remember that the lofty spiritual poetry and mystical union John describes happened while he was imprisoned in a smelly latrine, with no change of clothing for 6 months and a weekly lashing. The way John saw it, both the beautiful poetry and the mystical union with Jesus were gifts granted to him precisely because his awful predicament afforded him the chance to spend all the good things God gave him on his ungrateful, hateful, envious brethren. Which makes sense of the prison guard’s testimony years later that, as the months progressed, John became more gentle and joyful, bringing a number of his enemies in the Carmelite Order to their knees.
That’s why you can’t properly understand the saints’ spiritual classics apart from the context of their lives. All of those spiritual authors who wrote such lofty thoughts about prayer were, in reality, mired in the mess of human dysfunction. But that’s the point, as it was there, in the crucible, they discovered greatness. Without the unavoidable inconvenient neighbor, Christian mysticism quickly devolves into a Gnostic narcissism. We become spiritual gluttons who, unlike the widow who deposited all her livelihood in the Temple treasury (for others), store up our surplus grain to feed ourselves. The core heresy of Gnosticism is, you might say, being spiritual but not religious by making the claim that salvation consists in my personally delightful, antiseptic, autonomous and enlightening experience of God and not in dirty charity that binds me in solidarity to a real (and so, organized) human community.
St. James (1:27; 2:15-17) shows us the meaning of such a spiritual-religion:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress … If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
After my time of prayer I feel peace, so I give peace; I receive forgiveness, so I give forgiveness; I am loved, so I love; I have been nourished, so I nourish; I experience enlightenment, so I illumine; I feel encouraged, so I encourage; I hear His call, so I go.
Let me allow nature to have the final word on this iron law of the gift (which even includes taking crap from others!):