John Climacus is shown at the top of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, with other monks following him, 12th century icon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt). Taken from wikimedia.org
Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ one-line summary of his entire ethical teaching, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This saying concludes and sums up his extended commentary on the meaning of the stark command, “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-35), and is the equivalent of Matthew’s, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It’s indisputable in St. Luke’s Gospel that perfection for Jesus means one thing: being merciful. And that mercy, in its most perfect form, means loving one’s enemy.
And who is the enemy? Anyone who intends my harm, delights in my misfortune, schemes for my failure or does what is hateful toward me (or toward those I love). The Greek word exthrós used in “love your enemies” refers specifically to an enemy who is openly hostile, animated by deep-seated hatred, and implies an irreconcilable hostility rooted in a personal hatred bent on inflicting grave harm. For Jesus, love reveals my enemy as the neighbor most in need of my mercy.
Climbing to God
Below I will share a quote on mercy that knocked my socks off when I first happened on it years ago. I’ve quoted it here before, but it bears re-quoting. It’s from 7th century Egyptian monk, St. John Climacus, whose Ladder of Divine Ascent is revered as the epitome of spiritual wisdom in the Eastern Church. On the 9th rung of the 30-rung ladder to Paradise, St. John describes the demand to forgive wrongs by ceasing to harbor any “remembrance of those wrongs.” Remembrance of wrongs, for St. John, does not mean the obliteration of memories, a kind of spiritual amnesia. Rather, it refers to nursing one’s anger, harboring a grudge, clinging to the pain or hate conjured by the injury inflicted. It also implies the full meaning of “love your enemies,” i.e. to will, and eventually desire from the depths of the heart, the temporal and eternal well-being of the one who has harmed you or those you love.
St. John counsels elsewhere that the best remedy for the remembrance of wrongs is to pierce it with “arrow prayers.” In the desert spiritual tradition, this refers to short Scriptural passages (often a line from the psalms) offered to God in ceaseless repetition. One of these arrow prayers that originated in the deserts of Egypt eventually made its way into the Church’s liturgy of the hours:
O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me. — Psalm 69:2
In the selection below, St. John refers to the Jesus prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — which, in the Eastern Church, came to be the “prayer of prayers” among all the arrow prayers. I can personally attest to its astounding power to open the heart to grace. If you are interested, read this spiritual classic.
As a reflection on today’s Gospel injunction to exercise mercy by forgiving, let me share two quotes.
First, I will allow St. John to shine Gospel light into our shadows:
Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an un-sleeping wrong, rancor by the hour.
Let the Jesus prayer put it to shame, that prayer which cannot be uttered in the company of malice.
If after great effort you still fail to root out this thorn, go to your enemy and apologize, if only with empty words whose insincerity may shame you. Then as conscience, like a fire, comes to give you pain, you may find that a sincere love of your enemy may come to life.
A true sign of having completely mastered this putrefaction will come not when you pray for the man who offended you, not when you give him presents, not when you invite him to share a meal with you, but only when, on hearing of some catastrophe that has afflicted him in body or soul, you suffer and you lament for him as if for yourself.
Some labor and struggle hard to earn forgiveness, but better than these is the one who forgets the wrongs done to him. Forgive quickly and you will be abundantly forgiven. To forget wrongs is to prove oneself truly repentant, but to brood on them and at the same time to imagine one is practicing repentance is to act like the man who is convinced he is running when in fact he is fast asleep.
Second, let me share with you with a powerful sign that the teaching of this Egyptian monk lives on. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, about ISIS’ beheading of the 21 Coptic Orthodox men:
Q: Not long after the video released, you tweeted about the killings, using the hashtag #FatherForgive. Did you mean that you forgive ISIS?
A: Yes. It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.