When The Enemy Is Me
Few years ago, on my way back from Austria, where I had attended the monastic profession of one of my former students from St Anselmo in Rome, I realized that I could easily make a stop over in Salzburg, Mozart’ birthplace, which I had never visited before. As soon as I left the train and reached the city center, however, there suddenly was one of the worst downpours I remember. Hundreds of tourists scrambled for cover in bars and restaurants and I found myself competing for a little spot under the awning of a shop, completely soaked and utterly miserable. At the first brief intermission in the deluge I saw the funicular that takes people from the city center to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, an impressive medieval castle that overlooks the city, and almost without thinking I boarded on it and spent most of that day inside that fortress where, among other things, I found an armoury and a fascinating puppet museum.
Strangely however what caught my attention most was the Reiner-Regimentsmuseum which preserves the memory of the former Salzburg imperial and royal infantry regiment ‘Archduke Rainer’. I have never found military museums particularly inspiring, but in this case there was an exhibition of photos, documents, heirlooms, letters having belonged to soldiers who had fought on the Tyrolian front during the first world war - in which the enemy of these soldiers was the Italian army. In many ways, World War 1 was for Italy the fourth war of independence and led to the territorial shape the country has kept ever since. The unimaginable suffering endured by soldiers in that war and its catastrophic death toll were still very much part of the living memory of old people during my childhood and the history books I had been familiar with at school had always presented Austrians as the enemies. All of the sudden in that museum I found myself on the opposite side: I was part of the nation that had broken ranks from the empire, that was seen as the attacker – I was the enemy. And this not only in the official narrative, but in the every day perception people had of those events which transpired in the often moving letters of soldiers, family and lovers that were part of the exhibition. It was a very unsettling experience that since then comes to my mind whenever I hear Jesus’s mantra, the sentence which more than any other expresses the essence of the Gospel, the litmus test of Christianity, Love your enemies.
Over the years, I have found that the best way of letting oneself to be provoked by this outrageous injunction is by putting oneself in the role not of the forgiver but of the one who needs to be forgiven – a role in which, it goes without saying, I have found myself in more than once – the role of having done something wrong, having hurt someone, having acted unfairly and therefore having become an enemy, that is an irritant and a threat in the life of another person, often a person who cared for me and whom I loved.
All too often, the enemies are those who are closest to us. Nobody can hurt us more deeply than those we love most and are most loved by: our parents, our children, our partner, our closest friends. If we love and because we love, we all risk to become someone’s enemy at any given time.
In fact, there is a secret for never hurting anybody, for never having any enemies – an infallible way of never having to go through the drama of arguments, resentments, anger and all the like, a very simple solution: not to love anybody. If you don’t love anybody you will never hurt anybody, you’ll never risk become somebody’s enemy.
We can dream of creating the conditions to completely prevent enmity in our communities. Having lived for 25 years in a monastery, which is supposed to be the place where everything is organised in such a way that people live in harmony with themselves, with each other and with God, my experience is that an enmity-free environment is a utopia. It is quite revealing that in his Rule for nuns and monks, St Benedict felt the need to make clear that monks should not kill each other, nor smear each other, nor get at each other’s throats (which by the way I have seen happening in one of the communities where I lived not just figuratively but physically).
So the question we might ask ourselves is: have we ever been forgiven and what has this done to us? Have we ever met people who could have made us pay for the wrong we did to them but didn’t, who could have ignored us, been angry at us, vented their frustration by slandering us, but didn’t?
When we know that we have done wrong, we are not in a good place. We might not admit it with the other person and sometimes even with ourselves, but we feel guilty, our self-esteem plummets, and we feel totally helpless, we do not know how to mend the relationship, do not find the words.
This is why being forgiven heals us, changes us: it strengthens the bond with the other person, makes us value the relationship even more deeply than before. We become more humble, more grateful and we are cured from the permanent temptation of being cynical about the possibility of real good happening in our world. If we have ever experienced forgiveness we know its life-giving power first-hand – and this healing in the end is its real reward, this is what helps us to do the same when it is our turn to love our enemy.
The reward of this love is a different kind of community and of world – a different kind of family, of friendship, or parish. Not one in which there never are tensions and enmities – this is not possible. But a kind of friendship, of family, of parish and of church where the inevitable frictions, misunderstandings, arguments, disagreements are never allowed to fester under the surface unchallenged, they are never left alone. Most of the time, these tensions cannot be resolved straight away, they need time – we can ask to be forgiven but need to leave time to people to process the evil we have done to them and let them reach a point where they are ready to overcome their opposition to us.
The crucial thing is that in the meantime we should not stay inert – hence the flurry of verbs of activity that accompanies Jesus’s invitation to love our enemies: do good, bless, pray, give, lend, “if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt” (Lk 6-27-31), which is an invitation to be imaginative in our determination to create the conditions for the reconciliation to happen.
2000 years of Christianity have abundantly proved that Christians struggle just as any other human being on the planet with the never ended task of overcoming divisions and loving those who are different and do not love us in return. This is why Paul says in the 1st letter to the Corinthians that “Love never ends” (13.8). The work of loving and forgiving never ends. Nobody of us will ever see the end of this task, but we can each do our best in the communities where we are called to live and minister - our couples, our families, our churches.
Our divisions are part of what it means to be human. Hurting each other is the unavoidable price of love. The good news is that enmity, whichever form it takes, can become a means to deeper love, a more abundant blessing, a greater justice – this tested and more mature love in the end is the reward, the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, which will be put into our lap” (Lk 6.35ff).