by Fr. John Breck
In his reflections “On the Knowledge of God,” Saint Silouan of Mount Athos (+1938) speaks in a very simple and beautiful way of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. His words seem especially significant in this time of Pentecost, when we celebrate and relive the coming of the Spirit in power, to renew us and all of creation.
The Spirit, St. Silouan declares, brought him through torments of doubt to the firm conviction that “Jesus Christ is God.” This Spirit, who bestows the gift of faith, fills every aspect of our life and leads us progressively towards the twin goals of Knowledge of God and Love of Enemies. This is no ordinary knowledge, as he declares; nor is that love the result of human effort, of bending our will and feelings until we no longer react with fear and hostility toward those who threaten us. Knowledge and love, rather, are closely linked gifts of divine grace.
If we can know anything at all of God, and even enter into the most intimate communion with Him, it is only because God grants us this mystical knowledge by His Spirit, who dwells within the temple of the heart. If we can love even our enemy, it is only with the compassion and mercy of God Himself, who infuses our heart with the transforming grace of the Spirit. This is a grace that lifts us above our passions – corrupted feelings of victimization and shame, of anxiety and defensive rage – to enable us, in the power of the Spirit, to embrace with love even those who hate us, who threaten us, and who, on a purely human level, inspire our contempt and loathing.
But just who is this enemy? We live in a time that inspires a certain paranoia, and with it an all-too-easy identification of those who deserve this label. After 9/11, it is tempting to think of the enemy as the incarnation of evil, a person or group that threatens our way of life or even life itself. From Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, we have moved on to Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and jihadists in general. We have become (understandably) so obsessed with “the enemy out there” that we tend to overlook the truth famously uttered by Walt Kelly through his cartoon character Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
One of the greatest and most illuminating gifts of the Spirit is recognition and acceptance of the fact that we are often our own worst enemy. It is that burdensome fact that can lead us to make enemies even of those who are closest to us, people whom we know intimately and love dearly. Passions of jealousy, fear or frustration can easily turn us against a spouse, a child or a parent. Little irritations can transform an insignificant incident into a household drama that creates tension, alienation and rejection. The child doesn’t have to steal or use drugs to bring down our wrath. Coming home after curfew or leaving his room in a mess is often enough to provoke anger and demeaning criticism. A spouse doesn’t have to commit adultery or empty the bank account to attain the status of “enemy.” It’s often enough that she makes fun of us in the company of our friends, or loses the car keys, or criticizes us for some mistake or failure we committed out of carelessness.
The ascetic life is made up of struggles against just these kinds of temptations, which turn loved ones into candidates for our revenge, or siblings in Christ into outright enemies. These inner struggles to overcome enmity are as necessary in monastic life as they are in the home, at the office or on the work site.
Wherever people live, work and play in close proximity to one another, where the opportunity exists to share, to serve and to love another person to our mutual benefit and mutual salvation, there exists, too, the potential to corrupt that relationship. Then affection easily turns to loathing and respect to ridicule. The old song title, “You always hurt the one you love,” has become hackneyed, but it expresses an enduring truth.
Whether the enemy is distant or close – the anonymous face of a suicide-bomber or the destructive kid who lives next door or upstairs – the passions we experience in their regard cannot be overcome by will power or reason. There needs to be a change of heart that only God can accomplish.
“The Lord’s love,” Silouan declares, “is made known in no other wise than through the Holy Spirit.” Through that Spirit we receive knowledge of God and His compassionate mercy, and at the same time we acquire knowledge about ourselves. The Spirit holds up before our eyes a mirror, one that reveals the often unpleasant truth about ourselves. This includes the sad truth of our own failings and our constant temptation to identify the other, rather than ourselves, as the ultimate enemy. Yet that mirror also has the capacity to reveal within us the divine image in which we were created, and into which the Spirit constantly recreates us. And that ongoing work of re-creation, accomplished by the indwelling Holy Spirit, enables us in turn to behold beauty and goodness in the face of others, and particularly of our closest friends and loved ones who have become the objects of our hostility.
This Pentecostal season could be for each of us, as it should be, a time of re-creation and renewal. It could lead to an illumining of the heart and mind that enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, and to love our enemy as he or she truly is, created in the image of God, and called to eternal communion with the Lord of love. St. Silouan, once again, indicates how we might attain this elusive yet precious goal:
“The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.
“If you would know of the Lord’s love for us, hate sin and evil thoughts, and day and night pray fervently. The Lord will then give you His grace, and you will know Him through the Holy Spirit, and after death, when you enter into paradise, there too, you will know the Lord through the Holy Spirit, as you knew Him on earth.”
St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), see especially pp. 353ff.
The Philokalia, vol. IV, ed. by G.E.H. Palmer, Ph. Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 253.; see especially
St. Gregory of Sinai: Further Texts
Fr. John Breck is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. He is author of numerous articles and several books including
God With Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith and
The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics. He taught New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, presently teaches the same subjects at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, France. He also serves as Chair of the OCA Medical-Ethics Commission. With his wife he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, South Carolina, a pastoral ministry to clergy and clergy wives.
Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.