The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

At the end of the month, on the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, we will hear a series of Jesus’ most exacting teachings: love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; lend expecting nothing back; be merciful just as your Father is merciful. In a word, start acting like God.

If that seems like a lot, it’s because it is. Can we reasonably be expected to do all of this?

A word of clarification

“Obviously you are not expected to experience the same feelings in your heart toward a friend and toward someone who wishes you evil” (Father Jean d’Elbée). Truth be told, many difficulties arise in our spiritual life from confusing willing with feeling, or mixing up forgiving and forgetting. Jesus presumes, in fact, we recognize that an actual offense has been committed—an actual hate, curse, strike, or taking has occurred. He does not say: “Pretend that nothing happened; feel the same way about everyone; painful things should not actually pain you.”

We all know from experience that feeling and forgetting are not simple acts of the will. This is an obvious truth when it comes to our physical life. We could never say: “I choose not to feel the pain of the rocks that are being thrown at me,” or, “I’ll just forget that I broke my arm yesterday.” Why would we expect it to be different in our spiritual life?

An inhuman standard

If the expectation were that we would have to conjure up God-like qualities from our own natural, limited human capacities, it would be a hopeless task indeed. But Jesus is too good, wise, and loving to look at us—and speak to us—as unredeemable and unperfectable. He simply refuses to admit defeat before our brokenness, our grief, or our vindictiveness, reducing his teaching to a few casual platitudes. More importantly, our Lord is also not a coach who only shouts from the sidelines: “Run faster! Play harder! Be Godly!

In fact, every word Jesus utters is a gracious, freeing, gentle, loving initiative to reshape us in his own image. When he issues a teaching that seems too much for us to handle, conveying what sounds like an impossible standard, Jesus intends to give us a new capacity, expand our expectations, and make us more God-like. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one (1 Cor 15:49). Saint Augustine famously explains that when God says, “I command,” we respond, “Give me what you command.” The Catechism clarifies: “It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (CCC 2842; cf. Gal 5:25; Phil 2:1, 5).

Be merciful as your Father is merciful? An inhuman standard, indeed—a divine standard. But also a divine justification. You are able to be merciful because your Father is merciful.

What this means in practice

In those moments when an actual offense may cause initial reactions of resentment or anger, even when the very sound of someone’s voice may cause us to bristle, we can make a simple and sincere act of the will: “Lord Jesus, I surrender this situation again to you. I do not want these feelings of anger and bitterness. I trust that you have permitted this difficulty in your wisdom; I acknowledge my powerlessness to control or fix this situation. So I turn to you, confident that beneath all my hurt and pain and emotional resentment you are here loving me and loving through me. I unite myself and my own troubled heart to your perfect heart.” When we do this, we refuse to let negative thoughts and feelings be victorious over us, even if we lack complete control over their comings and goings.

The Catechism has a stunning way of putting this: “It is there, in fact, ‘in the depths of the heart,’ that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession” (CCC 2843).

Transforming hurt into intercession—is that not one of the most beautiful and consoling truths of our faith? The actual content of our own grieving heart, the actual experience of our life, becomes our offering to God; by an ingenuity only possible to God, our very wounds become a means of reparation.