Love of enemies
For St. Silouan, this true compassionate, Christlike love for all mankind leads the believer to grieve for the salvation of every human person, just as he were grieving for his own salvation. St. Silouan’s fervent desire for the salvation of every human person can be summed up further in his words: “Love cannot suffer a single soul to perish.” Basically, what he’s saying here is that true love cannot bear to see any human being suffering in hell. Therefore, when he says, “Our brother is our life,” St. Silouan is actually implying that all mankind—indeed, every human person—is truly our neighbor, our brother, and our life. He stresses that it’s the Holy Spirit who teaches true Christlike love and compassion.
Such love and compassion lead ultimately to Christlike sorrow for those who are not being saved. St. Maximus offers an additional point. He states repeatedly that not only is the true disciple called to love everyone—that’s hard enough in itself, isn’t it?—he adds: you have to love each and every person equally. That’s how you become like God, in imitation of the perfect love of Christ for all mankind. Can you do it?
There’s one other aspect of St. Silouan’s teaching on love and how it leads to theosis [that] we have to talk about. Here’s where we come into play. This is relevant and practical and most applicable for all of us here, and this is the special emphasis that they place on love for enemies. We didn’t talk about love for enemies yet. This theme is fundamental to his entire teaching. Elder Sophrony refers to love for enemies as the cornerstone of our whole teaching. It’s the ultimate synthesis of all our theology: love for enemies. I wonder what he’s going to get at here.
To begin with, the commandment of Christ to “love thy enemy” is not found in any other religion of the world. It’s uniquely Christian. As compared to the commandments of the Old Testament, the commandments of Christ appear revolutionary. It’s opposite to the prescription of the Mosaic law. The Lord himself proclaims:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I tell you not to resist an evil person, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you: “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Love for enemies thus characterizes the true disciples of Christ. Before discussing this aspect of St. Silouan’s teaching, we first have to ask ourselves, I think: Who is this enemy, anyway? Who is the enemy whom Christ commands us to love? Is that ISIS? Al-Qaeda? Is one supposed to understand the word “enemy” in a common, everyday sense of the term, as an outright antagonist or a rival? Or is it perhaps a deeper, more spiritual understanding of this word, “enemy”? The Lord himself refers to an enemy as anyone who strikes us, anyone who sues us, anyone who forces us against our will or persecutes us. In many cases, however, an enemy is not necessarily the customary adversary or antagonist; rather, an enemy is he who is the source of a particular spiritual trial or a temptation.
Let’s repeat that: an enemy is he who is the source of a particular spiritual trial or a temptation. An enemy thus can strike us and persecute us not only physically but also, and perhaps more often than not, he wounds with words. This could be both intentional as well as unintentional. An enemy, in this specific context, is therefore not your typical adversary, antagonist, or outright rival. In this particular sense, an enemy is he, whether he’s aware of it or not, who may be the source of a spiritual trial, a temptation, or a tribulation which afflicts us and which causes us grief or sorrow.
Many times, it is he with whom one has a close and personal relationship who is often perceived as this kind of a spiritual “enemy,” and this is indeed the person whom the Lord is calling us to love. This person, whether intentionally or not, who makes us suffer and who makes us feel scorned or despised, who might hurt our feelings to the point where we become angry and hateful, he who makes us feel sorrowful or grieved—this is the enemy who is to be loved. This would include members of our own families, our relatives, our friends, fellow members of our parish community, as well as those with whom one is sacramentally linked or has spiritual bonds, even clergy and their families, colleagues, co-workers, fellow students. It seems as if the most difficult, the most fierce and humbling of the inner conflicts of spiritual warfare stem from one’s personal relationships with the people with whom one is closest. It’s easier loving and praying for the guy off in Afghanistan, but how about in my own family?
St. Silouan refers to this broader, more spiritual definition of “enemy.” He includes as an enemy anyone who offends you, anyone with whom one is angry, anyone you condemn or detest, as well as anyone with whom you’re not reconciled, and also with whom you find fault or look upon with an unkind eye, he says. For St. Silouan, in this particular spiritual sense, our enemy is anyone with whom we are angry, anyone we despise or detest, anyone we find fault with, anyone with whom we are not reconciled.
With this importance attached to this theme of love for enemies, we have to naturally ask the next question, then. Now the enemy has been identified; now what do we do? What does he mean by the word “love”? What is this love for enemies, anyway? How are you supposed to love an enemy? The word “love” is so freely and frequently used, it may take on a variety of diverse meanings. For St. Silouan and for the Fathers in general, love is not simply a sentimental emotion; that’s not what love is. Nor can love be reduced to mere tolerance of another person. You think that’s what love is? You’re going to just tolerate this guy? Neither is love for enemies a show of non-violence; that’s not the love we’re called to. It’s not a returning evil for evil, nor is love just an attitude of neutrality; that’s not good enough. Love is not the mere absence of hatred.
True love is an effort to do goodto someone who hates you. Often, in the effort to do good to an enemy, we may assume that we have to go to great lengths in order to show our love and to prove our love. However, it’s not the outward showing or proving of love that matters most. Love is proven to be true when it instills inner peace within the heart of an enemy. This is the genuine mark of love: when out of sheer compassion, one tries to instill peace and calm into the heart of another human person, especially one of our so-called enemies. This is not accomplished through gifts and through pomp and through ceremony and making a show out of it. According to St. Maximus, it’s accomplished through simple words, through a humble attitude, through a gentle demeanor toward one of our enemies. That’s how you show love. St. Silouan refers to love for enemies as “the compassion of a loving heart.”
However, love must not be confined to the emotion of compassion. Love is not an emotion. Love is action. The Lord himself urges the believer into action. He teaches:
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you.
The Lord here presents love as action, as doing good, as blessing, as praying, as offering, as giving. Clearly, Christ commands the believer to respond to and to react to an enemy with good and positive acts. Love for enemies is not simply a show of neutrality. It entails a positive reaction. It entails an active response.
Paradoxically, it might also be said that it’s not so much what one does that reveals your love. Sometimes it’s what one does not do or what one does not say that truly shows genuine concern for the inner peace of one of our so-called enemies. The truth and the integrity behind the believer’s actions is manifested by his not returning evil for evil, such as not returning angry words or a haughty attitude or a disturbing look or aggressive remarks. When the believer, out of concern for the inner peace of an enemy, does not react with scorn and hatred, and when he does not attempt revenge, then he’s on his way to truly loving as the Lord commands us to do.
The Church Fathers also offer other practical methods and techniques that can be used in trying to actively love an enemy. For example, St. Maximus recommends that the believer try to never speak ill of an enemy to anyone. Elsewhere, he advises to “dwell on the good things of the past,” and that way it’s more easy to cast out the hatred of the present day. St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches we should always think positively. He says, “Remain calm. Try to stay in control of one’s anger in your attempt to love an enemy.”
Another important element in loving one’s enemy is the ability to forgive him. This is especially significant for St. Silouan. He writes:
If you forgive your brother the affronts he puts upon you, and love your enemies, then you will receive forgiveness for your sins, and the Lord will give you to know the love of the Holy Spirit.
To forgive an enemy. True love occurs when you not only forgive, but also when you forget and no longer remember or dwell on those past offenses. It’s not enough, therefore, to just forgive someone for his sins against you; you have to also forget them, just as our Lord not only forgives us but forgets our sins. St. John Chrysostom says, “There is nothing more grievous than the remembrance of injuries.” To be willing to forget completely, and even to actually cover up what one may have suffered in the past, this is a mark of true Christlike love. Do you see how difficult it is? Do you see why there’s only a few saints among so many of us?
However, for St. Silouan, love for enemies is identified above all else as prayer. Prayer is the ultimate expression of true love. To love your enemy is to pray for him, and more exactly it’s to pray for his salvation in Christ. In this light, St. Silouan offers his own definition of true love, and he writes:
The soul sorrows for her enemies and prays for them, for they have strayed from the truth. That is love for our enemies.
The Lord is love. He gave the Holy Spirit on earth, who teaches the soul to love her enemies and pray for them, that they too may find salvation. That is true love.
St. Silouan states clearly: Love for enemies is prayer for their personal salvation in Christ. St. Isaac the Syrian, he’s more specific about praying for one’s enemies. He refers to it as “praying for their protection.” Can you do that? Pray for the protection of your enemy, and that he may receive mercy from God?
The love for enemies commanded by Christ cannot be reduced to simple passiveness or non-violence. It’s an active response of true and compassionate prayer for their ultimate salvation. However, it has to be pointed out that for St. Silouan, such love does not depend on human endeavor alone. He stresses that if one does indeed love his enemies, it’s due directly to the grace of the Holy Spirit. It’s beyond us. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit to love our enemies in this way. He writes:
The Lord taught me to love my enemies. Without the grace of God, we cannotlove our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love.
From this perspective, we see that the commandment of Christ to “love thy enemy” reveals the way towards man’s perfection and sanctification. When we come to truly love our enemies, we then participate truly in the life in Christ. St. Silouan regarded the presence of love for enemies as a sign of real action of grace. He who loves his enemies is likened unto the Lord.
It’s interesting to note that Elder Sophrony directly identified love for enemies with uncreated, divine light. He clearly considered love for enemies as the manifestation of grace, and he wrote:
The bearer of such love is the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, the brother and friend of Christ. He is a son of God and a god through grace.
There’s our path to theosis. We could say that to the degree that we participate in this grace of divine love for enemies to the same degree, we thereby participate in the love and in the divine life of God. In this light, the Lord’s own words spoken to his apostles can be taken quite literally.
But I say to you: love your enemies, pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
The more we imitate Christ by loving our enemies, the more we truly know Christ and participate in his divine life. We not only believe in Christ and in the sanctification of our human nature, but we come to live the life in Christ, through Christlike love. Among the spiritual fruits obtained through love for enemies, St. Silouan includes the gift of true inner peace. “If we love our enemies, peace will dwell in us day and night,” he says. He teaches that even though we may pray and fast, if we fail to love our enemies, we will never have peace within our soul. According to St. Silouan, “he who carries the peace of the Holy Spirit within him will automatically spread peace to those around him.” Furthermore, he teaches that he who gives peace to others will also be given peace, and indeed much more than he originally gave.
In a world clamoring and protesting for peace, amid all the violence and the hatred that seem to saturate our society, this particular message of peace is especially relevant today. There will be no peace in the world, neither in society nor within the family if man does not first acquire the peace of our Lord within his own soul. This peace has to begin first inwardly, within our own soul, and only then can it flow outwardly, toward our fellow man, and thereby affecting the communities in which we live, and by extension our society as a whole. Herein is the relevance of St. Silouan’s teaching on love for enemies.
Our so-called enemies, therefore, must be seen in a spiritual and in a more positive light. Our enemy is in reality a unique opportunity for us to attain, by the grace of God, to our salvation, to our sanctification, to our theosis. In reality, our enemy is our way toward participation in divine love. Love for our enemies opens the way to our communion with God, and indeed with all mankind. An enemy is an opportunity to be cherished, not an opponent to be scorned. The more we participate in the philanthropic love of Christ for all mankind, the more we will come to appreciate the unique worth that Christ places on each and every human person. This includes our enemies. This is the ultimate manifestation of the life in Christ. This is what it means to be alive in Christ. It’s to acquire the same consciousness of Christ, the same compassion as Christ, and the same desire that Christ has for the salvation of each and every human person, including our enemies.
To conclude, through his participation in divine love, St. Silouan experienced directly its deifying effects. He experienced the most personal way the inherent unity of all mankind. Seeing his brother as his own life, St. Silouan prayed for the salvation of others even more than he prayed for himself. This is where his love and this is where his life in Christ ultimately led him. He became Christlike. He participated personally in Christlike love, in Christlike compassion, in Christlike prayer for the salvation of all mankind.
If we, too, can learn to love our enemies, we, too, can become like St. Silouan. Through love, we, too, can become like Christ, but such a high and exalted degree of love is rarely found today. Many people talk about love. Many people are looking for love, yet few see the significance of the spiritual perspective of this divine mystery of love. Although many different philosophies and religions, as well as all the countless poets and playwrights throughout history, all offer their own perspectives on this mysterious nature of love, none share the truth of our Orthodox Church. I’ll end with the words of St. Maximus the Confessor. He writes:
Many people have said much about love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the Teacher of love. Therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since God is love.