Shortly before this Lent started, I intercepted an unexpected phone call. One of the long-time volunteers at the St. Francis Center on St. Helena Island was immersed in one of her projects — grant-writing, creating a report or flyer or some such. Her husband (whom she might charge with having too much time on his hands) called her and wanted to speak to “one of the nuns.” He said he had a spiritual question.
I was the lucky one who had just walked by. “She writes a column for the Catholic paper,” someone said. “She should know what to tell him.”
The man’s question was a stickler. It has been for millennia. He commented that one of the Sunday Gospels read before Lent kept bothering him. He had heard it all his life, but this time it really hit him: “Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you?” he asked. “How do I do that? I have enough trouble loving my neighbor.”
His vexation was sincere. We didn’t really come to any resolution that satisfied him, and, at his wife’s instigation, he hung up.
But his question about the Lord’s demand for the most radical, difficult kind of love is one that bothers me, too. True, I have sometimes had to swallow hurts and be kind and respectful to people who were never going to reciprocate. Some were students, some were colleagues, some were family members. None of them rose to the level of violent aggression or damage to life and limb, but they have stretched my ability to love. There was one occasion that has been instructive for me, though, since it has proved to be so memorable. It has given me a small window into enemy-love, though the culprit was simply an unruly student.
It may have been my 15th year of teaching when I met a young man assigned, thanks to computer-generated schedules, to the 11th grade English and religion classes I was teaching — and gave me the pleasure of his company in back-to-back classes that met just before the last lunch in the school day. This ingenious scheduling was the perfect set-up for a hyperactive, none-too-motivated, and definitely food-loving teenage boy. Inevitably, he acted up and acted out regularly.
A particularly egregious episode happened in class one day, and I insulted him up, down, and sideways. That night I went to the convent chapel and prayed something like this: “Dear God, I know you love Dave. Please give me a clue why.” Seriously.
The next day I apologized to him and to the class, observing that what Dave had been doing was disruptive and offensive but that my reaction was also uncalled for and out of line.
Dave started hanging out in my homeroom. I became his confidant. He didn’t manage to get his act together in many of his classes, but he repeatedly told people that the music director and I were the only ones in this 1,200-student high school who seemed to understand him.
I didn’t entirely understand him, but we came to like and respect one another.
The incident made me realize that praying about and praying for those who cause us grief can sometimes shift the balance in a relationship. It may not convert a domestic abuser, serial killer, or terrorist, but it will never hurt if we speak to God about persons who test our capacity for love, ask God to gentle their hearts and also remind us that somewhere inside there is a broken child who is beloved — even unreasonably so — by God.