By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published April 14, 2011
There is that saying that distance makes the heart grow fonder for loved ones far away. It is also distance that enhances the maintenance of hatred, grudges, false projections and the like.
I recently read a story that actually took place in World War II.
Captured German soldiers, many of them not much older than teenagers, were being forced to march by their Russian guards through Moscow’s Red Square. There were thousands of prisoners, many of them wounded, hobbling on crutches, leaning on each other to keep at bay the cold. All were emaciated. An old woman tapped one of the Russian guards on the shoulder and said “Let me through,” and he stepped aside and she moved forward, took a piece of bread out her pocket, and placed it in the pocket of one of the prisoners. With that, others came forward, giving the prisoners pieces of bread, cigarettes, and tattered bits of clothing. The enemy had become people, walls had come down. Seen up close, the prisoners were seen by the crowd as being very much like themselves—people trapped and decimated in the machinery of war and the hatred fueled by distance.
It is hard to hate someone when really seen up close. For then we see ourselves in them.
Jesus commands us to love our enemies. To pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps he knew that the only way we could learn and experience who we really are as human is by that kind of loving. It is, admittedly, quite a stretch. And it is certainly a light year or two removed from the kind of love that we look for to bring us lasting zones of comfort in this life.
Dom Brendan Freeman from our monastery in Iowa gave us a wonderful retreat during which he mentioned that there are experiences in life that bring our defenses crashing down and that open our hearts, exposing our needs, vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and, above all, our need for each other. Illness is one such ticket to a place of love and openness, a place that we may have avoided for years. But a time comes when something, someone, breaks through the line of defense, like that old woman, and we experience who we are and can be from our depths.
In our more idle days, I think it is true that we traffic in the mysteries of mercy, goodness, love, compassion, love of enemy and the like and somehow assume that these are qualities of life that are in our control to take, if we so choose.
No one of us deserves mercy. No one of us deserves as a right friendship, or love, or compassion. We are just not that good and somehow know, in our more quiet moments, that these come as gifts when they do arrive. Like God putting something good in our pockets.
They come precisely as gifts—not because we deserve them but because God is good. He gives good things to all and seems to reserve the best of these for those who have no hope of finding them on their own.
But they come, they arrive, through us.
Who knows? It is possible that when that young German prisoner reached into his pocket and took out the piece of bread, he may have broken it in two, and shared it with the man next to him. A living grace broke through the crowd and gave him something good, something that is as good as it can be shared. Like the life of God that comes through us in the loving of those who can hurt us.