Praying for our enemies

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to pray for those who persecute us, and to love our enemies.

Yeah.

I’m not always good at that part, either.

But I want to be. And I know it isn’t impossible to do it, because others have done it.

For example, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich was a Serbian bishop in the last century who spoke out against Nazism until he was arrested and taken to Dachau.

I know, right?

And that guy? He wrote this prayer.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

From Prayers By the Lake, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich.

Praying at Three in the Morning

Converging on the Milky Way

In the summer of 2010, I was weary.

I had been carrying big things for far too long without any ability to put them down, and I needed a break. So I went, like many have before me, to a monastery.

I went to Mepkin Abby in South Carolina, on the banks of the Cooper River. There, on a former plantation amidst the live oak trees covered in Spanish moss they gave me a modest room, three meals a day and, as they have for countless others before me, sanctuary. For five days I ate with them, prayed with them and kept silence with them.

You would wake up at three in the morning and get dressed quietly. My room was in a cabin some hundred yards from the church, so I would grab my flashlight and walk the long path in the darkness, seeing the bobbing lights of other retreatants coming from their cabins as well. We would enter the dimly lit church – an anachronistic modernist structure, looking out of place on these former antebellum plantation grounds – and slide into the choir on the polished wooden bench, next to monks who had made this act their life’s vocation.

And then we would pray.

Seven times a day, we would do this thing, where we entered silently into a holy place and pray, chanting the ancient words written by people long since dead, speaking to a pain and a longing we all still know.

I have been told that the French word for pray is prière, which means to ask, and after a lifetime of doing it – ten years as a professional Christian – I still don’t have a better explanation of what prayer is. It makes no faith demands, it requires no allegiances, and it is irrespective of belief. It is just asking.

A recurring line in the monk’s prayers comes from the old Douay Rheims translation of Psalm 70:1:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.

That line has become my favorite prayer.

* * *

Sometimes I have trouble staying asleep at night. As I have said elsewhere, it is in the early morning – about three in the morning, actually – that I wake up and the mad rush of thoughts comes, a near unstoppable flood that overwhelms me. The old demons come back, the fears, the anxieties. They are instantly recognizable – like a person you once knew, but didn’t like.

I lay in bed, the quiet breathing of my wife next to me, the glow of the streetlight coming through the window blinds, the shadows caused by the headlights of passing cars rolling across the ceiling. I tell myself that this time it will be different, that this time I will be able to drift off to sleep again, that this time I won’t stare at the ceiling until dawn, that this time I won’t be exhausted all day, that this time my anxieties and my fears will not win.

It is then that I beg for help, and I pray the simple prayer of the monks, and thousands of years before them, of David. The prayer belongs to many people. It isn’t just mine, and that is important. I am crying out in symphony with millions before me, and collectively, at three in the morning, our voices ask:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.