Jesus just said to do it. Pray for your enemies.
Sometimes we unnecessarily complicate this simple command. We may pray ineffectively, blocked by our own pride and the subtle forms of self deception and judgment that keep us from being open to the grace of God just when we (and our enemy) need it the most and God wants to give it.
We can pray angry of course. That’s fine. The Psalms and the Prophets are full of good examples of Biblical freaking out at God. I can testify to its being a healing experience myself.
Pride, however, tends to distance us from God. “God resists the proud.” (James 4:6.) He is a push-over for humility and a contrite heart, however. “A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn…For you love truth in the heart. Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.” (Psalm 51)
Remember those two men praying in the Temple and which one went home justified? (Luke 18:9-14.) The one who had the impulse to pray humbly and ask for mercy is the one God blessed. Pride seems to impede prayer. Perhaps humility opens the way for prayer as it grounds us in truth and right relationship between us, others and God. St. Therese even said God can’t resist a humble heart. Scripture says the same thing. Again, James 4:6. “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Asking for mercy, though, seems to turn Jesus to mush. St. Faustina would agree.“I have opened My Heart as a living fountain of mercy. Let all souls draw life from it. Let them approach this sea of mercy with great trust. Diary (1520). “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” the “Jesus Prayer,” would seem a good prayer to clear the way for praying for our enemies, opening our hearts to how the Lord of Love wants us to carry that out.
The Gospels show us Jesus responded to the cry for mercy every single time He encountered it. So we can count on that.
The virtue of “self forgetfulness” can re-direct us to God. Praying for my enemies can’t be about myself. I am not praying for my enemies so I can come out of the spiritual beauty shop feeling good about myself in my new “obedience do.” This obedience, ideally, is not to show anybody else, even myself. It is to do and let go of.
Prayer for enemies is not exactly about the enemy either. Who are we to say what he needs? Only God knows the heart. Chances are, if this is an enemy, we really don’t.
Praying for my enemies should not be done in such a way that I feel superior to them. This is another self deception we can fall into: “Lord, please help this sick, hurting person who must be mad at me or disagree with me because she is flawed in some way or had a bad childhood.” Nope. That is often an attempt to place myself above that person or invalidate her, to judge her in the guise of pity. How do I know I’m not more messed up than she is? I don’t. And I won’t unless I stay open to God. I can’t be open to His transforming grace as long as I try to feel superior.
I have to forget about wanting to be right as well. “Forget about that,” I tell myself. “Right is for God. It doesn’t even belong to me.” This is a hard one. But really it’s just a matter of focus. I have to stop looking at myself and my enemy and focus on God alone. Then I can let Him be right and not worry about me. The thing that feels the most on target to me in light of the Gospel, is to take the lowest place, praying from the truth that I cannot see as God sees. I have to know that I don’t know.
We can tell we are praying rightly when we sense that solid peace that comes from God. We can feel this peace even if we are still really upset. We can let Him guide our prayer.
Something that often gives me peace is offering with Jesus all the suffering my enemy has caused me that he might be given whatever God wants to give him.
When we pray we must also let go. God is not going to wrest our problem from us. He waits for us, patient Father that He is, to hand the situation over and for us to get out of His way so He can work it out the way He wants to. With all love He will do this as soon as we allow Him to.
One of the best prayers I ever heard was“God, work Your will through me and work Your will through (name), and let our relationship be what You want it to be.” This is centered in God, simply seeking His will.
In order to empty myself so that God can fill me with His loving will, I try to practice certain mental rules:
• No imaginary conversations with my enemy allowed. At all. If I catch my mind doing that I give it something else to do like a walk with the rosary.
• No brooding. My mind will want to go over and over what happened, what was said, etc. This is what minds want to do when they are upset. I try to have an inner buzzer about that too. “Nope, stop thinking about that. Do the dishes and say the Divine Praises.” Repeating the Holy Name of Jesus works great, too, anytime a negative thought comes up.
*No diagnosing what mental illnesses my enemy might have. God already knows all that there is to know about my enemy.
• Renounce negative thoughts about my enemy in the Name of Christ. When bad thoughts come up and I catch myself I say exactly that. It’s simple. It’s just that I have to do it over and over. It tends to work after a while though. “I renounce that thought in the Name of Christ.” I learned this from a very dear priest after he heard my confession. It works.
I asked my favorite Buddhist, my friend Leslie, if Buddhism has a teaching like praying for one’s enemies. She said the closest thing was probably practicing detachment from anger. Buddha said, “The problem is not with the other person; the problem is with your mind.”I like that. What do we do with it? For us as Christians recognizing the helpful truth of that statement can be a prelude to prayer which is ultimately about God. When we detach from our anger we can align ourselves with God Who is Love and Who asks us to pray for those who harm us. We let go of the brooding, analyzing and judgment that is part of our natural reaction to an injury. Then we can pray in the Spirit and the Holy Spirit can pray within us without any resistance from us.
St. John of the Cross, said, “In the evening of your life you will be judged on love. So love- the way God wants to be loved, and leave off your own way of acting.“ It seems to me that praying for our enemies is about the love of God. We do it because that is what our Beloved asks and that is also what He Himself did, even in His darkest hour.
This is a suggested intercessory prayer from the great Russian Orthodox spiritual classic The way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (the sequel to The Way of a Pilgrim)
“… it is well to bring a mental image of him into the presence of God, and to offer prayer in the following form: ’Most merciful God, Thy will be done, which will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Save and help Thy servant, (name.) Take this desire of mine as a cry of love which Thou hast commanded.”
Repeat as necessary. (It helps restore sanity too, as a bonus.) It is even suggested that one repeat this prayer using the prayer rope. Catholics are more likely to have a rosary on hand to try that with and that works fine. The anonymous author says he has found this prayer “to act powerfully on the one for whom it is prayed.” So maybe we should give our enemies a copy and ask them to pray for us too!