This Sunday, we hear not about Christ’s miracles and mighty works, but this marvellous passage from the Sermon on the Plain, where the Lord commands us to love our enemies.
To our cynical, carnal minds, Christ’s commandment seems a bit naïve and idealistic—a fine sentiment for dreamers, but in the end simply impractical. How could we get on with our lives if we were constantly giving of ourselves, if we loved others without discrimination or distinction? We might get taken advantage of, or we might get hurt. People would just walk all over us, they wouldn’t have any respect or esteem for us. This command of Christ’s is understandably repugnant to our fallen nature, to our old man, because it spells his doom, it entails his death. We should pay close attention to the Lord’s words. We’ll notice that they are not prefaced with the same words He addressed to the rich young ruler, “If you would be perfect…” Loving our enemies is not merely a nice suggestion for those who want to follow Christ more seriously. To love our enemies is a command enjoined upon every faithful Christian, whether monk or layperson.
In the writings of St. Silouan the Athonite, the importance of love for enemies is a constant refrain. For the saint, this love for enemies is the ultimate criterion of the true faith and of true asceticism. Any thought, any labor, any experience, any idea, any vision or revelation that does not lead us into such love is not of grace. He writes bluntly, “The grace of God is not in the man who does not love his enemies.” What seems preposterous and impractical to the old man, animated by the fallen human spirit, becomes possible through the grace of God acting within us. The love enjoined on us by Christ is a love that transcends the bounds of our fallen nature. It is beyond our capacity to love as Christ loves, and yet that is what we are commanded to do. We cannot rest content with the good of our fallen nature, or with mere earthly love. As the Lord tells us repeatedly in this Gospel, “what thank have ye,” if you love only those who love you, if you show kindness only to those you yourself deem worthy, if you give only to those who will appreciate it and return the favor. This doesn’t require the grace of the Holy Spirit; this doesn’t necessitate the death of the old man; this doesn’t require our pride to be humbled; this doesn’t require a cross and suffering. If we don’t go any farther than earthly love and worldly kindness, then we have not yet begun to live as Christians.
We mustn’t be complacent and we mustn’t be deceived. For it is often the case that the old man means perfectly well when he sets out to accomplish the good appropriate to fallen nature. We were created in the image of the God Who is love—one nature subsisting in three Persons. We, too, are all one nature subsisting in a multitude of persons, and were created for mutual selfless love in the likeness of the Holy Trinity. Our fall didn’t completely destroy the image in which we were made, but it did fundamentally distort it. The divine image, that deepest kernel of our personhood and our personality, was meant to be rooted in the love of God, and through Him, in love for all our fellow men. But after our fall, the fundamental law of our being became self-love instead of divine love. Because of sin, the part of us that was created to love God and our neighbor is now helplessly encrusted with pride, self-love, and vanity. And so our fallen state is deeply tragic, and one that breeds tragedy. Yes, the old man is moved by our nature’s inclination to love and be loved, but blinded and crippled by the fall, disfigured by the ravages of sin, his impulse to love is stunted and defective. It is partial, conditional, self-serving, and self-deceiving. Being rooted in self-love, the love of the old man is entirely predicated on reciprocation. He will not show love if it does not somehow make its way back to him. When it is not returned, his love quickly turns to hate, thus revealing its underlying nature, its essential falsity. Even the old man’s selfless deeds and apparent altruism are motivated by a desire for the respect and esteem of others. Bereft of God’s grace, ignorant of the truth about our own tragic state, we can spend a lifetime blindly groping about, seeking after love, while only managing to torment ourselves and to wound others with our deep-seated selfishness.
These deeply rooted passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory don’t have to manifest themselves egregiously in outward form in order to separate us from God and deprive us of grace. They are pernicious and subtle, and they inform our whole way of thinking about ourselves and others. They often seem quite justified to us. To the world, the good of our fallen nature is normal and praiseworthy. But even when we come to the monastery, it’s possible to live by it almost entirely. We might seem outwardly to be leading a decent spiritual life. For the most part, we keep the fasts, we do our cell rule, we attend the daily services, we confess our sins, we receive Holy Communion once or twice a week. This is all as it should be. But deeper down, we remain complacent, spiritually stagnant. We do all of the proper things, but we’re just going through the motions. We say our prayers half-heartedly and distractedly. We spend most of the time in church thinking about other things. We treat our rule like a checklist to be marked off dutifully so that we can pursue our own personal interests and hobbies. We become engrossed in our obedience, turn it into a career and pour ourselves into it, exhausting ourselves with earthly matters and thinking that we’re just doing our obedience when we’re really just doing our own will. We judge other people for how they do, or don’t do, their obedience. We grumble inwardly, or outwardly, about the food served in trapeza, or the weather, or the brother who said something rude to me. We don’t do anything particularly bad, but then again, we don’t do anything particularly good either. We are just… lukewarm. We fall short of the lofty calling that brought us to the monastery in the first place. And what was it, if not the acquisition of that Christ-like love we are commanded to have in today’s Gospel?
Let us never settle for anything less than that. Love is the very sign that Jesus said would distinguish His disciples. If that is true for all Christians without exception, then it is especially true for us monastics. But of course, Christ-like love that embraces even our enemies can’t just be some lofty, pious sentiment. It only has meaning if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and labor strenuously to acquire it, ready to endure any suffering for its sake. As St. Silouan writes, “The greater the love, the greater the suffering.” Christ-like love only exists in this fallen world as crucified love, and that is precisely why Christ prepares us beforehand to endure wrong at the hands of other people if we too would become sons of the most High (Luke 6:35; cf. Ps. 81:6).
Christ and the holy Martyrs who followed after Him were able to love even those who brutally persecuted and tormented them. But as for us, we have to start by enduring the small insults, irritations, and offenses that we receive from our brethren. We can easily gauge our own pride by how easily we are upset and offended by others. If we hold onto a grudge and nurse our resentments, then we are in an especially lamentable state. Whenever someone upsets us, we should immediately pray for them. That is St. Silouan’s advice: “When anyone offends us, we must pray to God for him as for ourselves; and this will then become a habit,” he says. If they’ve angered us greatly, it is good to ask the Lord to save us for the sake of that person’s holy prayers. This humbles the soul; and we can only be angry with someone if we have first lifted ourselves above them in heart. We ought to remind ourselves that Christ died for that brother. If He loves him enough to shed His precious blood for him, how can we not at least bear his faults with love and patience?
When we’re irritated with someone else, can we remember the golden rule, As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise (Luke 6:31)? Don’t we also have shortcomings? Don’t we also make mistakes and have bad days? Don’t we also have bad habits that are hard for us to break, and that cause persistent problems for those around us? In our moments of weakness and failure, would we not prefer to have sympathy, patience, condescension, and understanding from our brothers, instead of irritation, judgment, anger, and rebuke? Should we not then do the same for them?
We also shouldn’t forget that the grief we endure from others is often brought on us because of our sins—either because we previously wronged that person knowingly or unknowingly; or if we have never wronged that particular brother, then because we have done wrong to someone else at another time, and God is giving us an opportunity to humble ourselves and repent. There is great spiritual profit in considering ourselves deserving of ill-treatment whenever we are slighted or offended, as long we don’t become deflated and despondent. The circumstances and occasions of our conflicts are often so trivial and petty, and yet it is in them that the kingdom of heaven is won or lost. Let us not shrug them off as of no account. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much (Luke 16:10).
What about the Lord’s command to give freely to all? How are we to do this in the monastery, when we have given up all claim to private possessions. We have to give of what we still have, namely our time and energy. We must try tirelessly to serve one another in love, without calculation or reservation. There is a beautiful anecdote in the writings of St. Silouan that illustrates this point clearly:
On June 1st 1932 Father Panteleimon came to see me from Old Russikon. I asked him how he was, and with a glad face he answered,
‘I rejoice greatly.’
‘Why is that?’
‘All the brethren like me.’
‘What is it [that] makes them like you?’
‘I do the bidding of them all, and go whenever anyone sends me anywhere,’ he said.
And I thought to myself, Easy is the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. He has found peace through obedience, which he practices for God’s sake, and therefore it is well with his soul.
The Gospel today has set before us the lofty command of Christ’s love. This is our calling as Christians. This is our calling as monks. Let us strive with longing to lay hold of it. Even in our monastery, whatever its flaws, even among ourselves, weak and poor as we are, it is possible to acquire that love if we are willing. It does not require intense bodily mortification. It simply requires us to be sober, humble, and obedient, and to bear lovingly with our brother’s faults. Even though we are the last and least of monks, woe to us if we cannot attain at least that measure. The perilous state of the world makes our task more urgent than ever. God preserves the world for sake of such love, because there are men of prayer who still strive to love God with their whole heart, who love their neighbor and who pray for the whole world. But as the saints bear witness, when such love and such prayer cease, then the world will perish. Still, even if the world should stand for another thousand years, we know that our own life is terribly short. So let us never forget our primary task—our only real task—as monks: to bring forth fruit meet for repentance, the sweet fruit of Christ-like love that embraces even our enemies, and with them the whole world. Amen.
 Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex. Saint Silouan the Athonite. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. p. 276.
 Ibid. 338.
 Ibid. 380.
 Ibid. 483-4.