Praying for Enemies

by Jim Forest

“But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[1] In a single sentence Jesus links love of enemies with prayer for them. In fact prayer is the essential first step without which love of enemies would be hardly possible.

If we have any interest in attempting to love our enemies, a necessary starting point is to admit we have enemies and, insofar as we can, to be able to identify them by name. Once I have admitted to myself that I have enemies, I have a starting point. Until then, the Gospel commandment to love one’s enemies and pray for them is a dead letter.

Situations of enmity exist in everyone’s daily life: at home, at work, at school, between neighbors. If you have teenage kids, surely you’ve experienced them looking at you with eyes that explode with hatred, an animosity that could well be mirrored in your own eyes. Pick up a newspaper — page after page contains vivid reminders of how much enmity and violence surrounds us. In the same pages we see what the cost is in suffering, despair and death. You find conflict even in monasteries. I once watched two young Benedictine novices silently battle with each other by arranging and rearranging the salt-and-pepper shakers that stood on the refectory table between them. Those small containers became warring chess pieces.

We don’t need to travel far to find adversarial relationships, yet most of us are reluctant to use the word “enemy” in describing people who are part of our daily lives.

I have an exercise for you. You’ll need a piece of paper and something to write with.

Stop for a few minutes and think about people you know who make you feel anger or fear, persons you dislike and whose company you avoid, individuals in your family, neighborhood, workplace or church whom it distresses you to see, individuals who have hurt you or hurt those in your care. Think of politicians whose words and policies outrage you. Think of people you would prefer not to pray for. People you find outrageous.

Also think about groups or categories of people you think of by national, racial, political or religious label. Think of people who are the current or potential targets of weapons and armies that in some way you support, passively or actively, willingly or unwillingly, through your work, political alignments, payment of taxes or other activities.

As names occur to you, pause to write them down. Do so even if you think the word “enemy” is too strong. In instances in which you haven’t got a name, use a label.

Okay, now you have a first-draft of a prayer list. Try to refer to it on a daily basis.

Look again at what you have written down. Think about each name or label.

In each case, picture an individual face or, in the case of labels, an appropriate image. Give yourself at least a minute for each name or label.

Insofar as you are able, consider in each case how the enmity began. Consider incidents or reasons that explain or justify your feelings. Consider ways in which the enmity involved has shaped, limited, damaged or endangered your life or the lives of people dear to you.

Next step. Try and take the point of view of those you have listed. Are they actually your enemies? Or might it be truer to say you’re their enemy? Or is it half-and-half? In either case, what have you done or failed to do that might explain or justify their hostility?

Now a potentially embarrassing question: You’re a Christian. Christ has told you to pray for your enemies. When have you prayed for any of the people on your list? Regularly? Occasionally? Rarely? Never?

Have you searched for points of common ground and possible agreement? Have you allowed yourself to be aware of qualities that are admirable in those you have listed or have you preferred to see only what, from your perspective, is flawed in them?

Consider what might happen to you, to others, if this enmity continues: separation, divorce, court battles, children caught in the crossfire, shattered friendships, division in your parish, division among co-workers, misery in the work place, loss of employment…

In the case of differences between nations, think of ways in which you participate in enmities that, if they worsen, could explode into war. In a world in which there are thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, consider what war might mean in the worst case. Are you doing anything that might make war less likely or helping bring to an end a war in progress?

Prayer that doesn’t influence your own actions means little. Why should God pay attention to a prayer that has little or no influence on your own behavior? What steps have you taken to change relationships with those on your list? Have you talked to others who might help or intervene in a constructive way? Can you imagine what you could do that might help bring to an end any of the enmities you have listed. What can you do that might help convert enmity to friendship?

The Church, in recognizing saints, places before us many models of sanctity — people who, in a wide variety of ways, also had to deal with enemies. By taking time to study the lives of particular saints, we are likely to find helpful models.

Here’s an example. One of the masters of the spiritual life in the past century was Saint Silouan the Athonite, an uneducated Russian peasant who was born in 1866 and died in 1938. In his youth he was an immensely strong man who had a volcanic temper. During a feast day celebrating the patron saint of his village, he was playing a concertina when two brothers, both cobblers, began to tease him. The older of the brothers tried to snatch the concertina from Silouan and a fight broke out between them.

“At first I thought of giving in to the fellow,” Silouan told another monk later in his life, “but then I was ashamed at how the girls would laugh at me, so I gave him a great hard blow in the chest. His body shot away and he fell backwards with a heavy thud in the middle of the road. Froth and blood trickled from his mouth. All the onlookers were horrified. So was I. ‘I’ve killed him,’ I thought, and stood rooted to the spot. For a long time the cobbler lay where he was. It was over half an hour before he could rise to his feet. With difficulty they got him home, where he was bad for a couple of months, but he didn’t die.”[2]

For the rest of his life Silouan felt that there was only the slightest difference between himself and a murderer. He had yielded to a murderous impulse. It was only by chance that his powerful blow hadn’t been deadly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as time passed, he found himself drawn towards a life of prayer and penance. After becoming a monk on Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula dotted with monasteries that juts into the Aegean Sea, he thought long and hard about violence and its causes, in the course of which he developed a profound sense of human inter-connectedness. He realized that “through Christ’s love, everyone is made an inseparable part of our own, eternal existence … for the Son of Man has taken within himself all mankind.”

One need not be a contemplative monk in a remote monastery to be overwhelmed by a sense of human inter-connection. I often think of the astronauts who participated in the first moon landing in July 1969. As he looked through a window in his spacecraft, one of them, Russell Schweickart, was able to put into words a similar sense of human oneness that hit him:

You see the Earth not as something big … [but] as a small thing out there. And the contrast between that bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament and the black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through, and the size of it, the significance of it. It is so small and fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history, and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, all the tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.[3]

Saint Silouan had no spaceship window and probably could not have imagined anyone flying to the moon, but the life of prayer provided him with the same discovery: there is one Earth, the borders drawn on maps are invisible to the birds that fly over them, we really are God’s children, it really is one human family, and in God’s eyes the earth is no bigger than a kitchen table.

Little by little Silouan came to the realization that love of enemies is not simply an option of Christian life, a possibility that few will attempt and fewer still achieve, but is “the central criterion of true faith and of real communion with God, the lover of souls, the lover of humankind.” Or, as he said on other occasions, “No one has ever known God without having loved his enemies.”

There is nothing new in this. The Gospel author Saint John said the same: “Whoever says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”[4] Could anyone say it more simply or more plainly? Hatred of anyone blockades communion with God.

But without prayer for enemies we are ill prepared to love them. There is no starting point. Prayer itself is an act of relationship. The moment I pray for someone, however reluctantly, I establish an intimate connection with that person. Even the smallest act of caring that prayer involves is a major step toward love, an act of participating in God’s love for that person. Prayer gives us a point of access to God’s love for those we would otherwise regard with disinterest, irritation, fear or active hostility.

If love of enemies begins with prayer for them, it may be that we need to think freshly about the nature of prayer.

Among books that have helped me in the endless struggle to become more compassionate, collections of photos such as The Family of Man have been of special value. Meditating on images in The Face of Prayer, I was impressed by the comments of the photographer, Abraham Menashe:

Prayer is a deeply personal act through which we commune, petition, reach out, and give thanks…. Prayer is present in all aspects of life…. When we attend to prayer, its nature becomes known to us. We take refuge in stillness, and in our most naked state become receptive to a life force that nourishes, heals, and makes us whole again. To the extent that we have the courage to seek moments of solitude and listen to our inner voice, we will be guided by a light that lives in us. We will come to know a love that does not disappoint — peace the world does not offer.[5]

Prayer is something that reveals itself only through prayer. Like the taste of an orange, we can know it only from the inside. As Menashe put it, “When we attend to prayer, its nature becomes known to us.”

While the recitation of sacred texts is important in every religious tradition, an early discovery each person makes is that, while words help, prayer is far more than reciting words. It often involves no words at all, only an attentive silence.

Prayer is placing ourselves in the presence of God — so easy to say but often so hard to do. The mystery we identify as “God” is more than a word and no definition of God (creator, sustainer, savior, ground of being, higher power, lover of humankind) is adequate. Biblical and theological texts depend on metaphors, the essential verbal tool for touching the borders of the unexplainable.

One of the metaphors for God used by Saint Symeon the New Theologian[6] was water:

God can be known to us in the same way that a man can see an endless ocean while standing at the shore at night and holding only a dimly lit candle. Do you think he can see much? In fact very little, almost nothing. Even so, he can see the water very well. He knows there is a vast ocean before him, the limits of which he cannot perceive. The same is true of our knowledge of God.[7]

Yet an ocean is less than a drop of water compared to God. Many metaphors are helpful, no metaphor is adequate. God is simultaneously both close and distant, both merciful and demanding, both just and forgiving, father but also mother, ever new yet ageless, unchanging and yet the fountainhead of change, a God both of deserts and waterfalls. Words and images can only help in our pilgrimage toward God. “He who follows words is destroyed,” Thomas Merton told the novices in his care.

Using another metaphor, we might think of God as a weaver, in fact the weaver. All creation, from the book in your hand to the most remote galaxy, is part of that endless and ongoing weaving. You and I are part of the fabric and so are our enemies. To approach God is to discover connections, including the ways that I and my enemy are bound together like crisscrossing threads in the same tapestry. The moment we turn toward God the weaver, we turn toward a divine love that connects everyone, whether a nun caring for a dying beggar or a psychopath who has just raped and murdered a stranger. This is the economy of grace that Christ is describing when he speaks of rain and sunlight being given to all, not just the virtuous. We are part of an inter-connected human unity in which our worst enemy also exists. This doesn’t mean that God is indifferent to the sins we or our enemies commit, but we are nonetheless objects of God’s life-giving love and benefit from the divine hope that we might yet become what God intended us to become.

A starting point in prayer is being honest with God: presenting ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we think God wants us to be, not dressing up for God but standing before God as naked as Adam and Eve. As a passage in the Philokalia (a venerable Orthodox collection of texts on prayer and other aspects of Christian life) puts it:

If we truly wish to please God and to be friends with the most blessed of friendships, let us present our spirit naked to God. Let us not draw into it anything of this present world — no art, no thought, no reasoning, no self-justification — even though we should possess all the wisdom of this world.[8]

If we’re going to present our spirits naked to God, there is no need to pretend to God that we love an enemy in an affectionate sense. Better to communicate our actual feelings. Perhaps something like this:

God, you must know I can’t stand [the name of whomever you are at enmity with]. I often wish him dead or at least wish he were miserable and far away. But I pray for him because you commanded me to pray for my enemies. Personally I don’t actually want to do it but I do want to be one of your disciples and I am trying to be obedient to your words. Help me to see him as you see him. Let me glimpse your image in him. May I live in such a way that both of us can lay aside our hostility and forgive each other. May I at least not be an obstacle to his salvation. I admit I find it hard to want anything good for him — help me to want it, help me to pray for him.

The simplest of prayers can also be used. You may find it helpful to recite the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me” — or a variation of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on [the name of someone on your enemies list].”

By the way, be patient. Expect no quick results or even slow results. You may pray for years for a person or group and see no changes at all, at least none that you were hoping for. (In fact prayer for a change even in one’s own behavior requires persistence.) In prayer for an enemy, at the very least there is a change in you — the creation of a bond of care for the other.

We are told by Christ to pray for our enemies, but prayer itself can be difficult. No matter what its focus, prayer sometimes reminds us of the undercurrent of our own religious doubts. Among the prayers in the Gospel for which I have a particular gratitude is this one: “Lord, I believe — help my unbelief.”[9] The man who first said that at least had the advantage of standing face-to-face with Jesus. We live twenty centuries later, in a time when who Jesus was has become the subject of countless books about the “historical Jesus,” books whose authors rarely agree with each other. Some even dismiss the Jesus of the New Testament as a legend or invention. Among authors who admit he must have existed, some regard Jesus as a vagabond rabbi who was executed for his radical ideas and was resurrected only in the sense that his stories and teachings survived and became the basis for a new religion.

Many writers have vandalized the Jesus of the Gospels. The most successful recent revision of Jesus’ life is Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code, in which we find a cloak-and-dagger Catholic Church that has spent twenty centuries using any means necessary to suppress the fact that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and became a father, numbering the kings of medieval France among his descendants. (Not much of an achievement.) Brown’s book has sold millions of copies and was made into a big-budget film. Sadly, many have taken the author’s bogus history seriously.

On top of all the misinformation about Jesus, for many people the word “God” is far from easy to use. Pronouncing these three letters produces a sound that is often without content rather than a bridge into the depthless reality of a mysterious creator “in whom we live and move and have our being.”[10] The word “God,” so often ill-treated and carelessly used, can also trigger recollections of the grave sins committed in God’s name by people in responsible positions in religious structures: inquisitions, torture, heretics burned, Crusades and other religious wars, priests and nuns who abused children, bishops who protected child-abusers, etc. Christians have often betrayed Christ’s most basic teachings. It can be an ongoing struggle to develop a sense of God that isn’t stained by ecclesiastical abuses of the word “God.”

Yet so much draws us toward the God who, as one prayer used throughout the Orthodox Church reminds us, “is everywhere present, filling all things, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life.”[11] Beauty itself opens a door toward heaven. All beauty, from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, bears witness to God. At the base of our souls is a tilt toward God. Saint Augustine was right in proclaiming, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[12]

To pray whole-heartedly can become the most vital force in life, not only empowering us in countless ways, but, like an underground spring flowing through hidden channels, reaching others, including those we view as enemies.

In praying for enemies, we are not hurling holy thoughts at them or petitioning God to make them into copies of ourselves. Rather we are bringing our enemies into that part of ourselves which is deepest and most vulnerable. We are begging God for the good of those whom, at other times, we wished ill or wished to harm. In praying for enemies, we are asking God to use us for the well-being of those we fear.

At the same time, we are asking to see ourselves as we are seen by those who fear us, so that we can see enmity not only from our side but from the other side, for we not only have enemies — we are enemies. We would do well to pray not only for the conversion of our adversaries but for our own conversion. We ourselves may be harder to convert than our adversaries. The most needed conversion may be my own.

[This is a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books.]


[1] Matthew 5:44

[2] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite (Essex: Monastery of St. John he Baptist, 1991), 14-15.

[3] Russell Schweickhart, “No Frames, No Boundaries”: www.context.org/iclib/ic03/schweick

[4] 1 John 4:20

[5] Abraham Menashe, The Face of Prayer (New York: Knopf, 1980)

[6] Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) is one of three saints of the Orthodox Church to have been given the title of Theologian; the others are Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Born in Galatia and educated at Constantinople, Symeon became abbot of the monastery of Saint Mamas. “Theologian” was not applied to Symeon in the modern academic sense of theological scholarship, but to recognize someone who spoke from personal experience of God. One of his principal teachings was that humans could and should experience theoria — literally “contemplation,” or direct experience of God.

[7] Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Oration 61, Works, quoted in Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1 (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 33.

[8] Saint John of Karpathos, from section 49 of “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India,” included in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, compiled by Saint Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Volume One, p 309-10 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979).

[9] Mark 9:24

[10] Acts 17:28

[11] The full text of the prayer: “Oh Heavenly King, the comforter, the spirit of truth, who is everywhere present, filling all things, the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save, oh gracious one, our souls.”

[12] Confessions, Book I.