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February 19, 2017
[Holy Spirit Church, Fremont, California]
I would like to tell you about the time I went to hell. I was on a 30 day retreat, following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. At the beginning of the retreat, he wants you to be spiritually free of all sin and encumbrances so that the retreat can be more fruitful. He asks you to become aware of your sins, so that you can be free of those, and one of the exercises he prescribes is that you imagine yourself in hell because of your sins. The first time I did the exercise, I imagined hell in the traditional images: a place of fire, filled with devils with horns and pointed tails. But the exercise did not move me one way or the other. I reported this to my spiritual director, and she said, “You have to use your imagination. Often God speaks to us through our imaginations.” And then she asked me to do the exercise again. So I did, and this is what I imagined hell to be: it was a booth, in which I was all alone for all eternity. I could only stand, not sit or lie down; and it was hot, muggy, and filled with mosquitoes. But the worst part of it was that there was a window in it. And through the window I could see heaven. And what I saw in heaven were the two people I disliked the most resting in God’s arms. Now that was hell! Now, regarding these two people: I am sorry to say I have hurt people in my life, but in the case of these two I was certain that I had done nothing to hurt them; they were the ones who had hurt me. So I said to the Lord, “Lord, I know very well that I did not do anything to hurt these people, but they hurt me. So why is it that they are in heaven, and I am in hell?” And the Lord answered me, “Because you have not forgiven them!”
My lack of forgiveness was a hidden fault, something I was not aware of until that moment, but it was something that was keeping me from being free. So the Lord gave me the gift of seeing it, so that I could then work on forgiving them. I had put myself in hell, because even though I was right and they were wrong, to God that was not the main issue. This is, of course, the message of today’s gospel. It is counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural to turn the other cheek when one has been struck, to love one’s enemies, and to pray for the good of our persecutors.
Sometimes in a marriage there is keeping score: who is right, and who is wrong? How many times did I let him or her get away with something that hurt me? Of course, we are not talking of physical abuse, which should not be tolerated, but of those day to day annoyances that get under our skin. And when we unwittingly begin to keep score, soon we find ourselves on the losing end, and things deteriorate. But when we pray for our persecutor and love that “enemy” – even when it is someone with whom we have a valued relationship! – things change, and the possibility of reconciliation opens up.
At this time in our history, there are many sharp political divides – perhaps more sharp than at any other time we can remember. And while we always need to be faithful to the truth, we can too easily divide the world into heroes and villains. My party is the hero, and the other party is the villain. This simplistic way of looking at things will divide us even further and create a living hell for all of us. As Pope Francis often says, what is needed is a culture of dialogue, not giving in to a distortion of the truth, but listening to the other party. This notion did not originate with Pope Francis, however, but with Jesus, who knew that recognizing we have enemies, but still loving them and respecting them is the way that will lead us out of hell and into heaven.
Our prisons are full of people who have created a hell for themselves and others by living by the principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The violence in our streets and cities has the same origin. But Jesus offers us a more difficult path, the path of forgiveness, of loving our enemies and doing good for those who persecute us. Imagine how much better the world would be if rival gangs stopped the cycle of vengeance and tried instead to outdo each other in building each other up. Perhaps we are far from such a reality, but how will it ever happen unless we who have heard the word of the Lord allow his word to take flesh and become a reality in our lives and in our communities. The world can be changed, by the grace of God, if our goal is not to become perfect within each one of ourselves, but to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. After all, have we ourselves not been God’s enemies often by our sins? Yet God continues to forgive us when we show the slightest sign of repentance. It is this kind of merciful love that will truly change the world, and though it seems so difficult to achieve, we come to express our faith that nothing is impossible with God.