Because I obsess about seemingly insignificant stuff, I do things like pore over the entire text of the four-volume Philokalia to see what the Desert Fathers have to say about how we are to respond to our enemies or adversaries. I was a bit surprised when I discovered that the writings of the twenty six saints who make up the source material refer to only two enemies; the enemy (Satan) and ourselves. Think about that for a moment. The Philokalia is an instructional manual, of sorts, for monks who are committed to attaining the likeness of Christ. These monks flee to the desert as a full-throated rejection of the secular world because it is at odds with the pursuit of holiness. They commit themselves to austere lives bereft of any pleasure but the presence of God. The world they are fleeing, our world of pleasure and abundance, is a barrier to their pursuit of oneness with Christ.
St. Peter of Damascus writes:
“Soul-destroying things, on the other hand, are not so readily within our grasp – things, like wealth, glory, pride, intolerance, power, authority, dissipation, gluttony, excessive sleep, having one’s own way, health and bodily strength, an easy life, a good income, unrestricted hedonism, lavish and costly clothes, and so on. People struggle greatly for these things, but only a few attain them, and in any case the benefit they confer is fleeting. In short, they produce a great deal of trouble and very little enjoyment. For they bring to those who possess them, as well as to those who do not possess them but desire to do so, all manner of distress.”
These “soul-destroying things” are the constituent parts of our daily life. We take them for granted. But the saints do not consider others who indulge in these things enemies because, as St. Peter continues, “It is not the thing itself, but its misuse, that is evil. For we were given hands and feet, not so that we might steal and plunder and lay violent hands on one another, but so that we might use them in ways agreeable to God.” The enemies are Satan, who tempts us to misuse the things given to us, and ourselves for indulging the temptation.
What if Christians oriented themselves to see the enemy, not as other people, but as themselves? Perhaps if those of us who call ourselves Christians began setting an example by doing right by the material and spiritual gifts that we receive from God, we might transform into a people with a single purpose to humbly and generously give to those in need, especially those who we don’t think deserve the help. The drug addict who refuses to get clean is not our enemy. The teenage girl who gets an abortion is not our enemy. The gay couple who wants to adopt a child is not our enemy. Our enemy is ourselves because we forget that we are no better than they are. We are greedy with wealth. We abuse power. We are lazy gluttons. We are the blind guides that Jesus rebukes in the Gospel of Matthew who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.
The most abhorrent single person you can imagine is not your enemy. They are our peers. They are fighting the same battle you are against the same two enemies. Pray for your enemies because they are our brothers and sisters. Is this easy to do? Of course it isn’t easy. Why on earth do you think people fled to the desert?! It’s hard work. But it has to begin somewhere. Fight your own battle against yourself. Reject pride and privilege and embrace humility. Know your enemy.