Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A couple of years ago, a spiritual director gave me a hard assignment. I had just finished railing at him about someone with whom I was very angry. After marveling at the amazing odds that I, of all people, would just so happen to encounter the worst human being on the face of the planet, as well as rehashing the part of the story about my own innocence and the utterly unprovoked nature of the bad person's evildoing, I asked the priest how I should handle the situation. He thought for a moment, then replied, "You need to pray for this person." And he didn't mean just once: He was suggesting that I regularly keep this individual in my prayers.
My attempts to enact this advice were like something out of The Annals of Spiritual Immaturity. At first I pretended to forget about it. Then, when guilt got the best of me, my prayers would go something like, "Dear Lord, please help _______ not be such a hateful wretch of a person anymore..." Eventually I managed to cough out some pious-sounding prayers, but I'm pretty sure that God saw me roll my eyes there at the end.
It wasn't the first time this dilemma had come up: I know that it's right and good to pray for our enemies, but sometimes the thought of certain people brings up emotions so raw and so overwhelming that it's a near occasion of sin to bring their faces to the forefront of our minds. We all hope that we'll eventually be able to be at peace with those who have harmed us, so that we can one day think of them with charity and grace. But that can take a lot of time -- in cases of grave injury, a lifetime. So how can a Christian pray for these kinds of people in the meantime?
I struggled with this question for the longest time. Then, last year I had the amazing experience of interviewing Dawn Eden about her book, My Peace I Give You, in which she shares her own journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse. It was a life-changing experience for me, as her wise words gave me an entirely new perspective on forgiveness, and finally offered a solution to my lingering questions about how to pray for people whom we can't even think about.
First, she emphasized that forgiveness does not necessarily need to lead to reconciliation. Ideally it would, but, as she points out, "reconciliation is a two-way street. If someone is still abusive, the most loving and forgiving thing may be to not attempt reconciliation, inasmuch as having further contact with that person would only give him or her the opportunity to abuse again." She noted how helpful this has been to her personally, saying:
It is very freeing. No longer do I have to worry about whether I’ve worked hard enough to forgive. I just have to ask the Holy Spirit to work forgiveness in and through me. Then I need to trust that, with my having made the choice to forgive, the Holy Spirit will continue to work in me, taking the wounds that remain and join them to the wounds of Christ.
The idea that helped me the most, however, was this tip that Dawn received from a Sister of Life when she told her about her difficulty praying for a certain individual:
I was talking to [the Sister of Life] about how I felt that I owed it to God to pray for a certain person, but that it was painful for me to think about this person. The sister advised me to commend this person to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to say to Mary, "Please place this person inside your Immaculate Heart, so that every time I’m praying for the intentions of your Immaculate Heart, I am praying for him."
You know that Twilight Zone episode where there's a child who has a dark supernatural power, and uses it to cast anyone who crosses him out into a cornfield? He casts out anyone with whom he's angry, sending more and more people away to this place, which is an allegory for hell.
I think many of us do that in our minds sometimes, cast people away, send them to hell in our thoughts. To place them instead into the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a positive counter to that attitude. In both cases, you're removing those people from the foreground of your thoughts -- but, through Mary, you're able to wish them into a good and holy place.
This advice has been invaluable to me in my own prayer life. One day I hope to be the kind of spiritual giant who can pray in great detail about any kind of matter. But, until then, when I need to pray for people or situations that would be a near occasion of sin for me to think about directly, it gives me great peace to know that I can pray for them through Mary.