Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Every few days, I get some variation of "You are a jerk. I will pray for you" or "You fat pig. You make God puke. I will pray for you." Stuff along those lines. It almost invariably from Christians and usually Catholics upset with me about this or that.
Prescinding from the obvious fact that I *am* a jerk, there still remains the question of how to look at such expressions of hostility, even when one has them coming. For of course, they are usually not spoken in love and that is not hard to figure out when one if the recipient of such a "right holy cross."
Beyond the question "What did you do now, Shea, and what do you need to repent of?" this is also the question of how to think about people who, well, obviously loathe you but who also speak of praying for you. What do you make of it? How do you respond? I mention all this because I get mail from people all the time who have people out there treating them the same way and who are not sure what to think or do about it.
There are basically two ways of looking at such prayers. You can see them as rank hypocrisy--Christians covering malice with gooey piety. Or you can see them as Christians struggling with their own consciences, aware that undiluted hatred, however much it may seem to be an option for non-Christians, has a set of brakes placed on it by Jesus right from the start. All that frustrating stuff about "love your enemies" and "forgive anything you have against anyone". So we Christians are stuck with this fact embedded right in the heart of the Tradition and have to constantly stumble over it, just when they'd really love to let fly with some cathartic outburst.
Still, compare and contrast this tentative, riding-the-brakes sort of anger from Christians with, say, the frank and open contempt for enemies of the ancient Athenian, who coldly explains to his victim without the slightest qualm of conscience, "The strong do what they please and the weak suffer what they must." Or compare it, even, with Psalm 109, where we meet as superb and clear an expression of natural human hatred in its raw and unprocessed state as anything you could ask for:
Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
speaking against me with lying tongues.
They beset me with words of hate,
and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
even as I make prayer for them.
So they reward me evil for good,
and hatred for my love.
Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser bring him to trial.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another seize his goods!
May his children be fatherless,
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the LORD continually;
and may his memory be cut off from the earth!
For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy and
the brokenhearted to their death.
He loved to curse; let curses come on him!
He did not like blessing; may it be far from him!
He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
may it soak into his body like water,
like oil into his bones!
May it be like a garment which he wraps round him,
like a belt with which he daily girds himself!
May this be the reward of my accusers from the LORD,
of those who speak evil against my life!
But thou, O GOD my Lord,
deal on my behalf for thy name's sake;
because thy steadfast love is good,
For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me.
I am gone,
like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust.
My knees are weak through fasting;
my body has become gaunt.
I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
when they see me, they wag their heads.
Help me, O LORD my God!
Save me according to thy steadfast love!
Let them know that this is thy hand;
thou, O LORD, hast done it!
Let them curse, but do thou bless!
Let my assailants be put to shame;
may thy servant be glad!
May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle!
With my mouth I will give great thanks to the LORD;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save him from those who condemn him to death.
There are, of course, spiritual senses to this psalm as to all the others. So you can apply it to the devil, or to one's own sins, etc. But in its literal sense we are looking at a refreshingly honest--an almost childlike--expression of unvarnished hatred. That's what crawling around inside us when we really despise somebody.
And it is, of course, absolutely incompatible with "Love your enemies" and the whole of the Christian demand for universal charity. So why is it in the Psalms? I suspect that it's there because we extremely polite Christians live in denial of what we fallen creatures are capable of. It's there to tell us the truth of what we would very much like to pretend we don't feel and think about our enemies. It's not there to tell us it's okay to feel and think those things in our hearts, but rather to help us see what we need to hand over to the Divine Heart Surgeon.
The fact is that we Christians are struggling with exactly the same forces as the Psalmist seething in our breasts when we are confronted with such loathsome specimens as That Jerk (you know the guy I mean). So we tag on that "I will pray for you" thingie right after the jet of hatred spurts out like scalding lava. We know the hatred is wrong and are trying to figure out a way to fight it. The way we don't fight it is "pretend it's not there."
How do I know all this? "My heart--I need no other's--showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly" says C.S.Lewis paraphrasing Psalm 36. There are people I can't stand either. And so, to my deep chagrin, I discover that I, for one, find it both refreshing and frightening to read Psalm 109 and realize how much of me does fist pumps when I apply it to That Guy I Can't Stand. Truth is, if I had my druthers, such people would simply go away. I don't want to kill them. Too messy. But I wouldn't mind if they simply stopped being.
Unfortunately, that is simply a bloodless and cowardly way of saying "I wish I could kill them." It's just Psalm 109 on novocaine. And when I am forced to talk to such people, I'm as good as the next wordsmith at landing verbal punches. But since I'm a Christian, I know that I can't talk like the author of Psalm 109 because that would be gravely evil. So, out comes that gooey scalding hot molasses of "I can't stand you and I'll pray for you" that we Christians so often fall into to our own disappointment.
Now I doubt very much most Christians are pleased with ourselves when we do it. I know I'm not. It's just that, very often, we don't know what else to do. So we fall between two stools. We'd love to be able to truly turn the other cheek. But on the other hand, when That Guy really is a bullying thug who combines stupidity, ignorance and arrogance with cruelty to the weak... well, there's only so much a body can stand. So you blow your stack, then remember yourself, then try to salvage the mess with "I'll pray for you."
In short, the glass half full approach is not that Christians are rank hypocrites, but that we are serious but pretty inept disciples. There would be no question of hypocrisy at all if Christians were not attempting something noble and, let's face it, very hard. Athens was not hypocritical, nor was the author of Psalm 109. But that's only because Athens and the psalmist had no conception of "love your enemies" and therefore no high standard to betray. Christians do because our Lord has forced it upon us and we cannot escape the force of his words no matter how hard we try. That makes for lots of discomfort and embarrassment for us as we find ourselves hammered on the anvil of his teaching by the Holy Spirit whenever we fail, as we do so often. But the promise is that, if we remain on the anvil, there will come a day when we are no longer useless lumps of iron but fit tools for the Master's hand.