Does God Expect Me to Be Loving to All My Relatives?
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 18, 2011)
Here is a holiday question that probably will cross everyone's mind at some point this Christmas season:
I know we are supposed to be merciful to everyone, as our Lord has shown mercy to us, but every Christmas I am forced to get together with Uncle Ray and His wife Tina, who are certainly the most obnoxious, offensive, and tedious people I have ever met. The best I can do when their poison tongues start wagging is to flee the room and go back into the kitchen and have a glass of spiked eggnog to settle my nerves. Otherwise we end up having a scene. No one can choose their relatives, I know; God chooses them for us. But is it enough to un-choose to be in their company when they start ranting at the family Christmas party? I can't figure out how I can be more "merciful" than that in the circumstances.
Well, the song may say "Tis the season to be jolly," but most of us have relatives who can suck the "jolly" out of just about any festive gathering. I feel for your plight, and I am sure a great many of our readers share it, too. And in one sense, you are right to flee the battle scene when you find yourself in a situation where the temptation to impatience — indeed, the temptation to clobber someone! — seems overwhelming. Mere damage control in such situations may not be the most saintly solution, but it is far better than losing your temper.
Saint Faustina faced somewhat similar situations herself. Some of the nuns in her convent were quite cruel to her, accusing her of being lazy or of slacking off with her duties, when in fact, she was seriously weakened by illness. In her Diary, entry 1628, Jesus said to her: "My pupil, have great love for those who cause you suffering. Do good to those who hate you." She exclaimed in reply, "Oh my Master, You see very well that I feel no love for them, and that troubles me." And Jesus answered her: "It is not always within your power to control your feelings. You will recognize that you have love if, after having experienced annoyance and contradiction, you do not lose your peace, but pray for those who have made you suffer and wish them well."
So this is the first step toward a deeper, more merciful love for the most obnoxious people in your life: When you have fled from Uncle Ray and Tina into the safety of the kitchen and the eggnog, spend some of that "down time" actually praying for the conversion of their hearts. After all, while they may be very annoying to you, they are an even greater torment to themselves: for all their bravado, their behavior rises from the depth of souls that are cold, empty and barren. Moreover, by simply praying for them, you are already turning the aggravation they cause you into a means of your sanctification. Saint Josemaria Escriva once put it succinctly: "Don't say, 'That person gets on my nerves.' Think: 'That person sanctifies me' " (The Way, no. 174).
Whatever you do, don't beat yourself up and start feeling guilty because you don't much "like" such people! Some people are just not very "likable." That exchange between our Lord and St. Faustina calls to mind some sage advice from the Christian author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. As our Lord said to St. Faustina, the love we need to show to others is not primarily a feeling (in other words, we are not required to "like" everyone or have "affectionate feelings" toward them; we couldn't possibly do that anyway, as Jesus said, "It is not always within your power to control your feelings."). Showing merciful love for everyone, even for those who annoy or torment you, simply means seeking their good and wishing them well regardless of what kind of people they are. Lewis explains in his classic book, Mere Christianity (Book III, chapter 9):
Christian love (or Charity) for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection. We "like" or are "fond of" some people, and not others. It is important to understand that this natural "liking" is neither a sin nor a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue. It is just a fact. But of course, what we do about it is sinful or virtuous.
Natural liking or affection makes it easier to be "charitable" towards them. It is therefore normally a duty to encourage our affections—to "like" people as much as we can (just as it is often our duty to encourage our liking for exercise or wholesome food)—not because this liking is in itself the virtue of charity, but because it is a help to it....
But though natural likings should be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings....The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you "love" [in terms of feelings of affection] your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them....
Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or likings, and the Christian has only [the cold duty of] "charity." The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he "likes" them; the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on—including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.
To elaborate on what Lewis says here, I think there are two reasons why practicing the duty of charity to others, even to others who are difficult or annoying, often leads to greater affection all around. First, it sometimes brings out the best in others when they see us treating them kindly, patiently, and with respect, despite their sometimes cantankerous and difficult behavior. They sense our caring, our respect for their basic human dignity, and, as we say, they gradually "warm up" to us. Second, when we commit ourselves toward seeking the good of others no matter what, we find ourselves in a sense set free: free from slavery to our own feelings of frustration and resentment. In other words, we begin to occupy a position of spiritual strength: "no matter how difficult you may be, Uncle Ray and Aunt Tina, I am NOT going to give you full power over my emotions and my actions — I am going to keep my cool and keep treating you with patience and respect, and there is nothing you can do to make me act otherwise!"
Now my "Anonymous" correspondent may be thinking, on reading this column so far: "OK, OK, but I have already tried that many, many times over the years with my aunt and uncle from hell. I have always done my best to overlook their rude and tactless behavior and their poisonous and blasphemous chatter, and I've treated them with respect and courtesy. But I don't see them warming up to me or taking it easy at all, and they are so nasty that it is impossible for me not to be affected by it. We all are. So, apart from ostracizing them, what can I do?"
Well, of course, some people really are so nasty that protecting yourself and your loved ones from their venom by ostracizing them may be the best we can do in the circumstances — and the best "wake up" call to them that there are certain boundaries of courtesy and charity beyond which one cannot stray if one wants to be included on social occasions. Merciful love can sometimes take the form of "tough love" and the proverbial "reality check."
Indeed, even worse, there may be some family members who may have wronged us and hurt us so deeply, without the slightest hint of remorse on their part, that they have passed beyond the category of mere "annoyances" into the category of "enemies" whom we dare not invite back into our lives at all, lest we suffer even more damage and ill-treatment at their hands.
And yet, although we certainly cannot "like" such people, and although we are certainly not required by our Lord to manufacture an artificial "liking" for them by pretending that they are not really as rotten as all the facts of the case show ... yet still, we are to "love" them with the virtue of charity. Again, C.S. Lewis explains (Mere Christianity, Book II, chapter 7):
Loving my enemies does not apparently mean thinking them nice either. That is an enormous relief. For a good many people think that forgiving your enemies means making out that they are really not such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are.....Now, that I come to think of it, I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.
For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact, the very reason why I hated the things [I did} was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was so sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid. But it does want us to hate things in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.
Saint Faustina summed it up best in her Diary, entry 908:
O Jesus, how sorry I feel for poor sinners. Jesus, grant them contrition and repentance. Remember your own sorrowful Passion. I know your infinite mercy and cannot bear it that a soul that has cost You so much should perish.
In short, Anonymous, there are some people this Christmas with whom you will be able to rejoice and make merry, and others for whom your merciful love can only take the form of patience, and pity, and prayer. But the One who was born in the manger for us all was born for them too — and may He be born in every heart this Christmastide:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given,
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessing of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in.
Oh holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be Born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell,
Oh come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Emmanuel.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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