I simply worshipped the heroes of ancient Greece when I was at school. I loved to hear stories about Troy and the heroes who fought there. I loved to read about the Persian wars and about the warriors who fought for freedom at Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae. Most of all I worshipped Alexander the Great and marvelled at the mighty empire that he set up before he was even thirty.
I couldn’t help it if the hero I was introduced to in the religious class seemed to be rather weak compared with them. He didn’t actually triumph over his enemies as my Greek heroes did, and there wasn’t much in it for his followers either, unless you happen to like being thrown to the lions!
However, I had something of a conversion experience shortly before leaving school that led me to join a prayer group run by the school’s spiritual director. It gave me a new vision of the faith in which I had been brought up. It enabled me to see that Jesus was a hero after all, who promised a new sort of heroism that was open, not just to a chosen elite, but to all. He showed, not just by what he said but also by what he did, that the human weakness that the Greeks despised, becomes strength when it enables a person to experience their need of God’s strength.
It was this strength that enabled Jesus to do, not just all things possible, but even the impossible, that was way beyond the strength of the mightiest Greek warrior. When a Greek hero was persecuted, he would curse his enemies and plan revenge. When Jesus was persecuted, he would bless his enemies and grant them forgiveness. Moreover, the forgiveness that he readily gave was not given later from an armchair long after the event ‘when time had healed’, but at the time when they are in the act of torturing him to the death. For it was while the nails were being driven into his hands and feet, sending shock waves of pain into every part of his person that he prayed for their forgiveness. This sort of heroism was way beyond the Greek heroes that I’d once adored. It demanded a quality of superhuman strength that was first embodied in the man I’d once considered weak and unworthy of my attention.
Now if all that is expected of us is to stand back and admire what Jesus did I could cope with it, but the truth of the matter is we are called upon to do the same. The words of the Gospel are clear and unyielding. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” In addition, we are told to forgive them not once or twice, but time and time again. – “Seventy times seven”.
Those frightening words are not just addressed to a chosen few but to all who claim to be Christian. If we don’t think they ask the impossible then we should thank our lucky stars that we have never really had an enemy, never experienced what it’s like to be hated, especially by those you thought were once your friends.
St. Francis used to say that we should call our enemies our friends, especially when they bring us down and humble us. For it is then, in experiencing our weakness that we will fall down on our knees in the true and certain knowledge that only God can help us. Then he will always give us the grace, that pride had prevented before, to do what no Greek hero has ever done, – the impossible. For it is only with God’s grace that we can forgive our enemies without hesitation no matter what they would do to us. Then, when we’ve done that, we can be fully forgiven too, because at last we can pray more sincerely than ever before, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
I may well have started my conversion as a teenager many years ago, but by this standard I’ve still a long way to go. It doesn’t take me quite as long to forgive my enemies as it once did, but I’m still a long, long way from forgiving them at the time, especially when they’re hell-bent on doing their worst to do me harm when I’m only trying to do my best!