I’ve been reading the fourteenth-century spiritual advisor Walter Hilton of late. He seems just the right sort of advisor: realistic, patient, encouraging, and yet uncompromising when it comes to what it means truly to follow the path of Jesus Christ.
In a season of the year in which it is easy to get sentimental and silly, Hilton offers this powerful diagnostic tool to assess whether we really do love each other, and particularly whether we can say to Jesus that we are obeying his repeated commandment to love our enemies:
What it really comes to is this: if you are not stirred up against such a person in anger while faking an outward cheer, and have no secret hatred in your heart, despising him or judging him or considering him worthless; if the more shame and villainy he does to you in word or deed, the more pity and compassion you show toward him, almost as you would for someone who was emotionally or mentally distressed; and if you are so compelled by love that you actually cannot find it in your heart to hate him, but instead you pray for him, help him out, and desire his amending (not only with your mouth, as hypocrites do, but with a true feeling of love in your heart): then you will be in perfect charity toward your fellow Christian.
Well, that’s a pretty tall order. But then Brother Hilton presses his point with an Example that smacks us in the chest:
Stop and think how Christ loved Judas, who was both his mortal enemy and a sinful dog. How good Christ was to him, how benign, how courteous, how humble toward him whom he knew to be damnable. He chose him for his apostle and sent him to preach with the other apostles. He gave him power to work miracles. He showed to him the same good cheer in word and deed. He shared with him his precious Body, and preached to him in the same manner as he did to the other apostles. He did not condemn him openly; nor did he abuse him or despise him, nor ever speak evil of him (and yet even if he had done all of that, it would simply have been to tell the truth!). And above all, when Judas seized him, he kissed him and called him his friend.
How could Jesus do that? Hilton concludes with the most fundamental point that sends a laser into my own heart:
For he is love and goodness, and therefore it is characteristic of him to show love and goodness to all his creatures, as he did to Judas.
And I, by contrast, am not love and goodness, and therefore it is characteristic of me to show ___ and ___ to my fellow creatures, and particularly those that vex or frighten me.
Yes, fill in the blanks, and we know what we are during this Advent season of repentance–and how far we have to go on the path of the imitatio Christi.