The struggle to love our neighbor

A movie still from the film 'Camino,' which follows five pilgrims as they hike from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo: CNS/courtesy A movie still from the film 'Camino,' which follows five pilgrims as they hike from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo: CNS/courtesy

The most damaging idolatry is not the golden calf but enmity against the other. The renowned philosopher Rene Girard wrote that, and its truth is not easily admitted. Most of us like to believe that we are mature and big-hearted and that we do love our neighbors and are free of enmity towards others. But is this so?

In our more honest — more humble — moments, I think that all of us admit that we don’t really love others in the way that Jesus asked. We don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t really love our enemies. We don’t wish good to those who wish us harm. We don’t bless those who curse us. And we don’t genuinely forgive those who murder our loved ones.

We are decent, good-hearted persons, but we also are persons whose heaven is still too predicated on needing an emotional vindication in the face of anyone or anything that opposes us. We can be fair, we can be just, but we don’t yet love the way Jesus asked us to, so that our love goes out both to those who love us and to those who hate us. We still struggle, mightily, mostly unsuccessfully, to wish our enemies well.

For most of us who like to believe ourselves mature, that battle remains hidden, mostly from ourselves. We tend to feel that we are loving and forgiving because, essentially, we are well-intentioned, sincere and able to believe and say all the right things; but there’s another part of us that isn’t nearly so noble.

In his book on living the final stages of cancer, “Into Extra Time,” the late Irish Jesuit Father Michael Paul Gallagher puts this well when he writes: “You probably don’t hate anyone, but you can be paralyzed by daily negatives. Mini-prejudices and knee-jerk judgements can produce a mood of undeclared war. Across barbed wire fences, invisible bullets fly.” Loving the other as oneself, he submits, is for most of us an impossible uphill climb.

So where does that leave us? Serving out a life sentence of mediocrity and hypocrisy? Professing to love our enemies but not doing it? How can we profess to be Christians when, if we are honest, we have to admit that we are not measuring up to the litmus test of Christian discipleship, namely, loving and forgiving our enemies?

A Camino walk

Perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are. If we are still struggling, we are still healthy. In making us, it seems, God factored in human complexity, human weakness and how growing into deeper love is a lifelong journey. What can look like hypocrisy from the outside can in fact be a pilgrimage, a Camino walk, when seen within a fuller light of patience and understanding.

Thomas Aquinas, in writing about union and intimacy, makes this important distinction. He distinguishes between being in union with something or somebody in actuality and being in union with that someone or something through desire.

This has many applications but, applied in this case, it means that sometimes the heart can only go somewhere through desire rather than in actuality. We can believe in the right things and want the right things and still not be able to bring our hearts onside.

One example of this is what the old catechisms (in their unique wisdom) used to call “imperfect contrition,” that is, the notion that if you have done something wrong that you know is wrong and that you know that you should feel sorry for, but you can’t in fact feel sorry for, then if you can wish that you could feel sorry, that’s contrition enough, not perfect, but enough. It’s the best you can do and it puts you at the right place at the level of desire, not a perfect place, but one better than its alternative.

And that “imperfect” place does more for us than simply providing the minimal standard of contrition needed for forgiveness. More importantly it accords rightful dignity to whom and to what we have hurt.

Reflecting on our inability to genuinely love our neighbor, author Marilynne Robinson submits that, even in our failure to live up to what Jesus asks of us, if we are struggling honestly, there is some virtue. She argues this way: Freud said that we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves, and no doubt this is true. But since we accept the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbor is as worthy of love as ourselves, then in our very attempt to act on Jesus’ demand we are acknowledging that our neighbor is worthy of love even if, at this point in our lives, we are too weak to provide it.

And that’s the crucial point: In continuing to struggle, despite our failures, to live up to Jesus’ great commandment of love we acknowledge the dignity inherent in our enemies, acknowledge that they are worthy of love, and acknowledge our own shortcoming. That’s “imperfect,” of course, but I suspect Thomas Aquinas would say it’s a start! 

Father Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at