Who is My Neighbor?
St. Silouan the Athonite (1866 – 1938) writes, “Both Christ’s commandments – of love towards God and love towards our neighbour – make up a single life. Therefore, if a man believes that he lives in and loves God and then hates his brother, he is deluded. In this manner the second commandment affords us the means whereby to check how truly we are living in the true God” (116-117).
These are powerful words from this modern saint. No doubt, he echoes the words of the Apostle John who writes in his first epistle, “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.” (I John 2: 10-11)
St. John sends a clear warning to those who believe they can love God and not love their neighbor. Elder Sophrony of Essex, the disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite, elaborates on this theme further by explaining “that one can judge the measure of grace in a man by his attitude to his neighbor” (101).
Of course, in looking to Christ as our example, divine love embraces all of creation, and this is our goal as well. Yet, where do we start? In other words, who is our first neighbor?
Too often, we find ourselves “satisfying” this commandment by loving the anonymous neighbor that we meet at a public event or in the grocery store or on a mission trip – the person that is “out there” with whom we have little personal investment.
If we think of our neighbor relationships as concentric circles, these anonymous neighbors find themselves in the outer circles. So, who might we place in the inner circle?
Well, if you are married and have children, then the inner most circle would most likely consist of your spouse and children. Then you move to other relatives, close friends, coworkers, classmates and so on to the outer circles.
Simply stated, those persons that are closest to you are the neighbors God has placed in your life to love, and love here implies taking up one’s cross and denying oneself.
Perhaps, too often, we excuse ourselves regarding our behaviors toward our spouse, children, or parents. “It’s okay,” we say, “They are family.” Or, “That is just how we relate,” or “If you knew how difficult this person really is, then you would understand.”
Yet, our spouse, children, relatives, close friends, etc. are not only included in the definition of neighbor, but they are more central than we may be willing to admit. In fact, they may be the best standard by which we measure our ability to love our neighbor and love God.
Of course, love cannot be reduced to a feeling or an emotion. Further, love is not an abstract concept or a self-defined virtue that we can construct for ourselves and decide how we want to enact in relationship to our neighbor. God is love (I John 4: 8), and who God is is not subject to our own imagination. Even more, God does not ask us to love our neighbor just when it is convenient for us or in ways that make us feel good. Rather, God commands us to love our neighbor, and this love is exemplified in Christ.
The Church presents us with a path, and that path is Christ. Christ does not point us to the way or to the truth or to life. Rather, Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14: 6). Christ must abide in us since He is the source of our ability to love. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15: 4).
And how do we have Christ abide in us so that we can keep the commandment to love our neighbor? By following the path of Christ through the ascetical and liturgical life that the Church has presented to us since the time of the Apostles. Prayer, fasting, acts of mercy, confession, communion, feast days, vigils, the Divine Liturgy, and so on mold us, prepare us, and offer us the grace of God in order to enter more deeply into the life of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Our training ground is found within the Church, where we encounter the mystery of Christ initiated for each of us at our baptism.
When we look at the example of the saints, we see men and women who struggled mightily to seek Christ. These holy men and women took up their cross, denied themselves, and followed the Lord. In these same saints, we see a profound love of neighbor. In Christ, they find the ability to empty themselves of pride, jealousy, resentment, anger, ambition, hate, bitterness, etc. for the sake of the other. They love their neighbor.
So, how do we begin? The same way we begin all things in the Christian life – with the first step, namely, repentance.
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Quotes, with the exception of Scripture, were taken from the book St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991).
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