I don’t think Scott Zorn wanted to beat me up. I think he was just in the mood to kick a little sand into my skinny, five-foot-tall, sophomore-in-high-school face. Scott was a football player. He stood a head and a few inches taller than me, and was at least twice as thick.
On a gray, 1976 February day, I arrived at my lunchtime study hall after wolfing down a plate of gravy soaked French fries so that I could hotbox a Marlborough before getting to the homework I should have finished off the previous night. Feeling slightly ill from the toxic combination of nicotine and saturated fat, I piled my books onto the desk, and began to feverishly work at a geometry assignment that was due the next period.
I couldn’t blame the teacher (I don’t recall his name. It might have been “Mr. Sisyphus.”) for being chronically late for this study hall. Hercules only had to kill the nine-headed Hydra once. Being asked to impose order on the chaos of forty post-lunch sophomore boys for a whole semester should have earned this twenty-something teacher a top spot of glory on Mt. Olympus amongst the immortals.
As usual, inadequate adult supervision in an all male environment caused evolution to run in reverse. Scott Zorn’s primitive alpha wolf tendencies were awakened when the teacher failed to arrive. He felt the primal urge to mark a little territory in my area. I tried not to notice as Scott started sniffing around my desk. “If I just ignore him,” I reasoned to myself, “he’ll get bored and go away,” He did not go away.
Instead, he silently towered over me until I was forced to look up. I feigned surprise as if I hadn’t seen him until just that moment. “What do you want?” I inquired with my less than authoritative pubescent crackling voice. Rather than answer, Scott glowered at me. He then gave a shove to the books on my desk. Half of them immediately fell to the floor in a heap. With the sneer of a gunslinger, it was Scott’s turn to inquire, “What are you going do about that “_ ag ×ner?”” (He replaced the “W” in my name with a less than original, “F.”)
The students in my study hall had gone silent. They were waiting to see what form their after-lunch entertainment would take. “Will the skinny kid back down and get humiliated? Or will the skinny kid fight back and then get humiliated?” I pondered the same questions. Before I could ponder too much, something within me took over.
I slowly raised my eyes from the higgledy-piggledy disarray of books on the floor. When my gaze finally met the staring eyes of my glowering nemesis that towered over me, I gave him the most threatening look that a ninety-eight pound boy could muster. And then I spat out the words, “Two can play at that game!” Without blinking, I abruptly shoved the remainder of my own books off of my desk onto the floor where they piled on top of the books that Scott had displaced seconds earlier.
After a moment of stunned silence, Scott Zorn broke into a belly laugh, along with the rest of my study hall. He clapped me on the back playfully, and the two of us became fast friends throughout our career as high school students together.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus described the behavior he expected from the students in His study hall. “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic” (Gospel Luke 6: 27-38). He continued with a description of heroic generosity, mercy, forgiveness, and love of enemies.
Sometimes, grace shows up out of nowhere. In my 1970’s sophomore study hall, an intelligent, humorous, non-violent response arrived at just in the nick of time. But to truly live out “The Way” that Jesus described in this Sunday’s Gospel requires ongoing adult reflection, and introspection, humility and the healing of inner wounds, the growth and ongoing nurture of a profound spiritual and emotional intelligence.
But this way of life is not the private property of only the canonized. From that perspective of a committed spiritual life, mercy, love of enemies, forgiveness, and generosity are common sense, everyday virtues. We believe that our soul is made withlove, and forlove. To hold onto a resentment, to hate an enemy, to act with malice—all of these twist us up inside and prevent us from staking a claim on our birthright—a life lived in a peace that the world cannot comprehend.
Where is the study hall in your life where Jesus would like to be your instructor teaching you the simple, but dreadfully hard disciplines of Hisway that are so different from the common sense of our world?