In the Presence of Our Enemies

In the sacred texts of Buddhism, there are several stories about a being named Mara, sometimes referred to as “the evil one.” One such story takes place on the night before Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment, where Mara tempts him in various ways, unsuccessfully. Mara, who believed the throne of enlightenment belonged to him, confronted the Buddha many other times. The Buddha is said to have greeted him every time with only these words: “I see you, Mara.” Then the Buddha would proceed to prepare two cups of tea, making the table ready for his visitor.

As a Christian, I wonder, fancifully, whether stories ever reached the Buddha of a king who lived half a world away, half a millennium before: King David of Israel. I don’t imagine it’s likely, but I don’t know enough to know. I just think of the Buddha preparing a cup of tea for Mara, and a seat at the table, and I’m struck by the parallel to a line from what is likely King David’s best-known psalm:

You prepare a table before me
In the presence of my enemies.
Psalm 23:5a, NRSV

All my life, I’ve thought of that as being a reward for the just which the unjust must witness. Something to show them what could have been theirs, if only…. But I’m starting to think of it differently now.

What if God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies because that’s precisely the way they become our friends?

There’s a part of me that I struggle to love. You may have heard of it. Doctors call it panic disorder. Excessive worrying, muscle aches, and even panic attacks, depending on the situation. Sometimes without warning and sometimes seen from miles away, but disabling either way. For a few moments, at least.

I’ve had people tell me to quote Bible verses to make it go away. I’ve talked with counselors. I take medication. Try as I might, it doesn’t go away. Not completely. And it’s likely that it never will. But I’m beginning to see that I’ve gone about it all wrong for the past 12 years.

I don’t want to minimize the discoveries that science has made; neurotransmitters can be too abundant or too few in number or downright diminished for various reasons, leading to symptoms of anxiety (and other mental health disorders). We would do well to be mindful of lifestyle changes that can help us to combat these very real imbalances. But if our aim is simply to “make it go away,” we will probably end up sacrificing more than we should, just so we can feel like we’re in control.

Roughly 2 out of 7 people in the US will know what it’s like to have Anxiety knock on their doors. But most of us have never thought to invite it in. If we turn off the lights and pretend we’re not home, hoping this visitor will go away, are we not trading our peace for suffering? Are we not making Anxiety all the more our enemy by making it all the more our focus? But if we dare to open the door and invite Anxiety to come inside, we are deliberately choosing to keep our peace — and to share it with our guest, whether or not that guest cares to accept our hospitality.

This isn’t true for mental health disorders only. There are many things we resist. Often, it’s whatever is in our lives but out of our control. We can’t keep bad things from coming our way, but we can choose to stop judging them as bad, which is what makes us want to resist them in the first place. Not that we have to call bad things good, of course. But if I get stuck in traffic, I can choose to judge the situation as bad. I can tell myself that I should be anywhere else — further down the road, perhaps. Or I can stop and accept that while I’d like to be moving faster, I’m finally free to observe my surroundings in ways my usual speed doesn’t allow. To look at how blue the sky is or what shape the clouds are taking. To invite that unexpected visitor in and offer her a cup of tea.

Perhaps this is what King David had in mind when he praised God, who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Perhaps it is at the very table of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we partake of the sacred mystery by way of a simple meal, that we sit down as enemies only to rise again as friends. Friends of God and friends of each other.